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After the 1849 gold rush, San Francisco quickly became the premiere cosmopolitan city on the West Coast. Some entrepreneurs who failed to strike it rich in gold mining found success in logging, decimating the redwood forests of the Northern California coast to build the city’s houses and commercial buildings. The 1906 earthquake and the extensive fires that followed it destroyed most of the nineteenth-century buildings. Much of the subsequent rebuilding was in a more modern style. But pockets of what later became known as Victorian architecture survived not only the earthquake but successive waves of redevelopment.
San Francisco’s most famous collection of Victorian houses is in the officially-designated Historic District surrounding the grassy park called Alamo Square, on a hill in the Western Addition neighborhood. And chief among them is an iconic block of six houses on Steiner Street, the eastern boundary of the park. Built between 1892 and 1896, these “painted ladies” have been featured on so many postcards, guidebook covers, and souvenir tchotchkes that they’re often called “Postcard Row.”
Although the park was there before the painted ladies, it seems specifically designed for viewing the houses. It’s above Steiner Street on the hill, with plenty of grass on which to spread a blanket for a picnic. On a clear day, the painted ladies provide a contrasting foreground to the modern San Francisco skyline. Get there in the mid-afternoon for the best viewing, since the trees in Alamo Square cast their shadows on Postcard Row as sunset approaches.
San Francisco’s City Hall is a much more grandiose Victorian
structure. It opened in 1915, replacing an earlier City Hall that was
destroyed in the 1906 earthquake, so it’s technically later than the
Victorian era. But its ornate interior reflects the Victorian
sensibility of the City Beautiful movement, whose proponents believed
that grandiose public buildings would inspire the masses to orderly
behavior and morality. You’re likely to change buses at the Civic
Center, so it’s worth a small detour to be inspired by its beauty and/or
repelled by its rococo excess. (But be aware that entering City Hall
involves an airport-style metal detector and a search of your
belongings, the unfortunate prerequisites for entry to nearly any
government building in this Age of Terror.)
The Transamerica Pyramid is San Francisco’s tallest building, 48 stories and 260 meters high. Architect William Pereira chose the pyramid design to comply with zoning restrictions in the Financial District, and to minimize the skyscraper’s shadow. It also reflects Pereira’s passion for science fiction. After its completion in 1972, many San Franciscans considered the pyramid an eyesore, branding it “the Dunce Cap,” “the Great Alien Ring Toss,” and assorted epithets inspired by Freud. But with time it assumed a respected place in the city’s collection of iconic symbols. An observation deck used to offer a sweeping view, but the building’s owners permanently closed it to the public after 9/11, out of “security concerns.”
The Sentinel Building (also called the Columbus Tower) is across the street from the Transamerica Pyramid. It was originally the office of Abe Ruef, the powerful politico who pulled the strings of city government at the beginning of the twentieth century. Convicted of bribery, he served a prison term and ended up penniless. The tower was under construction when the 1906 earthquake hit. The state-of-the-art steel frame survived the shaking and the fire, allowing the building to be completed in 1907. It’s designed in the wedge-shaped “flatiron” style, a late nineteenth century design that accommodated odd-shaped lots in several major cities. The copper-clad exterior has oxidized into a green patina. Filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola bought the building and restored it in the 1970s. It’s the headquarters of his American Zoetrope Studios production company.
The “classic” pictures showing the Sentinel Building with the
Transamerica Pyramid in the background distort the true sizes of the two
buildings. While the seven-story Sentinel Building was considered a true
skyscraper when it was built, later construction in the Financial
District dwarfs it. A walk down Columbus Avenue provides a more accurate
The Coit Tower is San Francisco’s other prominent vertical landmark. It’s a 64-meter Art Deco concrete cylinder at the top of 83-meter Telegraph Hill. The tower is a memorial to Lillie Hancock Coit, an eccentric heiress who had a fascination with firefighters. From childhood she helped out one particular brigade— Knickerbocker Engine Company Number 5— that adopted her as their mascot. Although she notoriously violated taboos by smoking cigars, wearing trousers, and dressing as a man to join off-duty firefighters in male-only gambling parlors, none of her biographies suggest that her relationship with the firefighters involved anything other than moral and financial support. She visited firefighters who fell ill, and provided flowers for firefighters’ funerals.
When “Firebelle Lil” died in 1929— she was 86— her will left $5,000 to each member of her adopted brigade. She also earmarked one-third of her estate “to be expended in an appropriate manner for the purpose of adding to the beauty of the city which I have always loved.” After some deliberation, the executors decided that a tower would appropriately fulfill the bequest. It was completed in 1934. Because of Coit’s association with firefighters, it’s a common myth that the tower was designed to resemble a fire hose and nozzle. But the architects (one of whom also designed City Hall) insisted that it was purely a work of modern Art Deco.
Telegraph Hill got its name from the “telegraph” erected there in
1849. This was the pre-electrical version, a tower with large wooden
arms that could be positioned to send a message. It informed waiting
merchants about ship arrivals. The hill has an excellent view of the
bay, the entire waterfront, and much of the city.
The block of Lombard Street between Leavenworth and Hyde Streets
is supposedly “the crookedest street in the world,” with eight hairpin
switchbacks. It’s is on Russian Hill— once the site of a cemetery for
Russian fur trappers— and has a 27-degree incline. To safely
accommodate the newfangled automobile, city engineers added the
cobblestoned curves in 1922. Residents spruced up sides of the street
with flowers in the 1950s. Thrillseeking visitors with cars can drive
downhill on the one-way curves, which they do in large numbers during
the summer to create bumper-to-bumper traffic. Visitors without cars can
walk up (or down) a straight staircase. When you’re done admiring the
view at the top of the hill (Hyde Street), you can board a cable car on
the Powell-Hyde Line to Fisherman’s Wharf or Downtown.
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