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Byline: Carol Bidwell Daily News Staff Writer

They stand tall and proud in the sun and the fog, these Bay Area dowagers.

Some of the Victorian homes, decked out in their gingerbread finery, are survivors of the city's worst disasters; others are relative newcomers that rose after the 1906 shaking and fire were over.

A few are still privately owned and used as family homes, still fewer are maintained as museums, and many others have been turned into apartments or offices. Because only a few - most of them bed-and-breakfast inns - are open to the public, most visitors must content themselves with strolling the steep streets, enjoying the sometimes fanciful new paint jobs that decorate the ``painted ladies'' and imagining what architectural eccentricities must lie behind those closed doors.

``I love to walk around at night because people turn on their lights and leave their curtains open and you can see inside these beautiful old houses,'' confided Karen Decker, a docent for the Foundation for San Francisco's Architectural Heritage. ``It's the only way most people will ever get to see inside them.''

Both the foundation and City Guides, a volunteer library-related organization, lead tours of some of the 14,000 remaining Victorians, most built between 1850 and 1900, when Victorian architecture with its wooden gingerbread trim was the rage. The richest concentration of the old homes is west of Van Ness Avenue, where the fire that followed the 1906 earthquake stopped after raging for four days and destroying 514 blocks of homes and businesses.

The early-day millionaires - many of whom made their fortunes in railroads, silver, gold or shipping - vied with each other to see who could make their mansions more opulent. Railroad tycoon Mark Hopkins' wife, Mary, ordered and lived in a Nob Hill chateau so showy - 19 floors, 406 rooms - that it provoked ridicule even among their equally ostentatious neighbors. (The site where Hopkins' palace once stood is now occupied by the opulent Mark Hopkins Intercontinental San Francisco hotel.)

But those garish mansions and hundreds of other examples of Victorian architectural excess were gobbled up by the flames during those tragic four days in April 1906. Some, along with many mansions east of Van Ness, were dynamited by the fire department to act as a firebreak. Only railroad baron James C. Flood's aloof Nob Hill brick house at 1000 California St. survived; it's now operated as the exclusive Pacific-Union Club, the domain of modern-day magnates.

While moguls poured their bucks into fanciful homes on large lots, working people generally built their narrow structures from a few common sets of plans available by mail, then tacked on whatever trim they liked, ordered from a catalog, Decker said. Fine homes cost an average of $2,000.

``By the time they got to the Queen Anne period, anything they could put on a house, they did,'' she said, pointing to the Haas-Lilienthal House on Franklin Street. One of the few open to the public for tours, the 1886 home house sports decorations that include doughnut shapes, flowers, fish-scale siding, supports in the shape of harps, bay windows, a round tower room with windows 10 feet from the floor and a balcony inaccessible from the house. It cost $18,500 to build.

Decker led about a dozen Victorian house buffs on a 15-block walk through the city's Pacific Heights area past some of the best remaining examples of the three styles of Victorian architecture: Italianate (built from the 1850s to the '70s), with its slanted bay windows and fanciful pediments topping otherwise up-and-down structures; Eastlake or Stick (1880s), with square bay windows and much of the structure's bracing seemingly on the outside; and Queen Anne (1890 to early 1900s), with its gingerbread and curlicues.

San Francisco Victorians are generally tall and narrow, Decker explained, because lots - portioned out by the Mexican government before statehood - were only 25 feet wide. Later, city ordinances prohibited spaces of more than two inches between houses to conserve land.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, a new house was the traditional wedding present from a father to his about-to-be-married daughter. The first Italianate homes had all their plumbing on the outside, not only to avoid ripping up walls and floors inside, but ``so everybody would know they had a toilet,'' Decker said.

One of the narrowest Victorian homes is a multistory house recently purchased by actor Nicolas Cage. Painted an unrelieved, gloomy black, its entrance - like many others its age - is obstructed by a facade thrown up to provide privacy and also an entrance to a new garage.

