These old, ‘gingerbread houses' of San Francisco have been witness to and survived some of the most exciting events of the 20th century…

They have graced the San Francisco skyline for long. Some right from the tumultuous days of the Gold Rush, braving political turmoil and strikes, nature's fury, and such challenging events. Yes, some have been rushed to the ICU or have had mild to major surgeries but they continue to stand there with the ups and downs of the city, competing sassily with the new kids on the block, these grand old beauties.

Originally there were some 48,000 of them, timber-framed houses developed on land that had seen many changes. Once a wild terrain and haven for trappers and hunters, it became a rocky open area and quarry before it was transformed into a sandy hill and a recreational hunting ground. Then commercial interest took over and the building frenzy began. While these topographical changes were taking place, the lofty area retained its gorgeous, commanding views of the bay and the rough wooded area below.

High-key development

In the early 1900s, for instance, from Pacific Heights one could see the mind-boggling progress made in the US-annexed land that was once the Mexican village of Yerba Buena. In the distance was a bustling port with tall ships bearing flags of different nations, and grand hotels. Down below ‘horseless carriages' — cable cars — noisily clanked their way around, a golden dome of the newly constructed city hall glowed grandly, wooden poles carried telephone cables, and everywhere the town had elegant buildings, some built in brick, bars, eateries, dance halls and casinos. It was an urban conglomeration buzzing with all manner of people and activity. A ferry service operated between the city and the Oakland Estuary carrying thousands of commuters. The successful prospectors of gold and silver era, the new rich, donned the latest in fashion while the workers went about in riveted Levi Strauss jeans. The elite could be seen at the opera, in posh restaurants uncorking champagne and revelling in the exquisite fare put out by cordon bleu chefs. It was a time when well-heeled travellers proclaimed bohemian San Francisco as having few equals!

The money engine for these incredible changes was the Sierra Nevada gold and Nevada-mines' silver and the bonanza from the railroad business. Then disaster struck.

On April 18, 1906, an earthquake, measuring 7.8 on the Richter scale, and the fires that followed, destroyed some 30,000 homes. A few townhouses managed to escape the double assault and over time were painstakingly renovated or remodelled. Simultaneously, hundreds of new homes were added to the cityscape. These buildings came up on narrow plots, and had similar architectural approach, differing in external features and facades. After WWII, many of these buildings were remodelled and expanded...and received a ‘free paint job'. Surplus dull battleship gunmetal gray paint from the military and US Navy were used to coat the inexpensive mass housing.

Splash of colour

For years on end, this gray tedium confronted the visiting public and bored the residents. That is until the 1960s. In the heydays of the hippies, an imaginative artist, fed up with the urban monotony splashed the exterior of his home with a blaze of colours. Immediately Butch Kardum's house got attention. It stood out daringly, in the sea of gray dwellings. Other artists hesitated but soon followed suit – giving flight to imagination with brush and paint. Scores of architects, residents joined in on the fun, adding individual touch - imaginative embellishments and daring new features. The inspiration? It came from a host of influences: medieval history, comic-books, fairy-tales and romances! By the 1970s, the ‘colourist movement' transformed dull Victorian houses, bookstores, cafes and such buildings on the slopes of San Francisco into exciting avante garde grandeur changing entire streets and neighbourhoods!

Due to their extensive detailing, today these old beauties are sometimes referred to as Gingerbread Houses. The term, ‘Painted Ladies', was applied to describe the movement. The moniker is attributed to writers Elizabeth Pomada and Michael Larsen who first used the term in their 1978 book, Painted Ladies: San Francisco's Resplendent Victorians.

Today such quaint buildings dot many parts of San Francisco. Typically, they are ‘balanced, have a harmonious blend of colour and architecture', and are painted in three or more contrasting colours to bring out the decorative elements of porches, patios, shutters, and moldings around windows, eaves and such aspects of the building. Many of these beauties are set amidst greenery and flowering plants. ‘These buildings exude a surprising mix of refinement and irreverence,' says writer Dana Perrigan, ‘like a sophisticated, elderly aunt delivering the punch line to an off-colour joke with obvious relish and gusto.'

Take the buildings in the posh Alta Plaza or Lafayette Park area. These ornate palatial homes first constructed by the nouveau riche right from the 1850s, stand close to carefully maintained and restored Victorian row houses or stand alone bungalows. The row houses have various architectural styles and brilliant, rainbow hues but adhere to a similar approach to design of the frontage, right from bright-coloured wooden frames and doors.

On the northern side of Lafayette Park is the grand multi-million dollar 1913-Spreckels Mansion constructed on the lines of a French Baroque palace. It was built by sugar baron Adolph Spreckels, for his artist's model and socialite wife, Alma. The fort-like structure currently belongs to best-selling author Danielle Steel. The large house is surrounded by a high hedge, making it difficult for pedestrians to get a macro view of the property's full grandeur. The white Corinthian columns adorning the front, and driveway with expensive cars parked can't be missed though. The extravagant ‘home' says something about style and high living made possible by churning out popular romantic pulp!

Further down Gough Street, is the stand-alone Queen Anne beauty: the 1889, Charles Matthew designed Belden-Buick House. The original Victorian wooden house of four floors has architecture that ‘freely combines from many decorative traditions' - stained glass windows, glass brick wall, skylights, open cathedral beamed ceilings, circular dining area with banquette and cast iron stove/fireplace with exposed brick chimney and a garden and pond. Amazingly this splendid estate is a single-family home.

Famous landmark

The other such old beauty, perhaps the most famous, and touristy one of all is the wholesaler grocer William Haas' redwood 1886-mansion, the Haas-Lilenthal House. It has triangular roof gables filled with ornamental panels, round square and ‘whimsical' turrets and towers, curved stained glass windows, and embellished brick, stone and terracotta walls, a steep roof, fish-scale shingles, slanted by windows and a turret' complete with period furniture, crystal chandeliers and artifacts, carpets and paintings and décor.

While such grand ol' beauties, examples of esoteric architecture and lifestyle, lie scattered in other parts of the United States, houses such as the Haas-Lilenthal reflect how the successful lived and splurged in Victorian San Francisco!