Ask anyone to describe what makes San Francisco special and Victorian architecture would land near the top of the list, somewhere between sourdough bread and tech money. Here now is a crash course in Victoriana found in the city.
This guide is a focused primer on architectural styles and thus not comprehensive, so don’t be offended if your favorite neighborhood gem didn’t make the cut.
Before we take a deep dive, Victorian refers to a period, not a style. To call a building “a Victorian” means it was designed during the period of Queen Victoria’s reign from 1837 to 1901. There are a slew of architectural styles popular during that time period, and we’ll delve into a few of the variations, but here in San Francisco, the styles were primarily applied in late 19th century single-family houses and the reconstruction efforts after the 1906 earthquake and fire.
But wait, didn’t we just say that the Victorian period only lasted until 1901? Yes. But while elements of Victorian architecture didn’t become popular until late in the queen’s reign, adoption of the style took time to become popular in the United States. Rapid industrialization and advances in technology resulted in the mass-production of housing materials and innovations in construction techniques, well after her majesty’s death.
Rewind the clock a bit further and many of these style were a la mode just as SF transitioned from a one-horse town into an urban metropolis during the Gold Rush. Here’s the ornate detailing and styles to look for during your next stroll in the city.
Gothic Revival (1840-1880)
Made popular by Andrew Jackson Downing’s pattern books of the 1840s, this sprawling style was mostly used in rural areas due to the narrowness of urban lots. That doesn’t mean our tenacious predecessors in SF didn’t try to swing it. More often found in civic or religious buildings, there are a few remaining examples of residential houses, though usually it’s seen as less-ornate elements applied in a vernacular way. Typical features of this style are steep roofs, decorated gables, and pointed arch windows, sometimes with castle-like turrets or battlements.
Example: Russ Building
Just like it sounds, this interpreted the traditionally stone style with wood.
Example: Nightingale House
The Hotaling Building is probably the earliest interpretation of this look in San Francisco. The style basically adapted and embellished a bunch of European styles into something new. These dominated urban housing between 1860-1880 thanks to pattern books, so right at the time SF grew exponentially thanks to the Gold Rush. A lot of them managed to survive the 1906 quake, despite being constructed of wood. It started to go out of fashion in the 1880s, only to be replaced by its flashy cousin Queen Anne. Features: low-pitched roof with overhanging eaves, decorative brackets, tall narrow windows, elaborate frames around doors and windows, many with cupola or tower.
Example: Hotaling Building
Flat Front Italianate
A wide projecting cornice hid the roof line behind it. There are lots of these in Western Addition and the east side of Pacific Heights, and single-story cottage versions in Noe Valley and Potrero Hill.
Example: Sylvester House
Bay window Italianate
Late to the party in the 1880s, these took over flat front Italianates when lot sizes got smaller, which resulted in using bay windows to increase square footage. You can thank these for bay windows becoming synonymous with San Francisco. Countless examplescan be found in the Mission, the Haight, or the Castro.
Example: Walker House
This one is all about the decorative detailing, using the wall itself as a decorative element with “sticks” applied to the surface. Chalk its popularity up to house pattern books in the 1860s and 70s. The townhouse version is mostly what you see around San Francisco. Features: steep gabled roof, exposed rafter tails, squared bay windows, wooden cladding with patterned stick work that’s decorative instead of structural.
Example: Shotwell Street
This style goes hand-in-hand with the Stick style. So-called “Eastlake” millwork included details like sunburst brackets, rosettes, and flowers and plant imagery. Most of the exterior detailing came from local mills or ordered from catalogs, and these were often painted in a kaleidoscope of colors. Many of these survived the 1906 earthquake and fire in neighborhoods like the Mission, Eureka Valley, and Pacific Heights.
Example: Sarah Mish House
Queen Anne (1880-1910)
The ruler of San Francisco Victorian architecture, this is the style that most people imagine when they think of Victorians. Ignore the Queen Anne reference—the style has little to do with her reign (1702-1714) and more with Medieval influences. The gingerbread-house details are a more American addition, where no surface was left untouched. The style was super popular to large summer houses, but was alter adapted for the urban row house and even smaller workers cottages like those found in Glen Park and Potrero. Features: steep roofs with an ornamented front-facing gable, patterned surfaces with shingles or tiles, bay windows, elevated front porch, lacy decorative spindlework.
Example: Postcard Row
Turreted Queen Anne
Some Queen Anne’s have turret towers, usually found at a building’s front corner. In SF, these are usually free-standing house (often on corners or large double lots) as opposed to row houses. Needless to say, the extra space required for the large houses meant the owners were usually on the wealthier side.
Example: Haas Lilienthal House
Second Empire (1860-1880)
Extensively revived in France during the mid-19th century, the uniquely pitched roof was particularly functional for providing of full upper story of useable space. Other than the specific roof type, the style has many similar characteristics as Italianate. There aren’t many in SF, but builders would often slap a mansard roof on houses of other styles. Features: mansard roofs with dormer windows, molded cornices, decorative brackets.
Example: Audiffred Building
Shingle/First Bay Region Tradition (1880-1915)
Transplants from the East Coast may think of these as Cape Cod style, and its popularity was due to those houses popping up in magazines at the time. Architect Willis Polk used this style most in his San Francisco work. Along with Julia Morgan and Bernard Maybeck, the style took its own San Francisco life with the First Bay Region Tradition (though that’s pushing the line on Victorian period and entering Edwardian territory). You can find these in Russian Hill and Presidio Heights, as well as the Oakland and Berkeley Hills. Features: cladding and roofing in continuous wood shingles, asymmetrical facades, natural materials, large front porches, oversized arches on porches or entrances.
Example below: Ferguson House
Richardsonian Romanesque (1880-1900)
Not super common in San Francisco, we threw it in the mix because it influenced many other styles. Named after Boston architect Henry Hobson Richardson (who habitually like a boss), these basically look like a fortress. Most of the San Francisco examples are churches. Features: wide rounded arches on squat columns, rough-faced masonry walls, recessed windows towers with conical roofs.
Folk Victorian (1870-1910)
Think of this as the farmhouse version. Simple vernacular houses applied decorative detailing in attempt to mimic the more ornate styles of Queen Anne and Italianate. The growth of the railroad suddenly made woodworking machinery available to the masses, and carpenters were able to produce inexpensive detailing that any home owner to add for a little flair. As a traditionally rural form, these aren’t found often in San Francisco. Features: wide porches with spindlework, jigsaw cut trim, symmetrical facades, cornice line brackets.
Example: Fort Mason (while more traditional Queen Anne in massing and asymmetry, it’s the closest to Folk Victorian within SF city limits)
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in 2017. It has been updated with new information.