SAN FRANCISCO — When we turned the corner onto Sacramento Street, our guide Vickie pointed out five magnificent Victorian houses across the street and commented matter-of-factly, "These were the cheap homes in the area because they were on a side street."
Cheap? These beauties--Italianates with graceful Gothic-inspired touches and Colonial Revivals with gable roofs and delicately crafted windows? One had been the Yugoslav Consulate.
"The one on the left," Vickie said, "was sold last year." She wasn't sure, she said, but she thought it was for $750,000.
Any way you figure it, that's a pretty good return on your money. Vickie said that these 1865 to 1895 "row houses on a grander scale" usually cost about $2,000 to $3,000 to build, although these may have run as much as $5,000 because their lots were a little wider than usual.
The middle class lived here in these "cheap" houses when Sacramento Street was a side street carrying the public transportation--the cable cars and livery stables with the congestion and noise.
The Upper Crust
We had turned off Franklin Street, leaving behind a legacy of magnificent Classical Revival, Georgian and Queen Anne mansions--the homes of the upper-middle class during the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Where, I wondered, had the rich lived?
Most of them, I found out, only one block east of Franklin on Van Ness Avenue, now San Francisco's auto row and U.S. 101, the principal route through the city.
In the late 1800s the city laid out Van Ness as a 125-foot-wide grand avenue for the most prosperous citizens. Ironically, the fashionable width of the street turned out to be the early death sentence for its enormous and imposing mansions.
After the 1906 earthquake, when devastating fires threatened to consume everything left standing, Van Ness Avenue was chosen as a fire break. All the buildings on the posh avenue were dynamited.
If you have a penchant for San Francisco's Victorian and Edwardian architecture--and for a glimpse of some of the fascinating history that comes with it--this Heritage Walk through the eastern Pacific Heights neighborhood to ogle surviving pre-World War I mansions, family homes and smaller row houses (and a couple of noteworthy postwar samples) should satisfy the most voracious appetite.
The Foundation for San Francisco's Architectural Heritage offers 2 1/2- to 3-hour guided walking tours every Sunday. For those who admire the period but don't know the difference between a Mission Revival and a Tuscan Revival (but would like to know), it's an educational jaunt.
For everyone, it provides a lively look at family life here during that opulent era. The pace is leisurely and not strenuous (the terrain is mostly flat, not up and down the famous San Francisco steep hills).
It begins at the museum owned by Heritage (and used by the organization as its office), the stately gray Haas-Lilienthal House at 2007 Franklin St. The 24-room 1886 Queen Anne/Stick-style house, with its gables, stylish round tower and intricate carvings is a landmark on the National Register of Historic Places.
In 1906, after their home had survived the earthquake, the Haas family climbed to the roof of their three-story house and nervously watched the ravaging fire approaching from the east. It stopped one block west at the fire break on Van Ness Avenue, now the eastern border of Pacific Heights.
Only two generations of the family have lived in the house. In 1972 the heirs donated the house to Heritage.
The Haas-Lilienthal House is one of the two mansions in the area open to the public for guided tours. The other, three blocks away at 2090 Jackson St., is the red Arizona sandstone-faced mansion of William F. Whittier (he was the partner in a paint and lead company that was to become the W. P. Fuller Co.). It cost $150,000 to build in 1896.
So when compared to those "cheap" houses built for $5,000 on Sacramento Street, it's obvious that some of the rich did live off Van Ness Avenue. The half-Queen Anne, half-Neo-Classical style house, unusual for San Francisco because it was built of stone, withstood the earthquake with little damage, probably because its brick walls were steel-reinforced.
The German government bought the mansion for a consulate in 1941, but the property was seized by the U.S. government when World War II was declared. It has been the property of the California Historical Society since 1956 and is used as its Northern California headquarters.
Another two dozen exuberant examples of San Francisco's rich turn-of-the-century heritage are scattered along the walk that meanders down a path covering no more than two miles. Although Pacific Heights covers about 130 blocks, from Van Ness to Presidio Avenue and from California to Union Street, the houses along the walk are considered some of the city's finest Victorian survivors.