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Trash to Treasure: San Francisco’s Painted Ladies

Once Destined for the Wrecking Ball, the Victorian Painted Ladies Are One of SF’s Crown Jewels


It’s the dream of many a homeowner: to buy a neglected, unwanted gem of a house at a bargain price and end up with a desirable architectural treasure with a fortune (think PBS Antiques Roadshow on a grand scale). Had you bought an old Victorian home in San Francisco in the late 1970s or early ‘80s, that’s just what would have happened.

Once unwanted and underappreciated, San Francisco’s grand and colorful Victorian homes known fondly as the Painted Ladies are now an icon of San Francisco style and an amazing piece of architectural and local history. If you’ve ever seen a postcard of San Francisco or watched the opening sequence to the TV show Full House, then odds are you’ve seen them – and loved them!

But it wasn’t always that way. In the postwar years of the ‘50s and ‘60s, and ‘70s, the homes were looked down on and almost faced extinction. Some were in neighborhoods that had taken a downturn and others were just unfashionable. You could have had a house that now may cost millions for a song back then.

But how was that possible? Where did the name Painted Ladies come from? What makes these homes so special? Read on to learn about the amazing origins and surprising history of these unforgettable homes, as well as some little-known facts that are sure to surprise you.

4 colorful Victorian homes showing trim treatments

One of the key elements of the famed Painted Ladies is the way the color scheme highlights the trims and embellishments on the exterior of each home (Photo: Joshua Hanks on Unsplash).


Postwar Modernism

San Francisco came into its own and became a respectable city during the mid-to-late-1800s, coinciding with the Victorian period of history. Much of the housing that went up was, of course, Victorian in style and formed the foundation of the city.

Fast forward to World War II and the decades following, and the picture is not so pretty for San Francisco’s Victorian landscape. The bright paint colors used in these homes is in short supply, so many owners are forced to rely on army-issue paint for repairs or the construction of new homes, which leaves the city in a wash of drab grays for decades to come. Some of the houses have gone into disrepair; the war has restricted materials, so many of the houses have taken on a simple appearance even if they are well maintained; and after the war, tastes have changed: America is no longer interested in old-fashioned architecture – the buzzword is “urban renewal” and homeowners want shiny new modern homes after the long years of hardship during the war.

Many Victorian homes were demolished to make room for urban renewal, and those that weren’t were covered with aluminum or asbestos siding or stucco to make them look sleek, "modern," and "new." One restorer of Victorian homes in the area, Skeeter Jones, describes these “modernized” homes as “Painted Ladies in concrete overcoats.” 


Colorist Revival

The tide just started to turn for Victorian grandeur during the mid-sixties and through the 1970s, only to hit mainstream America in the late ‘80s with TV shows like Full House. Here, a “modern” American family (single dad, no mom, and three girls) lived in a nice, true San Francisco Victorian house, which was featured prominently in the credits.

During the cultural revolution that was taking place throughout San Francisco in the 1960s, a local artist named Butch Kardum decided to paint the exterior of his Victorian home a striking mix of bright colors, as he had reportedly grown tired of the uniform grays seen throughout the city. At first, his neighbors were in an uproar over the garish colors he used, but over time others began to appreciate the way each color highlighted a different element of the design, harking back to the original color schemes of the 1800s.

Colorful Painted Ladies in San Francisco

The name “Painted Ladies” draws not only on the colorful appearance of San Francisco’s Victorian homes, but the fact that many of them were built so close together in rows, giving the appearance of women standing in a line (Photo: Ross Joyner on Unsplash).


Over the next decade, hundreds of artists and homeowners would follow Kardum’s steps and paint their homes and other Victorian buildings with a striking variety of loud and playful colors. This wave of embracing unconventional exterior designs ­– actually harking back to the original Victorian colors and palettes – became known as the colorist movement.

During this time, houses were still being targeted for demolishing and groups like the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency and San Francisco Heritage began programs to save houses by moving them from downtown – and downtrodden – areas instead of demolishing them and then restoring the structures to their original beauty. The attention this program garnered eventually led to restoration of entire neighborhoods, keeping the houses where they were, which saved many more houses in the end.

One of the best examples of restoration is the Heritage’s work on the Haas-Lilienthal House, an 1886 home that was in disrepair, though it had most of its contents intact. Today, it serves as Heritage’s administrative office, library, and archive; a museum; and a popular venue for meetings, lectures, and social events.


Embracing Victorian Tradition

By the late 1970s the San Francisco community had fully embraced the Victorian aesthetic in all its grandeur, and many Victorian homes had been restored to their colorful, showy selves.

Believe it or not, the term “Painted Ladies” is relatively young, considering most of the homes they refer to were built over 100 years ago. The first recorded use of Painted Ladies came in 1978, in a book by that name about the bright and colorful Victorian homes around San Francisco by authors Elizabeth Pomada and Michael Larsen.

Victorian style House Plan #195-1161

Victorian-style homes located in the country rather than the city tend to be more expansive and less “color expressive.” This 5-bedroom, 5-bathroom, 3-half-bath home plan displays typical Victorian elements, such as steep roofs, turrets, arched windows, etc., but with more muted colors in a 6,065-sq.-ft. footprint (Plan #195-1161).  