``Any garages you see in San Francisco Victorians were added (long after construction),'' Decker said. ``People who lived in them hired horses from a livery stable or rode the cable cars.''

The tour wound past many private homes, one stately house being refurbished to house a law firm, another that was used for many years as the Bavarian embassy, and the impressive, tomblike structure at 2080 Washington St. that was built in 1913 by sugar baron Claus Spreckels.

(The millionaire's wife, Alma, was never accepted into polite society, Decker said: ``She'd invite people over for a swim and she'd swim nude. She also used to hold garage sales in the mansion's garage.'')

Romance novelist Danielle Steele now owns the house, estimated to be worth $8 million with its sweeping view of San Francisco Bay.

Barbara Roldan, the foundation's operations manager, said docents lead hundreds of visitors on tours annually to see the old houses.

``Certainly the architecture is one of the tourist treats that people come here for,'' she said. ``It's what we're famous for.''

Michele Canning, director of the nonprofit City Guides tours, said she's glad to see that people still appreciate the old buildings, many of which have been renovated or torn down.

``Sort of a renewed appreciation hit in the 1970s here,'' Canning said. ``Before then, people were modifying their Victorians and doing terrible things to them - putting shingles on them and cutting off bay windows. They're wonderful, and it's a wonderful thing that people are interested in restoring them. It would be a terrible thing to lose them because they're so pretty.''

On Location Only two San Francisco Victorian homes are open for public tours - the Haas-Lilienthal House at 2007 Franklin Ave. in the Pacific Heights area, built by a grocery merchant in 1886, and Octagon House at 2645 Gough St. in the Cow Hollow area, an eight-sided home built in 1861.

The first is headquarters for the Foundation for San Francisco's Architectural Heritage; the second is home to the National Society of Colonial Dames.

Tours of the Haas-Lilienthal House are given from noon to 3 p.m. Wednesdays and 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sundays; cost is $5.

Octagon House is open for tours noon to 3 p.m. the second Sunday of the month and the second and fourth Thursdays; it's closed in January and on holidays. Admission is free, but a $2 to $3 donation is requested.

Foundation docents also lead walking tours of the Pacific Heights Victorians beginning at 12:30 p.m. every Sunday, starting at the Haas-Lilienthal House. Tours are $5 per person. Information: (415) 441-3000.

City Guides volunteers lead four weekly tours that include San Francisco Victorian homes. An Alamo Square tour begins at 11 a.m. the first and third Saturdays of the month, a tour of Haight-Ashbury starts at 11 a.m. the first and third Sundays, a tour of Pacific Heights mansions begins at 11 a.m. every Saturday, and a tour focusing solely on Victorian homes begins at 2 p.m. every Sunday.

Tours are free, but donations are accepted. Tours change with the season - more are added during summer vacation months - so it's best to call (415) 557-4266 to check on days and times and also to find out where tours begin.

The San Francisco Convention & Visitors Bureau has mapped out a 6-1/2-mile driving tour of the cream of the Pacific Heights-Western Addition Victorian homes, including Alamo Square and Cow Hollow (so named because it was once home to several dairy farms). For a free copy of the map, contact the San Francisco Convention & Visitors Bureau, P.O. Box 6977, San Francisco, Calif. 94101; (415) 391-2000; or visit the Visitor Information Center at Hallidie Plaza at Powell and Market streets.


3 Photos, Box

Box: On Location (See text)

Photo: (1) Victorian ho mes often are a mix of architectural styles, like this one with one round turret and one square one.

(2--Color) The ornate Haas-Lilienthal House, built in 1886 on Franklin Street in the Pacific Heights area, is one of only a few San Francisco Victorian homes open for public tours.

(3-4--Color) Refurbished Victorians are often painted in bright colors. Below, another old home gets a face lift.

Carol Bidwell/Daily News
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Title Annotation:TRAVEL
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:May 19, 1996

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