Understanding San Francisco’s Victorian Houses

We have done a few self guided walking tours of the city where the goal was to better know the neighborhoods. Discover the landmarks, bars, bookshops, stairs and slopes. Admire the views that some street intersections opened up. The common thread across many of these tours and casual walks was the gazing at houses that both of us indulged in (M didn’t stop at the exterior — often times craning her neck to see the style of the lampshade or the type of bookshelf that was inside!). Every time, our collective lack of vocabulary to describe and distinguish the houses that are quintessential San Francisco would stifle the conversation.

So after a year long of “You know, those typical pretty San Francisco houses…”, the need to sound more knowledgeable, more local, became urgent.

The Victorian Home Walk helped us in that transformation. A blurb from our guide’s website reads -

Jay Gifford has lived in San Francisco since 1979. He worked for IBM for 15 years, purchased a Victorian in 1988, and lovingly restored it over the years to its original grandeur.
Jay started the Victorian Home Walk in 1996, after being downsized from IBM, in order to share his enthusiasm and knowledge of Victorian homes. “As a resident of San Francisco for 30 years, I have a great passion for our city’s trademark architecture, Victorians.

We didn’t want to get into the intricacies of the architectural styles. What we wanted to retain after the tour was the basics of distinguishing the various styles. Here’s our attempt to document it.


Victorians were built during Queen Victoria’s reign (1850 to 1901). They look more feminine, characterized by more intricate work, more adornments, as compared to the Edwardians.

Trivia: A typical San Francisco Victorian lot size is 25 x 100 feet. The King of Spain dictated this
Trivia: Red door in a house often signifies the owner’s belief in Feng Shui. Red brings the light in

Jay told us that a lot of younger home owners are restoring Victorians to their original characteristics. This after an era of owners “smothering” them — paint them with a single color, or put plaster on top to hide all the designs.

There are 3 distinct styles of Victorians :-

#1 Italianate

Built mostly around 1860–70, the defining feature of this style are the slanted bay windows. The science behind the bay windows was to allow for more surface area through which light can come in. They also feature classical styled columns and give an impression of being made of stone.

Trivia: Original Victorian windows had laces that allowed for light and privacy
Italianate with slanted bay windows

#2 Stick / Stick Eastlake

Built mostly around 1880s, the defining features of the style are square, box shaped windows, and thin pieces of wood or “sticks” that run down the corners (the sticks are used for ornamentation rather than serving any structural function). The style is also known as Stick Eastlake, after architect Charles Eastlake. Ironically, he was not in favor of excessive decoration just for the sake of it. A row of house on Laguna and Pine are Stick Victorians.

Stick with box windows and sticks running down the sides

#3 Queen Anne

Built mostly around 1890s, the defining features of the style are the pointed (triangular) roof and/or a turret (a conical side tower). They are also the most ornate of the lot with extravagant patterns and designs being the norm.

Row of Queen Annes on Broderick St

Painted Ladies is a style that can be superimposed on any of the 3 styles. As the name implies, it’s a version in which paint (often bright colors) has been used extensively. You’ll see entire facades brightly pained or featuring intricate designs.

Painted Lady — lavish use of colors and patterns

Even though it was a Victorian house tour, Jay told us about the basics of the Edwardian style. Built during King Edward’s reign from 1901 to 1950, they are masculine in their look (less ornate). We showed a picture of our house to him. It’s an Edwardian.

Trivia: A lot of the big Edwardians can be found at street corners. They replaced what were earlier barns for horses.
A corner Edwardian

Between our education in architecture, Jay also gave us tidbits about San Francisco history…

The 6 richest families of San Francisco lived in Nob Hill. The term comes from hob- nob and was coined as a negative term. Another theory is that the term comes from “Nabob”

…and not just human history, but the ecological history as well.

San Francisco hardly has any native trees. Lack of rain and bed rock makes it hard for trees to grow. Most trees were brought from outside of the Bay Area. The Ficus was brought from South East Asia, Magnolia from the southern US states, Eucalyptus from Tasmania, and Princess Bush (purple flower) from South Africa.

Since the tour, the quality of our conversations about architecture has improved manifolds. Most of the times, we are able to identify the style. And when we stumble, we make up stuff that sounds plausible!

This looks like a Flat Faced Italianate.

It has the triangular roof, but the facade is so minimal and stark — almost like an Edwardian Queen Anne.

There’s a lot to learn about the history and evolution of house architecture in San Francisco. If you’re interested, these are some of the best articles that I found online.

A comprehensive overview of Victorian & Edwardian Architecture

Guide to San Francisco Architecture

Victorian & Edwardian Architecture in San Francisco

Map of Victorian Houses in San Francisco

History of Edwardian Homes in San Francisco

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