One of the pleasures of San Francisco is its historic architecture. Of course, the city is full of the impressive modern buildings that you’d expect in any American city. However there are also rows of well preserved Victorian houses. They seem to be everywhere, on the long avenues and nestling between the distinctive buildings of Japantown. And around Alamo Square, home of the famous “Painted Ladies”.
Exploring Alamo Square
The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw a massive boom in house building in San Francisco, with almost 50,000 homes built during this period. Many of these were destroyed in the 1906 earthquake, and others were subsequently pulled down, but many still remain. One of the best places to explore Victorian domestic architecture is Alamo Square, a historical district full of largely unspoilt mansions. The houses were designed by many different architects, giving rise to a variety of styles. Most of these buildings are multi-storeyed with basements, reflecting the lifestyle of wealthy families at the turn of the 20th century.
The Square is at the top of Alamo Hill, named for the single cottonwood, or alamo, tree that once stood there. This area was once a watering hole for trail horses, but in 1856 a public park was created on the summit of the hill. There is still a park here, very popular with dog walkers and with tourists who can enjoy the spectacular views across the city.
San Francisco’s Painted Ladies
Many of San Francisco’s Victorian and Edwardian houses were painted in bright colours (one critic described them as “loud” and “uncouth”). However they gradually needed repainting and over time most of them were covered with battleship grey (using Navy-surplus paint left over from the First World War). It was not until 1963 that the artist Butch Kardum painted his own house in bright shades of blue and green. Other artists started to copy him and the “colorist movement” was born.
The most famous of these coloured houses are the so-called Painted Ladies on Steiner Street, along one side of Alamo Square. This is a group of houses built in the 1890s, now each painted in a different colour. Look closely at these houses and you will see a wealth of original architectural details, subtly different in each house. The Painted Ladies have often featured in films, adverts and TV programmes. Like all of the historic houses of Alamo Square, they recall a long-forgotten age.