January 4, 2008
I love San Francisco, I love history, and I love walking. Luckily for me, there are a billion walking tours out there. Every so often I participate in one of these, try to pick up a thing or two, and take some notes for you. Ratings systems provide a useful shorthand, but your mileage may vary.
subject: Victorian Home Walk
time: 2+ hours
cost: $20 (cash only)
I know, I know, the last tour I reviewed was a Victorian architecture walk, but what can I say? I enjoyed that one, still have a lot to learn, and was just curious how some of the others might stack up.
Here’s how it works
You assemble in Union Square and are “transported” (more about that later) to the corner of Sutter and Octavia. After a short history of the building, you get several minutes to scramble around the venerable (and haunted!) interior of the Queen Anne Hotel. The remainder of the tour consists of a gently-paced walk through Pacific Heights, organized around learning the characteristics of the three major styles of Victorian-era homes. The walk is not a loop, as many others are, but ends up at the corner of Steiner and Broadway, across the street from the famous “Mrs. Doubtfire” house at 2640 Steiner Street.
The tour company
“Victorian Home Walks” was launched by Victorian-owner Jay Gifford after being “downsized” from a job in the computer industry in 1993. Our guide (Shonna Sinclair) has been leading the tours for almost a decade, and it showed; she was patient, knowledgeable and extremely generous with stories and information. And once she outed herself as the kind of person who likes to spent her free time digging through old census records, I was on board!
It’s just like birdwatching. Sort of.
Something about this tour felt oddly familiar, but it wasn’t until later that I figured it out. Birdwatchers learn to identify feathered friends by size, shape, and distinctive markings on the plumage. That plump grey bird with a bright red chest? It’s a robin. The huge golden-brown creature soaring above you with a hooked bill and a chestnut tail? A red-tailed hawk, of course. We were guided through the identification of the principal Victorian-era dwelling styles in exactly the same way, by focusing on a short list of distinctive, archetypal architectural elements:
- Italianate (1850s-70s): angled bay windows; bracketed roofline; arched windows.
- Stick (1880s): box bay windows; false-front gables; riotous gingerbread
- Queen Anne (1890s): steep pitched roofs with windows in gables; turrets with witch’s caps; curved window glass
Simple enough, and illustrated by our guide by clear examples in chronological order. I thought I finally had it nailed! And I do, sort of. Then I realized that this bird-identification model only goes so far. One robin pretty much looks like every other robin. Architects, on the other hand, are not bound by nature to build according to predetermined stylistic guidelines. Cross-pollination and plain eccentricity created any number of mutant buildings in San Francisco, so though there are “pure” versions to be found, there are also quite a few that — just like in our colorful human population — defy easy categorization. This is of course, perfect for San Francisco.
Still, this kind of quick-and-dirty field guide can provide a great foundation for understanding what you see as you stroll around any local neighborhood … see a row of Italianates and you know you’re probably standing in a Gold Rush era ‘hood; walk past a massive Queen Anne with a spiky witch’s cap and you’ll know you’re in the presence of the spirit of the Gilded Age.
We also learned…
- The fancy scrollwork called “gingerbread” started to appear in the 1880s, thanks to a technological innovation: the industrial jigsaw.
- The original grey and brown coloration of Victorian homes was intended to mimic more expensive building materials such as stone.
- Buildings were taxed on street frontage, which led to narrow, very long structures.
- “Painted Ladies” are Victorians featuring three or more colours.
- This colourful style was borrowed from the East Coast, beginning in the early 1900s.
Another thing. We’ve all noticed buildings around town that look like Victorians, but seem to have been smothered in stucco or cloaked with asbestos shingles, every trace of ornamentation scraped away. According to our guide, this historical vandalism was begun in the ’50s with the complicity of local government– a subsidized effort to “modernize” the venerable Vics. I suspect fire insurance may have had something to do with it too, but really, City Hall? Please drop me a lin if you’ve got some light to shed on this.
In any event, I was delighted to learn that in many cases the fish-scale shingles, gracefully turned columns and other period details are actually still intact under these hideous “upgrades”. It’s hard to believe that fifty years ago these old houses were the epitome of uncool, and the pendulum has finally swung back. Our guide has seen several houses rescued from their modernist tombs during during her tenure on this tour, and there are more on the road to recovery.
Should you take this tour?
I’d have to give a qualified yes. The price is somewhat steep, but the way to get value for money here is to come prepared to participate — ask a lot of questions, and you’ll learn a few things … San Francisco native or first-time visitor. Tours leave from Union Square every day (rain or shine!) at 11:00 am; look for someone holding up a sign at the corner of Powell and Post.
A final amusing note — this tour company is trying to court the tourist trade, of course, which is why the tour begins in Union Square. The population of Victorians in that neighborhood is essentially zero (thank you, Fire of 1906), so transportation to another part of town is essential. What’s so funny about that? The “transportation” promised in the $20 ticket came in the form of San Francisco Muni! If you’ve just arrived from the center of Kansas, that bus ride (shared with “genuwine locals”!) is probably going to be as educational as the tour itself — don’t miss it.