An illustrated guide to San Francisco architecture – Enjoy the city’s stylistic diversity, from Queen Anne to contemporary buildings
The city by the bay is justly proud of its architectural heritage. Large swathes of its hilly terrain were rebuilt virtually overnight after the 1906 earthquake, firmly establishing its persona as one of Victorian homes, fire-resistant brick commercial buildings, and a classic civic center. In recent years, though, a forest of sleek skyscrapers have joined the city’s iconic Transamerica Pyramid, and curvaceous silhouette of the Snohetta’s addition to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) have raised the city’s cred as a place for contemporary design.
Here is a sample of some of the architecture styles you’ll find in San Francisco.
1. Queen Anne
While the Victorian is the most prevalent type of architecture in the city, which refers to the reign of Queen Victoria (1837–1901), it contains a multitude of styles. One of the most exquisite is the Queen Anne variety. The Painted Ladies, a row of Queen Anne homes in Alamo Square from the late 1800s, have long been the celebrities of San Francisco architecture. They feature flamboyant colors, elaborate gingerbread trim, bay windows, and the occasional turret. Other styles that fall under the Victorian umbrella: Gothic Revival (see below), Italianate (signature roof brackets), and Eastlake (lots of millwork) all have strong representation in San Francisco.
2. Gothic Revival
Inspired by medieval cathedrals and their ornate windows and spires, a good example of the dramatic Gothic Revival style is San Francisco’s beloved Grace Cathedral (it looks centuries-old, but the current building actually dates to 1927). Gothic Revival homes feature steeply pitched roofs and pointed arches. Architect Timothy Pfleuger’s 1925 Pacific Telephone Building (aka 140 Montgomery) combines Gothic and Art Deco elements to dazzling effect in one of San Francisco’s earliest and most beautiful skyscrapers.
3. Tudor Revival
This historical style is easy to recognize for its distinctive half-timbering; the original Tudors featured exposed wood framing with whitewashed wattle-and-daub walls. Tudor Revival was a go-to for developer Oliver Rousseau, who turned to it for a model home in the Sunset, giving it painted-on timbers and faux stone masonry. A much swankier version is in Presidio Heights by architect Bernard Maybeck and is one of the few homes he designed in San Francisco.
4. Shingle Style
A reaction to the excesses of Victorian architecture, Shingle Style is pretty self-explanatory: The homes feature plain facades covered in shingles. The style originated in New England, but Bay Area architects including Ernest Coxhead and Willis Polk took the idea and ran with it around the turn of the century. Architectural historians cite their redwood shingle–clad homes as part of the First Bay Tradition, a precursor to Northern California modernism.
View them all on Curbed