San Francisco’s renowned “Postcard Row” sits at 710 to 720 Steiner Street, right across the street from Alamo Square park. But how much do you really know about the most famous homes in the city?
1. Calling this row of houses the “Painted Ladies” is actually quite recent. It was first coined in 1978 by writers Elizabeth Pomada and Michael Larsen in their book Painted Ladies – San Francisco’s Resplendent Victorians.
2. The term “Painted Ladies” isn’t even special to this row of houses. It actually refers to any set of Victorian or Edwardian houses that use three or more colors to show off the architectural details of their design.
3. Therefore, San Francisco isn’t the only home of Painted Ladies. There are other ones in Baltimore, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Toledo, Ohio and the city of Cape May, New Jersey.
4. The Painted Ladies were constructed between 1892 and 1896, meaning they survived the 1906 earthquake.
5. There’s a tiny museum on the top floor of the second to last house in the row. Items on display include a ticket from the opening of the Golden Gate Bridge, 100-year-old wedding cake tops, a photo of people gathered in Alamo Square park as the city burned after the 1906 earthquake, and dresses and blouses from the 1800s.
6. There is only one living person that has been inside all six of the Painted Ladies—a real estate agent whose mother lives in that second to last house in the row.
7. Novelist Alice Walker (author of The Color Purple) lived in one of the Painted Ladies at one point.
8. She apparently would host mini Tracy Chapman concerts until the neighbors got annoyed at her for playing the same songs over and over.
9. She tried selling the house in 1995 for just $600,000 to Michael Shannon, who until recently owned the largest of the houses on the row. He wishes he’d taken it, because five years later it sold for $1.2 million.
10. The Painted Lady that was supposedly the house in Full House? The red-doored home that was shown in the opening credits was actually the facade at 1709 Broderick Street. (It has since been repainted and no longer has a red door.)
11. The Painted Ladies are also known as the Six or Seven Sisters—referring to the six or seven houses along the row, depending on whether you want to include the last, irregular house on the block.
12. The Painted Ladies are just seven of 48,000 houses built in the Victorian and Edwardian styles between 1849 and 1915. The switch to building Edwardian houses over Victorians occurred with the death of Queen Victoria in 1901.
13. The Painted Ladies are symbolic of the Gold Rush Era. After all that new money came in, San Francisco wanted to show it off via grand, opulent houses. The designs leaned toward the Queen Anne style—fancy, flashy combinations of bay windows, turrets, and decorated rooflines.
14. In fact, at the time, one newspaper critic pointed out the garishness of the trend in a piece in 1885. He wrote, “…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…”
15. The Painted Ladies’ beautiful hues are also a relic of the colorist movement in the ’60s. During WWII, houses were painted gray with cheap war paint, which made the city look decidedly drab. So local artist Butch Kardum started a movement by painting his Victorian home in vivid greens and blues, which led neighbors to doing the same. By the ’70s, houses across San Francisco were showing off beautiful colors again.
16. The developer who built the houses, Matthew Kavanaugh, lived in the mansion at 722 Steiner—the oldest, largest, and most detailed of the row. (Go figure.)
17. The house is 4,600 square feet, which is 1,000 square feet larger than the others. It has four bedrooms, 3 1/2 baths, plus a garden au pair apartment.
18. Back in 1896, Kavanaugh built the three matching houses beside his, which sold for $8,000 apiece.
19. In 2014, his house sold for $3.1 million, which was $900,000 below its original asking price.
20. When the most recent owner, Michael Shannon, bought the largest house in the row in 1976, it was overrun by Haight-Ashbury hippies that were squatting on the property.
21. They wouldn’t leave until Shannon spread a rumor that the FBI were planning to search the place, then they all left immediately.
22. Apparently if you live in one of the houses, you have to be careful of rampant tourists. They’ll not only walk up to ring the buzzer and ask for a tour; according to Shannon, “If you leave the door open, they’ll just walk in off the street.”
23. The Painted Ladies have appeared in an estimated 70 movies, TV programs, and ads. Other than the opening credits of Full House, they’ve been featured in Bicentennial Man (1999), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), and Junior (1994) with Arnold Schwarzenegger, to name a few.
24. The specific architectural details that set the Queen Anne-style Painted Ladies apart from other houses include overhanging eaves and detailed brackets, a round, dominant corner tower, gingerbread-style gables, a small porch covering the primary entrance area, differing wall textures, including patterned wood shingles shaped into varying designs, painted classical columns, spindles and balustrades, cutaway bay windows, and intricate stain-glass paneling.
25. At one point, the Painted Ladies were nearly demolished due to plans to put up a freeway circling the city. (The person who lived on the north corner made sure it didn’t happen, thankfully.)
Have you ever been inside one of the Painted Ladies? What’s it like?
[Featured Image: Kārlis Dambrāns via Flickr]