Painted Ladies: A San Francisco Walk About

Its time to fall in love with some painted Ladies in San Francisco.  The Fighting Couple has been on lots of tours and by tours we mean, academic, informative, open-ended questions, catered to a small group, kind of tours. We don’t follow umbrellas. We learn so much on “good” tours that we like to go on tours even when it’s a city we have been to many times.

There are three types of Victorian homes: Italiantes, Queen Anne and Stick.

There are three types of Victorian homes: Italianate, Queen Anne and Stick.

So on a recent couple’s trip to San Francisco;I jumped at the chance to go on a Victorian Home Walk.  Enter our guide, Jay.  Jay gave one of the best tours I’ve ever been on.  I’ve always had a fascination with Victorian homes. I find them beautiful and after going on the walk with Jay, I adore them even more.

Painted Ladies Tour

I met Jay with a few other folks at Union Square. As an introduction to what we would be seeing, he explained how the area once was full of single family housing prior to the 1906 earthquake.  Standing there looking at a crowed shopping center and the sea of humanity milling around, it’s hard to imagine the now commercialized area was once home to thousands before the fire associated with the earthquake leveled the wooden homes. Jay was very knowledgeable about the housing patterns before and after the earthquake and fire changed the city.  I have a mid-blog post confession.  I am curious. (Mike would say nosey!)  You know when you are on a “good” tour when the tour guide can actually answer your questions!

Pacific Heights

Our exploration of the antique homes took us to the Pacific Heights area. Going on the Victorian Home Walk is just that: a walking tour.   Our first stop was the gorgeous Queen Anne Hotel. How I want to stay there! Before we went inside, Jay trained us to spot the three types of Victorian homes: Italianate, Queen Anne, and Stick. Then we ventured inside the splendid hotel and had free rein to look around. It’s gorgeous! The former girl’s school is a Victorian’s dream hotel. Its plush interior and ornate furnishings represent classic Victorian style, and like Jay said, “No one could stuff a room like a Victorian.”

Gorgeous example of craftsmanship, but the paint is far from authentic.

Gorgeous example of craftsmanship, but the paint is far from authentic.

As we walked down Pine Street to Webster and over to Broadway, Jay pointed out how Victorian homes changed over time. As technology improved, the outside of homes became more decorative. But then it wasn’t hip anymore to look ostentatious. For instance, during the 30s and 40s any ornate fixtures on the outside of the homes were replaced to make it look more modern or in my humble opinion: plain. The exteriors were painted stucco or replaced with dull siding. The first floor gardens of the Italianates were removed to make room for the automobile. The boxed shaped livery stables are now condos.

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My favorite home on the tour. It’s so delicate.

One of my biggest fascinations was the change in color of Victorian homes. Painted Lady, anyone? No, that’s not a Yuppie drink at your favorite bar. It’s the term originated in San Francisco for Victorians painted with three or more colors. Most Victorian homes weren’t painted that way to begin with; in fact, painting your restored Victorian multiple colors to accent the trim and gingerbread didn’t become popular until the 1960s. Originally, Victorians were painted with three colors: the window trim was painted black or very dark green, highlights were white and the overall house color was one color, usually an earth tone that would not fade or show the dirt like brown or dark green. If you see a beautiful home today with a rainbow of colors (yellow, green, blue, red), it’s fun and makes the house pop, but it’s following the pop culture of 40 years ago, not the original color schemes.

Another classic Italianate style Victorian.

Another classic Italianate style Victorian. Note how there is now a garage where a garden once grew.

The pace of the tour was steady, but not like a race. I never felt at any time that I was rushed. It was also casual enough that there was appropriate downtime to quiz our guide on the things we were seeing. “Why does this house have three doors?  Why does this house have a bay window but the one next door doesn’t?  When was this built?” You get the gist. I’m sure Jay was glad when I stopped asking questions!  This tour tops our things to do in San Francisco list.

Did you know that you can “Ask the Fighting Couple Anything?”

Celebrity Mansions

The tour lasted roughly two and a half hours. We ended the tour in the she-she-la-la area of celebrity mansions overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge. Jay pointed out Jessica McClintock mansion-painted all white like her designer wedding gowns. We saw the house from Mrs. Doubtfire and the house a few doors down where Robin Williams lived. Jay was full of celebrity gossip from those who live or lived in the area. But you’ll have to go on the tour; I won’t dish any here.

What struck me most about this tour was Jay’s unique knowledge about the individual homes we saw. It’s wasn’t the kind of stuff you could find in a history book. It was the type of information he personally gathered from living in the city and doing tours for 20 years.  Most of all, I never felt like I was on parade. In fact, I felt like a local being shown around by a local. I wasn’t on tour bus with a bored driver reading an approved script over a microphone.  I was shown a local side of San Francisco, a place where people live.  

Jay the Victorian home fountain of knowledge.

Jay the Victorian home fountain of knowledge.

And just like a local, when we ended the tour at the Union Street Shops, Jay showed us which restaurants to the get the best sandwich, the best pasta and the best seafood. I treated myself to a to a pumpkin spice cream puff at Pacific Puffs.

The next time you are in San Francisco; don’t miss the  Victorian Home Walk. It will be the best $25 you spend in the city.

A special thank you goes out to our friends at Victorian Home Walk who provided this experience.  Check some gorgeous painted ladies out next time you are in San Francisco.

San Francisco
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