I love Victorians, so I was thrilled, when I moved to San Francisco in the early 1990s with four college roommates, to find a railroad Victorian in the Haight-Ashbury. Located on the lower level of a two-unit building circa 1899, the flat had all its original detail and charm, from wainscoting to lion-head ceiling medallions. We shared two levels, a garage, and more than 2,000 square feet, and we paid $1,600 a month.
To familiarize myself with the area, I took walks each day in a different direction, spending hours studying the intricate facades of the many Victorians and Edwardians that make San Francisco so special. On one of those excursions I spotted a butter-yellow Victorian, its decorative early 1900s flourishes accented in white. It wasn’t the biggest or the most extravagant house, but something about it caught my eye, and my heart. Every time I passed it, I loved it more. This was my dream house. Sometimes I would sit on the curb across the street and notice how the sunlight flecked the period-style fringed window dressings, or how the sunny yellow hue brightened up the neighborhood even on a gloomy winter’s day. If San Francisco had laws against house stalking, I might have been arrested.
After more than two decades and many changes, the one thing I can always count on is the little yellow-and-white Victorian. But while it has remained the same, the neighborhood around it has not. Construction equipment clogs the streets, houses are being stripped of their character to suit the modern tastes of a different demographic, and recent transplants are margining against their stock options at “latestcoolapp.com,” willing to pay double Zillow’s Zestimate to fend off a bidding war in a frenzied attempt to “just buy something.” The reverence for San Francisco’s glorious past, held so dear by those of us who grew up in the city or lived here for many years, is quickly going down the custom Italian drain. Now it’s all about who has the biggest house, the pimped-out house, the most connected house — the “Internet of things” with a bed in it for the rare moments not spent at work.
While the city protects historically significant exteriors, they don’t have any say about the interiors. An ornate Queen Anne a few blocks away sold for $10 million, then the new owner spent two years ripping its Victorian guts out. Day after day I watched workmen haul spectacular hand-carved wooden fireplace mantles and elegant staircase bannisters out to the street and toss them in a dumpster. The sound of cracking wood made me sick. I’m sure they would have stripped off the period flourishes if the city had allowed it, but they had to settle for painting the entire house, from the bottom of the steps to the top of the turret, matte white. Once the neighborhood’s grande dame perched on an illustrious corner, the enormous eyesore now appears to be in perpetual primer awaiting a coat of color and some gilded trim.
I pray every time I pass by the little yellow-and-white Victorian that I won’t see a “for sale” sign. In all the years of passing it, I had never seen a human being. Then one afternoon while my stepmom Kickie was visiting, I decided to take her to see it — and there, in the driveway, was a woman. I slowed the car and rolled down the window. “Is this your house?” I asked. She nodded. “I have always loved it,” I blurted, giddy as a tween at a Taylor Swift concert. “It has always been my dream home.” She smiled, a bit taken aback. “Really? Well, thank you,” she said, walking up to the car. She explained that in the 1980s she and her husband were renting a flat down the street and they had also loved the little Victorian. When it went on the market, they jumped at the chance and bought it. “This market now is crazy,” she said. I agreed, and told her that in my nightmares the little yellow-and-white Victorian was sold to someone who gutted all the details and charm, just like the Queen Anne down the street. “I think that’s awful,” she said, shaking her head. “But you don’t need to worry. We’re not going anywhere, and we love it just the way it is.”
Driving Kickie back to San Jose, I felt elated and filled with a sense of relief. “They love it just the way it is,” I said. “They appreciate all the period detail and the history,” said Kickie, who shares my love of Victorians. “It’s more than a house; it’s their home, and they love it the way it is… just like you.”