A row of Victorian houses in San Francisco
A row of Victorian houses, known as ‘painted ladies’, in San Francisco © Alamy

In recent years, San Francisco has become one of the most expensive US cities to live in, a popular destination for young, high-earning tech workers who are increasingly snapping up its real estate. Many of them have taken a shine to some of the city’s Victorian houses, transforming their interiors imaginatively by working with the period features, but decorating in a multitude of styles.

San Francisco’s Victorian building boom began after the 1849 gold rush. The city’s population swelled from 800 to 25,000 in a year and with the new arrivals came rising demand for new housing. During the 1860s and 1870s, houses were built in the Italianate style, characterised by five-sided bay windows, later succeeded by the Eastlake Stick style of the 1880s, known for squared-off bays and wood detailing around doors and windows. The more elaborate Queen Anne style of the 1890s is the most recognisable of the three, with its triangular roof gables, turrets and integral balconies.

A red front door designed by Ken Fulk
A front door designed by Ken Fulk © Francesco Lagnese

Although there were once some 58,000 Victorian homes in the city, many of them were destroyed in the devastating 1906 earthquake and fire. Today just 14,000 remain.

Originally, houses from this period were painted a chalky white to disguise their redwood structure and resemble stone. Later, during the first and second world wars, many were coated in a battleship grey, using surplus navy paint. And so they remained until the 1960s, when artists such as Butch Kardum and a band of “colourists”, as they came to be called, began experimenting with vivid colours on the façades of these Victorian houses – from lime and vermilion to gold and turquoise. The hippies followed suit in Haight-Ashbury, people began to copy their neighbours and soon entire streets were transformed with colour. The houses were labelled the “painted ladies”. The most famous examples are a group of Queen Anne-style houses on Steiner Street next to Alamo Square, built in the 1890s by Matthew Kavanaugh and painted in soft pastels. These buildings have regularly appeared in films, television and advertising campaigns, gaining the epithet, “Postcard Row”. They can sell for about $3m each, although the most sought-after Victorian homes – many in the Pacific Heights area – can fetch far more than that. A Queen Anne-style mansion on Pacific Avenue recently went on the market with a record $30m price tag.

Architect Lewis Butler is working on the restoration of a “Postcard Row painted lady”, one of the most elaborately decorated houses on the strip, featuring “chequerboard” geometric latticing. His clients, a young couple in their 30s, who work in the tech industry, have requested a sympathetic and traditional restoration.

“They are in love with this ‘Victorian’ and are restoring it as if it’s the last one in the world,” says Butler. This means preserving the original layout, stripping paint off wood that would have been stained originally, and safeguarding Victorian features, including ornate fireplaces, pronounced crown mouldings with neoclassical forms and a simple wooden staircase with mahogany railings.

Although furnishings are yet to be chosen, Butler expects his clients to select traditional Victorian pieces. (The only area where they are diverting from a period aesthetic is in the attic, which Butler will be developing into a “contemporary office in the sky” with views over the bay.)

Such a traditional approach is relatively unusual, according to interior designer Ken Fulk. He has decorated many San Francisco Victorian houses for younger clients and notes the challenges involved. “San Francisco is a vibrant city and the influx of technology has had an impact on the economy,” he says. “There are a lot of young people moving in to these old-world ‘Victorians’. The challenge is to preserve the romance and the period grace that the houses have, but also to work out how to insert these young modern families into them.”

A room decorated by Fulk
Room decorated by Fulk © Francesco Lagnese

Fulk recently decorated a Victorian house in the Pacific Heights area for a single gentleman who wanted his home to have a contemporary aesthetic. At first glance, the property is the antithesis of a painted lady. The exterior is painted a dark, navy grey and the door is finished in polished wood. The interior palette is restrained, comprising tans, taupes, browns and blacks which provide a base for equally masculine fabrics – heavy linens, suede and leather. Fulk says the idea was to create the feeling of a life well lived. “Ultimately with these Victorian [homes], it’s about creating the right amount of tension between old and new.”

Much of the furniture has been made for the client, including simple upholstered chairs with clean lines and square arms. Fulk has combined them with 20th-century design pieces such as a de Sede sofa in camel-coloured leather and a 1940s Jacques Adnet desk. There are also more contemporary items, such as a Niedermaier chest, and furniture that nods to the past, such as a 19th century armchair. “This is an interesting take on Victorian,” says Fulk. “It feels a little dandy, and is more of an urban townhouse.”

Although many of San Francisco’s Victorian houses are large, there are also a number of more bijou examples. Victoria Smith writes a popular lifestyle and interiors blog, San Francisco Girl by Bay. She has lived in the city for 16 years and now resides in a 600 sq ft Victorian guest cottage in the Noe Valley area. She describes her style as “bohemian modern” with a mixture of influences, from Scandinavian to mid-century modern. “I don’t think there’s much uniformity or typical decor here,” she says. “Residents tend to decorate to suit their lifestyles and personalities, which are pretty varied.” She sources much of her furniture from nearby vintage shops and flea markets. In her dining room is a French farmhouse table dating from the 1800s, an onion-shaped bentwood-pendant lamp and a vintage buffet table covered in plants. She has also added several industrial touches, including a vintage outdoor metal chair and a long low credenza with sliding metal doors.

What is evident is that despite the different ways of decorating these homes, residents share a sense of nostalgia and protectiveness over them. This was clear when Butler’s company recently started work on the “painted gentlemen”, three new homes situated around the corner from Postcard Row’s painted ladies. Built on the site of a demolished school, Butler describes them as “the modern companions to the painted ladies”, designed to complement but not mimic them with gabled roofs and abstract bay windows. The response has not been entirely favourable. “The bloggers are very cruel,” says Butler. “You can’t please all the preservationists. The planners love it, but you probably can’t find three neighbours who will agree.”

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