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Weekend Escape: San Francisco

Victorians on View

A sparkling day for a guided walk past the city's 'painted ladies'

September 13, 1998|SHARON BOORSTIN | Boorstin is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer

SAN FRANCISCO — The temperature was hovering in the 90s on a recent Friday evening when my husband, Paul, and I flew out of Burbank airport. As an aficionado of history and architecture, I'd signed us up for the "Victorian Home Walk," a $20-per-person, 2 1/2-hour walking tour of some of San Francisco's 14,000 Victorian houses. According to what I'd learned from the tour's Web site, we'd see Victorians in neighborhoods that are off-limits to tour buses, and the walking tour would be "low impact"--no hill-climbing required. Paul liked the sound of that.

In keeping with our Victorian theme, I'd made reservations at San Francisco's Majestic Hotel, a mansion built in 1902 for railroad magnate Milton Schmitt. We were charmed by the period furniture and crystal chandeliers in the tiny lobby, the sumptuous bar, the elevator's gamboling monkeys in hand-painted wood and our spacious top (fifth) floor accommodations.

On Saturday morning, we walked 20 minutes from our hotel to Union Square, where hordes of tourists were climbing into tour buses and trying to squeeze onto overcrowded cable cars. We felt fortunate not to be joining them. Instead, after a quick breakfast at David's deli, we headed for the lobby of the St. Francis Hotel, where we were surprised to find 22 other Victoriana enthusiasts already waiting.

At the stroke of 11, Jay Gifford, our upbeat, 40ish guide, appeared. An ardent member of the San Francisco Victorian Alliance, he created the tour 2 1/2 years ago when he was downsized out of IBM. Needless to say, Gifford lives in a Victorian, which, he noted with a roll of his eyes, he spent 10 years restoring.

As the group boarded a westbound trolley from Sutter Street, Gifford noted that at the turn of the century this downtown area was full of Victorian houses built of native redwood--all destroyed in the fire that followed the 1906 earthquake. It was only because firefighters dynamited a firebreak at what is now Van Ness Avenue that the Victorians west of that point were saved. We climbed off the trolley three blocks west of Van Ness. Our first stop: the Queen Anne Hotel, on the corner of Sutter and Octavia, built in 1890 as Miss Mary Lake's School for Girls.

Gifford gave us a quick lesson in Victorian architectural styles: The "Italianate," built from 1860 through the 1870s, is characterized by arched "eyebrow" bay windows, Corinthian columns on the front porch and false facades on the front of the roof to make the house look taller. The "Stick" style, built in the 1880s, is distinguished by rectangular bay windows, etched glass and more detailed "gingerbread" decoration--made possible by the invention of the jigsaw.

"Queen Anne" was the style from the 1890s through 1905 and, from looking at the hotel's exterior, I could see that it is what most people picture when they think "Victorian": whimsical turrets, triangular roof gables, curved bay windows and fish-scale shingles.

The Queen Anne's lobby--with its red-painted walls, gold-tasseled red-velvet curtains that "puddled" on the floor and period reproduction furniture--was so much gaudier than the subdued Majestic that I suddenly worried I'd chosen the wrong hotel for our Victoriana weekend. I asked Gifford where the Majestic fit into the Victorian scheme of things. "Actually," he replied, "the Majestic is an early Edwardian," the next historical/architectural period. Oops.

For the next hour or so, our group followed Gifford at a leisurely pace as we walked through neighborhoods filled with middle-class Victorian row houses. Some were painted pastel pink, yellow or blue, their gingerbread decorations highlighted in gold, white or bright colors. According to Gifford, during the Victorian era, these houses were painted all one color--usually white or gunmetal gray. It wasn't until the '60s, he said, when hippies painted their Victorians in Haight-Ashbury psychedelic colors, that it became fashionable for San Franciscans to create what are now called "painted ladies."

I was amazed to learn that it is nearly impossible to find a Victorian row house in San Francisco for sale these days, and that those available in the neighborhood near Japantown where we were walking go for $800,000 and up. Gifford showed us several Victorians that had been "smothered" with stucco after World War II in an attempt to modernize them. Nearby, we saw an example of one that recently had been "unsmothered"--the stucco removed to reveal the original Victorian exterior. Gifford estimated the job cost $150,000.

Walking north, we headed into Pacific Heights, a posh neighborhood where stately multimillion-dollar Victorian mansions pose grandly, bordered by lovely gardens. Many command glorious views of the bay, which was dotted with white sailboats on this balmy summer afternoon.

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