Last week we welcomed Erin Feher, the journalist and author of a forthcoming book about San Francisco’s residential architectural heritage, to the Museum as part of the Nickerson Lecture Series. Her talk, Buried Treasure and Tragedy: The Architectural Rise of San Francisco, was a fascinating tale of a rough-and-tumble Gold Rush city taking shape among the hills. We caught up with her after the lecture to talk about local architectural traditions, candy-colored Victorians, and the earthquake that could have changed everything…but didn’t.
Erin Feher: It definitely did. I didn’t have any formal training in architectural history, or architecture in general, prior to my job at the magazine. But as a journalist, you start digging into all of the available knowledge on the subject and become somewhat of an expert in it. So that’s pretty much how I approached the book. But the biggest challenge was the historical research. I was very used to writing about contemporary architecture, where you can call up an architect—who’s alive—and you can walk into the house that was just finished and they can tour you around and show you everything they’ve done. It’s just different from piecing these same things together from hundred-year-old blueprints, construction plans, and letters back and forth between the homeowner and the architect.
Feher: [Laughs.] I mean, one of my favorite things about San Francisco is the variety, and how these very different styles are crammed up right next to each other. That’s what makes it a beautiful city. There are eras when people come in and give a style their all, and then they move on. Tourists come in to see the Victorians and love them, and I also think they are beautiful—but they’re beautiful as a part of the whole today. I think they’re more interesting as a sign of the times, because although they’re ornate, they’re not necessarily real in the sense that a lot of these are false fronts. I think that’s really symbolic of a young city that was trying to make its mark against New York, Chicago, the East Coast. To be taken seriously as a city, they were kind of going over the top to say, ‘Look how fancy and important and sophisticated we are,’ even though these houses were rarely what they seemed to be.
Feher: I would say the Bay Area tradition created by architects like Bernard Maybeck and Willis Polk, who took the styles from Arts and Crafts and modernism and adapted them to the region where, instead of using glass and steel, they use natural woods and create this indoor-outdoor lifestyle connection. The buildings are also adapted to be situated on San Francisco’s hills. Willis Polk’s own house, which is in the book and is one of my favorites, is so indicative of that. On the front it looks like sort of a typical, almost Tudor, three-story house. And it’s not small by any means, but then if you look at it from the back where it steps down Telegraph Hill, it’s seven or eight stories and looks almost like shacks—little rooms perched on the side of the hill with layers and layers of wooden staircases going up. It’s almost like an X-ray of the house. I think that’s very specific to San Francisco. And then there’s how that had carried through to what’s going on today—the rustic, yet-refined look that is probably the biggest architectural style in California right now. Reclaimed wood; maybe some old steel; the shingles and paneling are back, but they’re not finished; there’s no high gloss on it. People like to keep it rough and match their surroundings.
Feher: Half of the city was destroyed. It wasn’t necessarily that buildings were shaken to the ground, but fires came after the earthquake. Everything was made of redwood, and so everything burned. And they did have this opportunity to start over. When people came during the Gold Rush in 1849 and the 1850s, they built so quickly and so haphazardly, without foresight—they needed something to live in right now. So a lot of those structures were destroyed after the earthquake, which could be looked at as a clean slate. Daniel Burnham came in and proposed an entire City Beautiful plan that was inspired by Paris and other European cities, and would have looked a lot like what Chicago and a lot of East Coast cities look like today. But San Francisco, with time as the priority and probably resources too, essentially decided to stick to what was there from a city planning standpoint.
Feher: The existing city grid was basically designed for agriculture. South of Market Street, the blocks are huge, and the streets are a little wider, usually one-way with six lanes of traffic going in one direction. Even though agriculture was primarily gone from the area by 1906, they still didn’t make any changes to this flat area that could be very neighborhood-y and pedestrian-friendly. North of Market, the little streets are much better for walking, but they’re very steep. I don’t think there was a lot of thought about what the easiest way around the hills would be. But I actually don’t think that’s a problem. People love to hate walking those hills, but they’re what makes San Francisco beautiful and unique.
An experienced interiors and architecture writer and esteemed member of the statewide design community, Erin Feher is the editor-in-chief of California Home+Design Magazine where she covers art, architecture and interior design. She has written hundreds of articles on contemporary design, from notable homes to hotels and museums, and is the author of the forthcoming book Great Houses of San Francisco, 1875-1945.