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San Francisco Victorian Architecture

The Elegant and Fanciful Architecture of the Barbary Coast

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San Francisco Victorian Architecture
Photo by Ocean Malandra
From gingerbread mansions covered in ornate woodwork to identical row-houses lined up like decorated soldiers, Victorians are artistically inspired creations that showcase the skills of America's golden age of hand crafted houses. San Francisco is blessed with an over-abundance of the these architectural treasures, as the late 19th century saw a boom of new wealth flood into the city as well as loads of the world's best timber: the redwood tree. Victorians now dot many areas of the city, some of them as awe-inspiring as any other city icon.

Where to See Victorians in San Francisco

Several areas hold impressive examples of Victorian architecture at its fanciful best, here are some of the top spots for checking out these regal yet whimsical structures.
  • The Haight Ashbury: Haight Street, and Page Street just one block north, are both lined with some of the city's most ornate and brightly colored Victorians. Make sure you check out the Red Victorian B&B and peace cafe, which also offers walking tours of the area.

  • Alamo Square: Home to the famous "Postcard Row" which has graced millions of postcards and calendars the world over, this park is located within walking distance from the Haight-Ashbury and the surrounding Western Addition area is studded with exemplary Victorians.

  • Pacific Heights: Here, in what has always been a residential area for some of the city's most affluent families, you will find intricately decorated Italianate row houses as well as grandiose examples of Victorian mansions. The non-profit San Francisco City Guides offer a free Victorian walking tour of the area every Sunday at 2pm and every other Saturday at 11am.

    Pacific Heights is also home to the Hass-Lilienthal House, an 1886 Queene Anne Victorian mansion that is open to the public as a museum on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.

  • The Castro District: Many people dont know that San Francisco's bustling gay and lesbian village is comprised predominately of Victorian homes. Although there are fewer elaborate mansion here than in some of the other areas, many of the Castro's Victorians are flamboyantly painted and bring the streets to life in a happy exuberant way.

  • The Mission District: Now an urban playground for the alternative crowd, the Mission District was a resort area in the 19th century. Here you will find completely intact blocks of Italianate row houses in small alleyways as well as huge private residencies along South Van Ness and Folsom.

Victorian Tours in San Francisco

For those with limited time or transportation options there are several tour companies that offer guided bus tours of the city and focus on the victorian architecture. The Postcards of Historic San Francisco Tour, which drives you around in a vintage touring car, visits both the Haight-Ashbury and Pacific Heights. Mr. Toad's Vintage Car Tour of San Francisco focuses on the history of the city while it explores it's varied architecture and neighborhoods.

History of the San Francisco Victorians

The "Victorian Era" refers to the reign of Queen Victoria in England, who ruled from 1837 until 1901. This period of time brought massive wealth to England as the British Empire controlled most of the global maritime trade without competition. Private residences were constructed not just for their functional value but to show off their owner's wealth, which in turn imparted status to them. Master woodworkers began experimentally with a wide variety of patterns, forms and embellishments, some of them based on earlier classical styles, which had formerly only been used on churches, palaces and public buildings, and some of them completely new.

In San Francisco, the gold rush and the subsequent silver rush flooded the area with new arrivals all of them looking to get rich quick. The ones who did soon began constructing their own elaborate residences based on the Victorian architectural styles of London, which was the Rome of the day. San Franciscans also had what seemed to be a nearly unlimited supply of towering old growth redwood trees, as they once lined the entire Northern California coast. Redwoods are not only soft and easy to work with, but are extremely termite proof and fire resistant, which is why many Victorian structures survived the great earthquake and fires of 1906.

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