Regional Architecture in San Francisco


One of the distinct pleasures of traveling by car (and not say, by plane) is seeing the variances in architecture as they change from East to West, Midwest to Northeast. As a Chicagoan new to the architecture scene, a visit to San Francisco will probably elicit a few “wow, the houses are so cool!! These homes are colorful (rare in Chicago), tall (we have an abundance of 1.5 story bungalows) and rather ornate! Spindles, balustrades, shingles, and pops of color on the facade distinguish these period homes quite strongly from midwestern regional architecture in tones of stone, brick and siding. And that’s half the fun of digging into architecture. It’s a buffet of history, art and physics, and it can help you identify a city by a wayward silhouette. Read on for a cursory moss-style primer (illustrated of course) on some architectural observations in the bay area.

Every region has a reason for its regional architecture history (before you could drive or ship any material from coast to coast, that is). Bungalows were a way for families with even a modest income to engage in a modern style, complete with front yard. Victorian and Edwardian Era homes were named for Queen Victoria and Prince Edward, respectively, but their ornate decorations were made easy because of the plentitude of soft redwood lumber available nearby. When hand-carving columns, the softer the better, eh? Arts and Crafts homes reflect “The Wild West,” while homes built post-gold rush were dizzy with detail, showing off San Francisco’s expansion as a worldly metropolis. As for a favorite midwestern and east coast material, good old brick, you won’t find as much in San Francisco, what with all its earthquakes. As we discussed in our post on regional architecture in Rio Hondo, wood structures sway better with ground movement; brick—not so much. And when it does collapse, it is far more dangerous than wooden homes.

VICTORIAN (1825-1901)
Just as you’ll rarely see a likeness of Queen Victoria without some sort of hair accessory, Victorian homes shunned minimalism as a general rule. When flexing your design preference muscles, it becomes fun to compare styles like the Mid-Century Modern facade (spare as all heck, recalling futurism as imagined from the past) with a Victorian-era home. I can just imagine someone with a lean toward Victorian-style design thinking “but why would I want to live in a plain box?!”

EDWARDIAN (1901-1918)
Characterized by more regional materials, and nixing overly ornate details of their Victorian predecessors, Edwardian homes can be further broken down into Craftsmen (focusing on more natural/regional materials), Shingles (covered in shingles), Tudor Revival (think Liberty London!) and Arts and Crafts. The stucco facade is very West Coast and is a treat for the eyes for any Midwesterner who happens to head that way. Next time you’re in the bay area, make sure to notice the details in the amazing architecture all around you!