Victorian style House Plan #126-1828 in two variations

For your own modern interpretation of a San Francisco Painted Lady, this 1,526-sq.-ft., 3-bedroom, 2-bath home plan (shown in two variations) may be just the ticket (Plan #126-1828). 


Don’t let the relatively young age of the name fool you, though, as the vibrant and bold color schemes on those historic homes do in fact go all the way back to the mid 19th century, during the reign of the British monarch Victoria from whom the name Victorian is derived. It all has to do with the influx of wealth in the San Francisco region following the iconic California Gold Rush era.


Gold Rush Expansion

After miners discovered gold throughout the Sierra Nevada mountains in 1848, thousands of people flocked to the California territory (the region didn’t officially become a state until 1850). By 1852, San Francisco’s population had grown from a mere 200 before the gold rush to a whopping 36,000. Residents wanted to show off their newfound wealth, which spurred rapid expansion and construction across the entire Bay Area. Many of the homes were built in popular styles of the times, which were predominantly Victorian in design. Historians estimate that approximately 48,000 Victorian home plans (and later Edwardian) were built in San Francisco between 1849 and 1915.

Further following this newfound opulence, which was increasingly popular throughout the country during the end of the 19th century, homeowners would paint each section of their Victorian homes a different color. 

Painted Lady homes in San Francisco showing paint treatments

Many of the Victorian homes in San Francisco are two or three stories, so each floor has a different shade for the siding and additional hues for the trim, window casings, and other adornments (Photo: Chris Lawton on Unsplash).


In 1885, according to Pomada, one newspaper, the California Architects and Builders News, famously described the appearance of these houses as "... red, yellow, chocolate, orange, everything that is loud is in fashion ... if the upper stories are not of red or blue ... they are painted up into uncouth panels of yellow and brown ..."


The 1906 Earthquake and Postwar Changes

These over-the-top, juxtaposed color schemes continued in popularity across San Francisco, as well as other homes throughout the Bay Area. However, during the infamous 1906 Earthquake, thousands of homes in the area were completely destroyed. This included many Victorian homes in the Nob Hill district, one of San Francisco’s richest neighborhoods. Many Edwardian homes built during the turn of the 20th century were also lost.

In the decades that followed, many more Victorian and Edwardian homes were demolished or otherwise destroyed, sometimes as part of urban planning initiatives mentioned previously or due to public safety hazards. By the time World War II was underway, scarce resources caused a wave of changes to the appearance of the homes that would almost wipe the famed facades out of existence.


Understanding the Architecture

It is important to note that the term “Victorian” doesn’t refer to a single, uniform building style, but a collection of architectural designs and themes used during the reign of Queen Victoria, hence the phrase “Victorian-Era homes.” As such, San Francisco’s Victorian homes were built with an impressive breadth of styles and features, though most follow in the Queen Ann style.

These homes are characterized by a grand, often luxurious style that includes wide bay windows, ample use of gables, elaborately decorated rooflines, and the presence of turrets. They also frequently feature covered porches at the entryway and are typically freestanding structures.

Two homes in Alamo Square Park that display common Painted Lady design elements

These homes in Alamo Square Park feature common traits of Victorian era houses in San Francisco: gable roofs, bay windows, and elaborate facades (Photo by Alex Le Moëligou on Unsplash). 


The Edwardian style, which also draws its name from a British Monarch (Queen Victoria’s successor Kind Edward VII), is similar to the homes built in the Victorian era, only less elaborate and ornate. One of the most distinguishing features is the grouping of embellishments, leading the homes to appear more organized and less busy.

Victorian/Edwardian style House Plan #137-1603

This 5-bedrrom, 3.5-bath home is typical of the late Victorian or early Edwardian period. The turrets, multiple bay windows, and fussy façade are gone, though detailed moldings, steep roofs, and the wraparound porch remain. Overall the home is more organized, less showy, and statelier (Plan #137-1603).  


The Painted Ladies Today

There are many Painted Ladies standing in San Francisco today, though the most famous are a collection of homes located from 710–720 Steiner Street known as Postcard Row. A popular tourist attraction, Postcard Row sits across from Alamo Park and affords a spectacular view of the city and the famous Victorian homes. These homes, all built by a single developer, have appeared in an estimated 70 movies, television shows (inlcuding Full House), and advertisements. 


Painted Ladies Beyond San Francisco

You may be surprised to learn that Painted Ladies (or at least homes in the same style with the same color unique schemes) can be found in several different cities across the country. There are neighborhoods with the same vibrantly colored, Victorian-era homes in cities such as Baltimore, St. Louis, Toledo, New Orleans, and beyond. In order to be considered a Painted Lady, the home must simply be in a Victorian or Edwardian design and be painted with three or more colors.


Built with enthusiasm for the future in the heady “gold rush’” days of the 1800s, enduring the hardships of earthquakes and wars through the early 1900s, suffering through the postwar “urban renewal” of the ‘50s and ‘60s, and enjoying the Victorian renaissance through the ‘70s and ‘80s, the San Francisco Painted Ladies stand today as a remarkable, colorful witness to the perseverance of graceful architecture, beautiful design, and great workmanship in American housing.



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