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11 fascinating facts you didn’t know about the Painted Ladies

Lovely ladies, ready for the call

A row of seven brightly painted Victorian houses.
The Painted Ladies of Alamo Square.
Photo via Shutterstock

One of Alamo Square’s famous and frequently photographed Painted Ladies is up for sale, an event akin to a singular astronomical alignment or the visit of a foreign dignitary—not unheard of, but still rare enough to put everyone aflutter.

Other than the Golden Gate Bridge, possibly no one spot in all of San Francisco is as frequently Instagrammed as this row of what at the time were by no means particularly unusual homes on the east side of Steiner Street.

Indeed, that’s part of the hot spot’s appeal: They’re not a feat of engineering or the location of any grand historic event. Their appeal is purely organic and elemental in nature; to people around the world, it’s what signifies San Francisco, the sort of image you’d expect to dream up as the platonic ideal of a faraway place.

But of course, these once-humble homes are entirely a reality, and as expected their walls contain quite a bit of history, including:

  1. The “Painted Ladies” nickname is surprisingly recent. Most SF historians credit the 1978 book Painted Ladies: San Francisco’s Resplendent Victorians with inventing—or at least popularizing—the term.
  2. Popular myth holds that Victorians were originally painted white and only adopted bright palettes later, but this isn’t true; however, a vogue for bright colors in the ’60s did revitalize the image and popularity of classic Victorians throughout the city.
  3. These specific Steiner Street houses are usually referred to as “Postcard Row” for short, although they also get the less common nickname of the “Seven Sisters.”
  4. Note that the count of seven includes 722 Steiner on the corner of Grove, which sticks out from the rest but is the oldest of the lot and the former home of Matthew Kavanaugh, the original builder of the Painted Ladies.
  5. The addresses of the six more recognizable homes are 710-720 Steiner, which the city dates between 1892 and 1896.
  6. The house at 720 Steiner previously belonged to The Color Purple author Alice Walker, and her esteemed neighbors on either side sometimes complained about the volume of her music.
  7. These are what are known as Queen Anne Victorians—in fact, they might be the definitive Queen Anne homes in all of San Francisco at this point. The most prominent identifying features of the style include steep roofs with an ornamented front-facing gables, patterned surfaces with shingles or tiles, bay windows, elevated front porch, lacy decorative spindlework, and notable asymmetry.
  8. Speaking of Kavanaugh’s heavyweight corner abode, prior to this new listing that home was the one offered up for sale most recently. It listed for $4 million in 2010 but ended up selling for $3.1 million four years later. For comparison, former owner Michael Shannon paid $65,000 for it in 1975—less than $321,000 in today’s currency.
  9. The other most recent sales were $2.38 million for 710 Steiner in 2012, $1.21 million for 720 Steiner in 2001, and $920K for 712 Steiner in 1998—that last one about $1.46 million after inflation. The lot currently up for sale is 714 Steiner, leaving just two of seven without any listings in recent memory.
  10. Remarkably, SF’s registry of more than 200 historic landmarks does not include any of these seven homes, and they’re not mentioned in the National Registry of Historic Places, either. The seven homes are, however, part of the city’s Alamo Square Historic District.
  11. The best times for photographs are generally in the early afternoon, between 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. Since the seven homes face west, morning photos put their world famous facades in shadow. This may sound like common sense, but it’s a surprisingly common error. Tourists with a mind for the perfect Instagram image sometimes come out disappointed—so plan ahead.