Big Houses Made of Wood

So let’s try to write something about Victorian houses in San Francisco. The area of town in which I live is full of beautiful old Victorians and I have become very curious as to who built them, when, why the different styles, etc?

One central question is how did they survive the 1906 earthquake. As you all know, San Francisco suffered the mother of all earthquakes in 1906. The quake caused vast damage, but the real destroyer was the fire that followed. However I only recently found out that to contain the fire they blew up all the buildings on Van Ness thus creating a firebreak. Virtually everting east of Van Ness was consumed. Therefore the oldest and most authentic Victorian houses are to be found west of Van Ness ergo where I live.

The houses I am interested in date from about 1880 to 1905. Think of the US at that time; still Cowboys and Indians, no cars, very little law. In San Francisco they were building palaces.



On Oak Street - busy artery into the centre of town - just next to the Panhandle. You drive by without noticing, but just look at these houses!


So let’s go for a stroll around the 2 blocks next to my house and look at some of the houses. Before we do this, it will be useful to identify so the major architectural styles of the period.

OK, I know nothing about this but have read a bit on the web. Please excuse any pretention.

Earliest style is:

Flat Front Italianate (1850’s-1870’s)

• Simple Window Decoration

• No Bay Windows

• False Front with Brackets

• Simple Hand-Turned Millwork

• Painted to Mimic Stone (Marble or Granite)

I do not think there are any of these within 5 mins of my house.


Slanted Bay Italianate (1870’s-1880’s) 

• Five-Sided Projecting Bay Windows

• False Front with Brackets

• Classical Redwood Millwork

• Painted to Mimic Stone (Marble or Granite)


Do you think the one on the right is one?



Stick (1880’s)

• Rectangular Bay Windows

• Series of Boards Intersecting at Right Angles

• False Front Topped by Fake Gable or French Cap

• Exuberant Machine-Made Redwood Decoration

• Texture Created by Multiple Surface Coverings

• Painted 3 to 4 Colors Close in Hue


I think the blue one is Stick



Queen Anne Tower (1880’s-1890’s)

• Round or Octagonal Corner Tower with Witches Cap

• Round and/or Three-Sided Slanted Bay Windows

• Art Glass Window Panes

• Verandas & Balconies

• True Gable Roof

• Horizontal Decorations

• Whimsical Inventive Plaster Embellishment

• Contrast of Materials Story to Story

• Each Story Different Earth Tone, Darkest Color on Bottom


Two great Queen Annes



Queen Anne Row (1890’s-1900’s)

• Round and/or Three-Sided Slanted Bay Windows

• Simple Window Decoration

• Gable or Pinnacle Roof

• Horizontal Decorations

• Classical Redwood Millwork Turned by Hand

• Whimsical Inventive Plaster Embellishment

• Contrast of Materials Story to Story


A row of Queen Annes


So having established some of the field marks let’ s start our stroll. This is similar to birdwatching – can you recognize the species?


Queen Anne Tower and Stick






Don't know, but very colourful



Hmmm, Stick, Italianate, Stick, Stick? The fourth from the left is in terrible condition



Stick, Stick, Queen Anne Row?


So as you can see these are big and beautiful houses. What cannot be seen from the photos is that they go back a long way and that there is usually a garden, known as a yard, at the back.  Who had these house built and lived in them? I have only shown you the tiniest sample, there are many hundreds of such houses in SF. There must have been a large middle class population at this time with sufficient cash to build these things. I learned a lot from the watching a showing of the film ‘Saving the Bay.’

A very strong point made in the documentary is that it is erroneous to think that San Francisco’s prosperity came from the Gold Rush. This was certainly the catalyst but the real wealth came afterwards as the city became the centre for all business and industrial  activity from Hawaii to Salt Lake City, from The Mexican border to the Canadian border. The first banks were here, steel smelting, shipbuilding , sugar refineries, huge fishing industry, agriculture, trade everything for the  explosively expanding West came into and left from SF. Lots of people made lots of money and wanted nice houses. I live in one.

1880, when Victorians started to be built, in European terms is yesterday but, 1880 is only 30 years after there was nothing here at all.  When was 30 years after nothing at all in Britain? It is a different kind of history.

All these houses are made of wood – Redwood.  The redwood forests of the Peninsula had been around far longer than any European buildings but they were essentially all cut down in a couple of decades to build San Francisco. Actually not really – too many were cut down too quickly and there was a glut. Impossible to sell, a lot of wood just rotted.

I love these houses, I love their history and I love that many are still in such good condition.  This is getting too long so here are a couple of good links to finish with.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Big Houses Made of Wood

  1. Alan says:

    “When was 30 years after nothing at all in Britain?”

    Milton Keynes? You’ve forgotten the sewage mines? 🙂

    Amazing houses though, some built on amazingly steep streets as I remember. Filbert Street was pretty steep in my memory – though nothing to compare with Baldwin Street, Dunedin.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s