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San Francisco’s Painted Ladies: The Historic Houses of Alamo Square

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I visited San Francisco for only three days, a brief stopover on my way home to the Philippines after spending 5 months in New Orleans. I played tourist to the max; I biked across the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito and took the ferry going back, ate at Fisherman’s Wharf, hopped on a cable car, attempted to go on a day trip to Yosemite Park (the tour I booked never picked me up), and met up an old friend.

Of course, I also walked around and checked out the city’s Painted Ladies. Since I never got to write about my visit, here’s a guest post from fellow blogger Karen Warren.


One of the pleasures of San Francisco is its historic architecture. Of course, the city is full of the impressive modern buildings that you would expect in any American city.

However, there are also rows of well preserved Victorian houses. They seem to be everywhere, on the long avenues and nestling between the distinctive buildings of Japantown. But one of the best places to see historic houses is around Alamo Square, home of the famous Painted Ladies.

The houses have different architectural details. Photo by Karen Warren.

Victorian Houses on Alamo Square

The gold rush in California led to a massive boom in house building in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Almost 50,000 homes were built during this period. Many of these were destroyed in the 1906 earthquake, and others were subsequently pulled down, but several still remain.

One of the best places to explore Victorian domestic architecture is Alamo Square, a historical district full of largely unspoiled mansions. The houses were designed by many different architects, giving rise to a variety of styles. Most of these buildings are multi-storeyed with basements, reflecting the lifestyle of wealthy families at the turn of the 20th century.

The Square is at the top of Alamo Hill, named for the single cottonwood, or alamo, tree that once stood there. This area was once a watering hole for trail horses, but in 1856 a public park was created on the summit of the hill. There is still a park here, very popular with dog walkers and with tourists who can enjoy the spectacular views across the city (on a clear day you can even see the top of the Golden Gate Bridge).

victorian houses painted ladies
Each of the Painted Ladies is painted a different color. Photo by Karen Warren.

San Francisco’s Painted Ladies

Many of San Francisco’s Victorian and Edwardian houses were painted in bright colors (one critic described them as “loud” and “uncouth”). However they gradually needed repainting and over time most of them were covered with battleship grey (using Navy-surplus paint left over from the First World War).

It was not until 1963 that the artist Butch Kardum painted his own house in bright shades of blue and green. Other artists started to copy him and the “colorist movement” was born.

The most famous of these colored houses are the so-called Painted Ladies on Steiner Street, along one side of Alamo Square. This is a group of houses built in the 1890s, now each painted in a different color. Sometimes known as “Postcard Row”, the Painted Ladies have come to be seen as a symbol of San Francisco.

Look closely at these houses and you will see that they are not in fact identical. They boast a wealth of original architectural details, subtly different in each house. The Painted Ladies have often featured in films, adverts and TV programs, including the series Full House. Like all of the historic homes of Alamo Square, these houses recall a long-forgotten age.

Featured photo by Aleah Taboclaon.

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