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Back to school: San Francisco’s Victorian heritage

We’ve always loved history, so we thought since the kids are back in class we'd take a lesson in San Francisco's history with its Victorian architecture.

Victorian or Edwardian houses are also referred to as “painted ladies,” though that term wasn’t used until the late 1970s, and are typically painted in bright and colorful hues. For it to be a true painted lady, the house should have at least three different paint colors to accent the architectural details of the home. Almost 50,000 houses were built in the city in these architectural styles between 1849 and 1915.

Though the actual Victorian Era spans from 1837to 1901 (the life of Queen Victoria), most of the houses we think of that match that style are the ornate gingerbread type though there are other types that get bunched in there too, like Gothic Revival, Italianate, Stick, Romanesque, and Queen Anne.  

The styles have slight differences but many common features that classify them as Victorian include:

  • Decorative trim (gingerbread)
  • Asymmetrical shape
  • Large in size, often up to three stories
  • Vibrant paints, some done in multiple colors
  • Wood or stone exterior
  • Towers, mostly in an octagon-shape

Victorian homes in San Francisco

The homes were reflective of the ideals of that time, that things (especially fashion and furnishings) should be beautiful more so than practical. People’s inclination toward excess was timed well with the Industrial Revolution where builders could get materials faster and cheaper. This made it easy to design grand homes with excessive trim and unique features.

As you explore San Francisco’s famed Victorians, you’ll probably notice that more fall in line with the Edwardian style. Unfortunately, so many Victorians were lost in the 1906 earthquake and fire and the rebuilt homes were now classified in the Edwardian period for King Edward VII. Many of these homes are right here in our neighborhood, the Mission District, as well as in SOMA and downtown.

How can you tell the difference between Victorian and Edwardian? Victorians tend to be more ornate and bright whereas Edwardians aren’t as embellished and tend to be lighter in color.

Many of these homes are either private residences or hotels today but you can take a tour of the 1886 Haas-Lilienthal House (built in the Queen Anne style) as it’s the only San Francisco Victorian house museum and luckily survived the 1906 earthquake. The homeowners might have set the trend for expensive Bay Area housing as the house cost more than $18,500 to construct – an expensive endeavor for that time!

One look at Inn San Francisco and you can recognize our ties to the Victorian Era and we do our best to stay true to that time period in terms of style and décor. Our particular inn is done in the Italianate style, if you were curious! Take a closer look at each of our accommodations to see what the rooms were used for back when our inn was a family home!


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