Here’s the thing — I love San Francisco, I love history, and I love walking. Luckily for me, there are a billion walking tours out there, and every so often I take one. I do my best to keep my know-it-all mouth shut and learn a thing or two, pick up a few ideas for the podcast, and take some notes for you. And though ratings systems can be problematic, they do provide a useful shorthand, and I promise to ruthlessly avoid “grade inflation”. That said, your mileage may vary.

subject: Pacific Heights Walking Tour
time: 1.75 hours
cost: $8
contact: San Francisco Architectural Heritage
tack rating:

It’s a little embarrassing, but I don’t know a Queen Anne from an Eastlake-Stick. Despite having lived all over San Francisco, I just never got around to learning anything about the architectural style that defines this city: Victorian. That’s what attracted me to the “Pacific Heights Walking Tour” offered by San Francisco Architectural Heritage.

Pacific Heights is a neighborhood that I haven’t focused on, historically speaking, so I hoped to learn a little something, and yes — pick up a story idea or two. This tour seemed like a great place to start — San Francisco Architectural Heritage is a non-profit organization which (according to their website) “encourages appreciation of the built environment and understanding of the value of preserving significant San Francisco architecture.” You may already be familiar with their headquarters, the gorgeous Haas-Lilienthal House on Franklin Street which also serves as a Victorian house-museum. Tours of the House itself are also on offer, which I will certainly take advantage of at some point in the future.

I was a bit early, and Vikki, our guide, made an excellent first impression by inviting me to wait in the garden and directing me to the best-smelling rosebush in the place! She began with an inspection of the mansion’s exterior and a potted history of the Haas-Lilienthal family. I lost track of who was who almost instantly, I’m afraid, but this turned out to be perfectly okay — the cavalcade of building facades and associated stories to follow provided information enough to keep everyone interested.

history on a hill

The focus of the tour, which consists of a nice 10- or 12-block loop from our starting point to Lafayette Park and back again, isn’t so much architecture as it is the stories associated with the various elegant buildings along the route. Still, it consituted a nice starter course in classifying Victorian homes. By the end of the day I could squint up at a facade and make a half-educated guess of “Italianate, Stick-Eastlake or Queen Anne” styles… not to mention “Georgian” and “Edwardian”. There’s far, far more to know, of course, but I was inspired by just these vague outlines to do more studying on my own.

Lafayette Park is really the centerpiece of the walk; literally the high point of the neighborhood — you can see the northern and southernmost points of the city from its lush heights, including the Golden Gate Bridge. The whole neighborhood is beautifully situated, and this is what makes it such a rich territory for beautiful architecture.

When San Francisco boomed, everyone who was anyone wanted a piece of this hill, and the stories our guide told were peppered with names that tell the history of the city in themselves. James D. Phelan (mayor at the time of the Pan-Pacific Exhibition), Michael de Young (progenitor of the San Francisco Examiner), and shipping magnate Captain William Matson are just a few of the impressive names involved.

There’s a whiff of modern celebrity hanging over the hill as well — romance novelist Danielle Steel is the current inhabitant of the mansion built by Adolph Spreckels for the pulchritudinous Alma de Bretteville, and actor Nicholas Cage just vacated the house on Franklin Street once owned by Werner Ehrhardt, the founder of EST.

The most fascinating piece of history that I picked up involved a certain Samuel Holladay and his long-vanished mansion, once perched at the very apex of the park. I’ll just tease you with that tidbit right now, but I went straight to the San Francisco History Room at the library after the tour for a little research. Stay tuned for the next podcast!

we also learned…

  • Victorians are built almost exclusively from redwood
  • Their original grey coloration was created by mixing white paint with soot
  • The phenomenon of the brightly colored Victorian (“painted ladies”) dates from the 1960s
  • First large apartment buildings built in the early 1900s were a symptom of female independence
  • Stone used in some mansions is literally dissolving in the San Francisco fog
  • Every building in the neighborhood has a story… but that you probably knew already!

should you take this tour?

There are many Victorian architectural walking tours offered in San Francisco, and since this is my first, perhaps you should take my opinion with a grain of salt. I enjoyed myself and learned some great stuff, though, so my recommendation is “yes”! Our guide was friendly, patient, and well-informed, the scenery is beautiful, and the history plentiful. There are some steepish hills involved, but nothing you haven’t encountered before in our fair city. The asking price is less than a movie ticket, and will leave you with quite a bit more to chew on! Tour leaves from the Haas-Lilienthal House every Sunday at 12:30 p.m.

for further edification

» sfheritage.org
» west coast Victorian styles
» “Painted Ladies” — Wikipedia
» Pacific Heights neighborhood — SFGate.com