Quick Guide to Victorian Architecture

The Victorian era is defined by the reign of Britian's Queen Victoria, from 1837 until her death in 1901.  Particularly the last half of Victoria's reign was an time of great advances in machinery, mass production, and cultural changes brought on by moving from an agricultural to an industrialized society.  

In San Francisco, Victorian era lasted from the 1870s until the fire in 1906.  Houses built during that can be classified into one of three major styles - Italianate, Stick or Queen Anne.  Each style was popular for about 10 years years, so from the style you can tell roughly when it was built.    Here's a quick guide:

The Italianates - 1870s

Flat Front Italianates: Early 1870s
You can usually spot the oldest houses in the neighborhood because they are likely to be Flat Front Italiantes.  Many Flat Fronts were originally farmhouses. They often stood alone on a street, sometimes in a pair, but you don't see rows of them, like other Victorian-era styles.  Decoration is minimal and was often done by hand.

Flat front on Bush Street at Octavia.
Flat Front Italianates
Look for: 

  • False front extending above a flat or pitched roof
  • Top cornice held up by multiple brackets
  • Plain, lapped siding
  • Simple window hoods

Slanted Bay Italianates:  Later 1870s  
The Italianate style evolved by pushing out the Flat Front style by adding slanted bay windows and oversize cornices.  The idea was to look like a small Italian villa and some were originally painted white to look like marble or dark colors to mimic stone. Some of the best examples can be seen  in Lower Pacific Heights and the Mission, both neighborhoods that were built out during the height of this style's popularity.     
Row of Italiantes on Valencia Street in the Mission.
Slanted Bay Italiantes  
Look for:
  • Slanted bay windows 
  • Tiny Juliet balcony over the front porch 
  • Classic columns around front door 
  • Rounded, bulky cornices extending above roof line

San Francisco Stick - 1880s
The quickest way to spot the San Francisco Stick style is to look for its squared-off bay windows.  By the  early 1880s, steam powered machinery made mass-produced lumber and decorative mill work available and affordable. Homeowners picked decorative trims out of a catalog and builders often bought fancy millwork in bulk and applied it lavishly make their homes look modern.      
Row of Stick style Victorians by the Hinkel Brothers builders
 on Laguna in the Western Addition.
San Francisco Stick
Look for:

  • Squared off bay windows
  • Straight lines
  • Gabled roof
  • Repetitive use of small decorative trim

Rows of machine-made geometric elements
decorate this restored Stick in the Castro.

Queen Anne - 1890s 
The Queen Anne is most elaborate and eccentric style of the Victorians era. There are two types: Tower and Row. The Tower version was the most expensive to build and is the most rare: In 1970 there were less than 400 tower homes remaining. The Queen Anne Row house is much more common. Haight-Ashbury and the Castro, which were built out during the height of this style's popularity, have many fine examples.

Restored Queen Anne Tower on Page at Ashbury.

Queen Anne
Look for:

  • Gabled roof
  • Decorative shingles
  • Rounded or arched windows
  • Tower or turret
  • Decorative finials or weathervanes
  • Stained or leaded glass
  • Elaborate 3-D plaster or pressed wood decorations

How many Victorians remain?

In 1973, Judith Lynch, went on a hunt for Victorian homes in San Francisco.  Funded by a grand from the National Endowment for the Arts, Ms. Lynch, who would later help create City Guides, did a painstaking survey of nine San Francisco neighborhoods.  By her count, there were 13,487 Victorian era structures still standing,

The Queen Anne row house is the predominant style with some 5,500 standing. The Stick style is the next most frequently found with about 3,600 remaining, followed by approx. 1,900 flat fronts and 1,200 Italianate bays.  The Queen Anne Tower, the largest and most expensive to build, are also the most rare, with less than 400 left.

The study of San Francisco Victorian buildings is complicated by the loss of building records in the 1906 Fire, the confusion resulting from the renumbering of many streets afterward, as well as the extensive modifications made to some structures over the years. In fact, the Ms. Lynch concluded that more than half of the existing Victorians have been “improved” by stripping them of ornamentation and adding a layer of  stucco or asbestos siding.

Two Victorian -- one restored, the other restored -- on Page St. in the Haight. .
Outside of San Francisco, clusters of Victorians can be found in Oakland, Alamdea, Berkeley, San Jose and parts of Marin County.

 Learn more:    Victoria’s Legacy – Tours of San Francsico Bay Area Architecture, Judith Lynch Waldhorn and Sally B. Woodridge, 1978. 

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