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Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The Painted Ladies of San Francisco

San Francisco's "Painted Ladies" contrast with the city's modern-day skyline.
In hitting the high spots during our recent stay in San Francisco, one of the "must see" items was a row of Victorian houses on Steiner Street opposite Alamo Square Park. It took some doing, searching among the steep, up and down, one-way streets in the area, then searching some more for a parking place (we didn't find one). It was almost sunset. I hopped out, shot a few disappointing pictures, then hopped back in the car as my wife drove around the park a time or two (she graciously stopped long enough to allow me to get back in safely). Mission accomplished! Well, sort of. The row is basically made up of seven houses and a mansion (six are all but identical, the seventh, less so). Unfortunately, two of the seven ladies were shrouded, in the processes of having the makeup retouched. Moreover, sunset is not their best light. An hour earlier would have been better.

Little more than the decorative touches distinguish the San Francisco "ladies."
The name, "Painted Ladies" dates back to as recently as 1978 when Elizabeth Pomada and Michael Larsen wrote a book titled Painted Ladies--San Francisco's Resplendent Victorians. Although the popular picture postcards inevitably depict the Steiner Street grouping, anyone who lives in San Francisco, or has even visited the place for more than a day, will tell you such colorful abodes can be spotted in virtually any upper middle-class neighborhood still sporting Victorian homes. Having visited for two days, that didn't surprise me. I was surprised to learn that quite a number of cities, which grew rapidly during the Victorian and Edwardian eras, also sported similar neighborhoods. The so-called "colorist" movement of the 1970s and 80s was not limited to the Streets of San Francisco. (Remember the TV series?) Actually, the Steiner Street ladies have appeared in several TV series and as many as 70 different movies.

Copyright, Jim Lane
The Kavanaugh Mansion on the corner, the dowager of the group.
Several factors have played a part in creating San Francisco's Painted Ladies (and those of other cities). The Steiner Street houses were all build by a single developer (who lived in the mansion on the corner at 722 Steiner. Perhaps hoping to retain the status as the most impressive house on the block, developer Matthew Kavanaugh saw to it that the other seven houses on up the street, while suitably attractive in a proper Victorian sense, were so similar in size and scale as to make his own residence stand out. Built between 1892 and 1896, the homes were painted in colors far more daring than those we see today, including orange, chocolate, pink, red, blue, and yellow with perhaps just a smidgeon of white to highlight the fanciful details. These gaudy color schemes were likely an attempt to mask the sameness they all bore in common. Moreover, they were, in fact, not at all unique at the time. There was a housing shortage in the city, the economic good times of the "gay nineties," was in full swing, and as a consequence, a wildly speculative housing boom. Developers such as Kavanaugh turned to "manufactured" housing, though not in the sense we've since come to understand the term. To Kavanaugh and others, such economies of scale involved similar plans, built one or two at a time in a limited area having similar or identical interior features. With the exception of the slightly smaller house built next to his own, the other six ladies bear all these traits.

The 1906 San Francisco Fire burn area is in gray.
The Painted Ladies area of Alamo Square Park is near the center of the map.
Many Victorians homes (because they were
wood-framed) survived the quake, but were
so dislodged as to require demolition.
The other trait the Painted Ladies all have in common is that they survived (by about three blocks--above map) the dreadful 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire which wiped out thousands of similar structures both large and small. And while this tragedy, in itself, hastened yet another building boom, this time the mansions and more modest houses were built of a fireproof brick and stone which didn't require painting. Then also, during and after WW II, when paint was scarce, the Steiner row took on a coat of battleship gray which remained until around 1963 when one owner, Butch Kardum, painted his lady in rich shades of blue and green. There was, of course, the expected community uproar until some of his neighbors decided they rather like the colorful idea (anything would have been an improvement over navy gray) and began employing bright shades to decorate their homes as well. Actually, what we see today is a pale, tastefully, pastel vestige of the wild colors of the 1960s and 70s.

The garishly painted "ladies" of other San Francisco neighborhoods make the Alamo Square Park landmarks seem sedate by comparison.
Today such Victorian neighborhoods stand out as much for the fact that they have survived more than a century as for their color schemes (which by now are not at all uncommon). During the decades after the Second World War, as many as 16,000 Victorian era frame homes were either torn down or remodeled largely beyond recognition as San Francisco endured yet another housing boom to make it one of the most congested cities I've ever visited. A large part of the problem is the city's horrendous geography making street upgrades uneconomical or virtually impossible. Even the god-almighty bulldozer is ineffective in dealing with such thoroughfares. Add to that the fact than San Franciscans have come to love their quaint century-old architecture with such a passion. They'd sooner tear down that big bridge across their harbor entrance than a fanciful Painted Lady fronting on one of their hilly, narrow, one-way streets.

The Painted Ladies of today each had a quite colorful past. 


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