Ian Berke, realtor and real estate in San Francisco
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Photo Essays

These photographs are my attempt to illustrate the amazing diversity of San Francisco residential architecture, from the early 1870's until the Second World War.

Most of the houses shown are not architect designed. This is deliberate because many upper class houses are already well known and documented. My goal is to give a sense of the typical San Francisco house. These were generally designed by the builders and are local variations on national styles popular at the time. Notice that many houses are not pure versions of a particular style, but an eclectic mix. We see an Italianate cornice on an Eastlake fašade, for instance. Why attempt to categorize styles? Because it gives us a framework for our thoughts about design and its evolution, in addition to giving us a common vocabulary to describe a building's appearance.

In the vast majority of cases here, houses were built entirely of wood, rather than their Eastern equivalents in brick and stone. Many think that earthquakes inhibited building in masonry, but a more likely explanation is that timber (redwoods and fir) was abundant just north, and it was simply cheaper to build in wood. Also during the Victorian era, the invention and widespread use of milling and shaping machines meant that a builder could buy literally hundreds of different milled shapes for moldings, trim, siding, and ornament. To the Victorians, the obvious machined quality of this decoration looked modern; that was very appealing to them. The Bay Area's very mild weather also encouraged wooden buildings.

Another obvious characteristic of San Francisco is that most early houses were built side by side, rowhouses, rather than detached. Land was always expensive, and builders tried to maximize the building size. This pattern only began to change as a result of the development of the idea of the garden city in the early 20th century. At that time the new developments, located on the western side of the city, were given a suburban feeling.

Finally, my apologies for the quality of some of the photos. It was much more difficult than I imagined. The best preserved facades face north because they are protected from the sun, but photographing those are difficult because the facades are always backlighted. Many examples had large trees in front, or large trees adjacent that cast a shadow. Still others with good facades had misguided replacements, such as aluminum windows. I also avoided houses that had major fašade reconstruction, because there was no certainty that the restoration was accurate. This is intended to be an ongoing project and I will add images to it periodically.

Architectural Styles


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