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San Francisco's Love Affair With 'Painted Ladies'

August 06, 1989|CAROL BARRINGTON | Barrington is a Houston free-lance writer.

SAN FRANCISCO — Of the 48,000 structures built during the glory years of Victorian architecture (1850-1915) in this city, about 8,000 survive with their historic facades intact--"painted ladies" rejuvenated into classy homes, hotels, restaurants, offices and shops.

It has been estimated that an equal number await discovery and restoration, their antique charms hidden by face lifts performed in the 1940s and '50s.

San Francisco is said to have the largest collection of Victorian architecture anywhere, despite the fact that the heart of the city's Victorian collection, 514 downtown blocks, was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake and fire.

Fortunately, that conflagration stopped at Van Ness Avenue, and the older neighborhoods that lie west and south of Van Ness--Pacific Heights, the Western Addition, and the Mission and Haight Ashbury districts--still contain a heavy concentration of Victoriana.

Variety of Styles

Many styles are represented, but four--Italianate, Stick, Stick/East-lake and Queen Anne--are abundant.

A fifth distinctive San Francisco style evolved around the turn of the century--an ornate, more-is-better blend of these four designs.

Italianate (1850-1870) is the most severe, with narrow windows, slim or Corinthian pillars at the front door, a flat roof (sometimes hidden behind a false front) and the simplest of bay windows.

The Stick style literally added sticks of wood framing to the doors and windows of a basic Italianate facade.

This was followed by the Stick/Eastlake gingerbread of the 1880s, then the turrets and towers of the more romantic Queen Anne style in the 1890s.

The latter is easy to find, with its sections of shingle siding in multiple designs, steep and often multigabled roof and large front porch.

San Francisco's Victorian buildings stayed in good condition because they were built of Mendocino redwood, which is extremely resistant to termites, rot and foggy weather.

Flamboyant Colors

The original Victorian owners often painted their highly detailed homes in flamboyant colors. Then came more conventional pastel years as changing tastes, the Depression, the Art Deco period, two world wars and urban renewal took heavy tolls.

The city's Victorian legacy might have disappeared if it were not for the flower children and counter-culture who took over the Haight-Ashbury district in the 1960s. They began painting wild colors on the creaking old homes they occupied, and in doing so outraged the conservative city.

Soon, one by one, Victorians with imaginative and highly detailed paint jobs began sprouting in respectable neighborhoods, and their value began to escalate.

Gregg Elberg, president of First Federal Savings & Loan of San Rafael, said a San Francisco Victorian worth $20,000 in 1970, modernized and up to code, today sells for about $350,000.

A handsome Queen Anne tower house, circa 1892, may sport chrome yellow paint with electric blue trim, while its more dignified Italianate neighbor may have lavender siding, detailed in mustard and cream.

Purple Bay Windows

The next block may have a shocking pink charmer with purple bay windows and lacy curtains, or a golden hunk of gingerbread, its carved panels highlighted in rich brown and orange.

In the downtown area only the massive brick warehouses of Jackson Square survived the 1906 disaster. They house many of the city's finest antique shops.

Union Street in Pacific Heights, specifically the six Victorian-lined blocks between Steiner and Gough streets, is one of the hottest shopping and residential districts in the city.

This was originally a rural agricultural area first known as Golden Gate Valley and later as Cow Hollow.

About 1870 a farmer named James Cudworth built a three-story house at what is now 2040 Union St. It houses six shops and a restaurant, and his barn at 2044 Union is an antique shop.

Don't miss what was a modest stable at 1855 Union, built in 1884, or the twin houses at 1980 Union. The latter also were built by farmer Cudworth as wedding gifts for his two daughters.

Italiantate Beauties

Many of Union Street's cafes are in vintage digs, and if you want to overnight Victorian-style, try the Bed and Breakfast Inn, housed in three Italianate beauties at No. 4 Charlton Court, midway in the 1900 block of Union.

If you prefer to sample the life of the swells a century ago, make reservations at the exclusive Sherman House, one block east of Union at 2160 Green.

One of the most elegant homes in the city when it was built in 1876 by the founder of the Sherman Clay Music Co., it remains a sanctuary of luxury, complete with private restaurant and a chauffer-driven Bentley in the driveway.

Beloved by celebrities seeking low-visibility accommodations, each of its 15 rooms is furnished in decorator luxury and with museum-quality antiques. But such pampering has its price--from $210 to $650 a night.

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