San Francisco Victorian homes and mansions
San Francisco Victorian homes and mansions —including the fabulous mansions of Pacific Heights, the famous Victorian Cow Hollow commercial district, and Victorian houses in the Western Addition, the outer Mission and the Haight—are some of the most striking in the world.
Victorian architecture, known for its complex structure and massive embellishments, is based on the architectural style popular during the reign of Queen Victoria in England. In the United States Victorian houses were mostly built between 1850 and 1915. San Francisco Victorian architecture was influenced by cultures from all over the world as people came to settle here. One can see medieval Carpenter Gothics, impressive French palaces, Turkish towers, exuberant Italian architecture, and regal Queen Annes in neighborhoods all over The City. Victorian houses have always been a symbol of the taste and status of their owners. Victorian enthusiasts in San Francisco have decorated their houses with embellishments and painted them in rainbow colors, thus earning their Victorians a popular American designation — painted ladies.
More specifically painted ladies is a term often used for a row of Victorian houses situated along Steiner Street on Alamo Square in San Francisco — also known as Postcard Row. Although historically many Victorians were painted in earth tones, after the civil war a few home owners started painting their Victorians in brighter colors. Today Victorians can often be seen painted with a combination of 3, 4 or more bright colors such as those on this row of Victorian houses on California Street. Victorian architecture is composed of a number of different styles classified on the basis of their different application of form, technique and material. Each style is unique though they are often combined. Some of the major styles used in San Francisco architecture are:
Italianate Victorians in San Francisco were mostly built during the 1840’s and 1850’s. Victorian houses generally have steep roofs and irregular shapes, whereas houses in the Victorian Italianate style have features such as a flat roof, overhanging eves, decorative paired brackets and cornices, square cupola and a wood frame and arcade porch topped with balustrated balconies. Italianate style Victorian houses are typically rectangular with elaborate decoration, a balanced symmetrical facade, tall narrow double-paned windows with hood moldings, side bay windows, heavily molded double doors and Roman or segmented arches above windows and doors. An example of the Italianate Victorian style is Sherman House — located in Pacific heights and once one of the most luxurious small hotels in San Francisco. Built at the turn of the century as the home of Leander Sherman, a San Francisco’s patron of music, the Sherman House was designated an historic landmark in 1972. English-style formal gardens surround the house.
Italianate style Victorians can be found throughout The City. These houses on Buchanan Street sport the angled bay windows and heavy cornice (roof overhang) typical of the style. It’s possible that the center building either had gingerbread detail removed as part of a renovation or it is of more recent construction with angled bay windows and a heavy cornice to help it blend into the block. You can see how the effect is severely diminished without additional architectural details and how the heavy cornice conflicts with the smooth stucco walls. The building on the right has a false front, to make the building look taller, that is typical of the Stick/Eastlake style discussed lower on this page.
Gothic Revival houses were built between 1840 and 1880. Inspired by the cathedrals of medieval Europe these houses have steeply pitched roofs. Exterior window moldings are arched, forming a point at the top. Other features include grouped chimneys, pinnacles, shaped parapets, asymmetrical floor plan, verandah, one story porch and leaded glass. This style was typically built from stone but easy access to redwood in the United Sates led to the development of Carpenter Gothics. The Westerfeld House located at 1198 Fulton Street — also known as “The Russian Embassy”— is a good example of a San Francisco Gothic style Victorian house. Built in 1889 the mansion was designed by Henry Geilfuss for a confectioner named William Westerfeld. Located on the northwest corner and highest point of Alamo Square Park the top floor has 360° views from the Pacific Ocean to the East Bay. San Francisco Landmark # 135, The Westerfeld House was featured in the book “Victorian Glory in San Francisco” and documented by Tom Wolfe in “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” as the home to one of the first SF hippie communes in 1968.
Queen Anne is the name given to the regal and fancy Victorians — famous for their flashy embellishments and colors — that became very popular during the 1880’s and 1890’s. Queen Annes have a steep roof, shingled insets and slanted bay windows. They often have a turret or tower. Flourishes include lots of gingerbread, spindles, ornate cornices, brackets, and beveled leaded or stained glass windows. A Queen Anne is asymmetrical and can take different forms including, Free Classic — with classic columns, Half-Timbered — with thick porch posts and decorative half-timbering in the gables, or Patterned Masonry — with not so embellished brick, stone or terra cotta walls.
A brilliant example of Queen Anne style Victorian is the Haas-Lilienthal House (1886), designed by Peter Schmidt and located at 2007 Franklin Street in San Francisco’s Pacific Heights. This Queen Anne was built for William Hass, a Bavarian Jew who immigrated to San Francisco in the 1860’s, started out in the grocery business and expanded into mining.
The Edward Coleman House, another Queen Anne residence in San Francisco’s Pacific Heights neighborhood, is located at the corner of California and Franklin Streets. It was designed by W. H. Lille and built in 1895 for Edward Coleman owner of the Idaho Gold mine. The Edward Coleman House, San Francisco Landmark No. 54, is located at 1701 Franklin Street.
Stick/Eastlake style includes square bay windows, flat roof lines and free-style decorations, turned, square, or round columns and false-fronts to make them look taller. The style is reminiscent of the furniture of Charles Eastlake. The Charles Dietle House, San Francisco Landmark #48, is a stick-style residence located at corner of Page and Laguna Streets in San Francisco. It was designed and built by Henry Geilfuss in 1885. Geilfuss studied architecture in his native Germany and moved to San Francisco in 1876 where he built many commercial buildings and private residences. Another, simpler Stick-Eastlake Residence built around 1881 is situated at 1321 Scott Street between Ellis and O’Farrell in the Western Addition. It was moved to this location in the 1960’s to save it from the San Francisco Redevelopment Authority’s bulldozing of blocks of Western Addition Victorian homes. This Victorian home was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973.
Second Empire houses were built mostly between 1855 and 1885 and were inspired by the opulent architecture of Paris. These Victorians have a mansard roof, dormer windows, rounded cornices at top and base of their roof and brackets beneath their eaves, balconies and bay windows. They may have a cupola, patterned slate on the roof, wrought iron cresting above upper cornice, classical pediments, paired columns, tall windows on the first story and a small entry porch. An elegant example of a Second Empire style Victorian is the Western Addition apartment house, or flats, located at 1347 McAllister Street in San Francisco. This house was designed by James Francis Dunn in the late 1890s. It has oeil de boeuf windows in the mansard roof, carved faces and caryatids, ornate French windows, and a canopy over the entrance.
Also referred to as French Baroque style or Parisian Belle Epoch style, other houses by Dunn in San Francisco are on Franklin Street north of Vallejo, on Haight Street apposite Cole Street and the Chambord Apartments at Sacramento and Jones (built after the 1906 earthquake and completed after Dunn’s death). It wouldn’t be much of a stretch to call San Francisco the most colorful city in the world and a hotbed for Victorian architecture. Different styles show the love of architects, designers and home owners for different cultures, which have been combined in many different ways to reflect a personal expression.