Description of article
To me, Alamo Square a bit of a lesson-known district and gets overshadowed by the more popular areas of San Francisco. My first time visiting the area deliberately wasn’t until my mid-20’s. I had always known about the famous “Painted Ladies” but that was pretty much it. What it lacks in trendiness, though, Alamo Square makes up for in its down-to-earth character and relaxing experiences with spectacular views to admire.
A historic district in San Francisco is designated as having a “special character and historical, architectural, and aesthetic interest and value”. Alamo Square, named after its namesake park, distinguishes itself from its livelier and eclectic counterparts by having a much calmer and laid-back vibe to go along with its stunning Victorian homes.
Being a much smaller district, it only covers six blocks by seven blocks but seamlessly transitions into it’s neighboring districts such as the Hayes Valley, Lower Haight, and Haight-Ashbury and is considered within the Western Addition/NoPa (North of the Panhandle) districts, whose characters matches Alamo Square’s and I’ll also partially discuss. If you’re looking for where to go and what to see, please continue reading this neighborhood profile of Alamo Square!
Part of its appeal is how walkable the neighborhood is, sporting a 96 walkability score. So you don’t need a car to do your daily errands like going to the grocery store or grabbing some coffee, and it has bus lines all around. It’s very dog-friendly and most of the traffic is directed to Divisadero, where many of the commercial shops are.
The hallmark is the park itself, Alamo Square. It’s a bit of an upward walk but once you're there you can get panoramic views of the city, most famously the backdrop of San Francisco’s skyscape behind the Painted Ladies. It gives the impression that you’re on top of the city. Not so much that you feel insignificant like on Twin Peaks, but more like you’re in the middle of it all, in the heart of the City. Much like the rest of San Francisco, it’s an area of rising and descending hills, so there’s a different viewpoint at every step. You'll find no shortage of locals and tourists walking around and taking snapshots of the picturesque park on a sunny day.
To give you more context of the history and architecture of Alamo Square, here's some information taken from the original Historic District Designation, as approved by Board of Supervisors in 1984:
The park originated in 1856-1857 when the City set aside land for a public park and named it Alamo square. It gradually grew in settlement and residences but became more attractive due to the views, weather, and accessibility by cable-car which brought in more businessmen to its residences, who were mostly middle and upper income small business-owners and professionals. The unusually high architectural quality of the homes in the area are a result of the prosperous original patrons who contracted prominent architects early on. These homes are a visual reminder of how businessmen lived 2-4 generations ago.
According to the 1900 census, the area was predominantly German and some Irish. Towards the 1930s, the Italian, Jewish and Russian populations grew and after World War II several African-Americans had also moved into the area as many buildings were divided into smaller units.
Over the last several decades, the rising real estate prices have led to the removal and renovation of sub standard units into much higher quality of buildings and a stable area
of mixed population including young and upper-middle-class homeowners, diverse older populations, and young tech professionals. Today residents and neighborhood groups of the area have made a large-scale effort to restrict the amount of chain stores and keep the District’s character with unique small businesses.
An interesting fact about Alamo Square is that after the 1906 earthquake and fire it became a tent city for refugees.
The district is characterized by the Victorian architecture of its homes, many of which were built between 1870 and 1930 after the success of the gold rush led to a population boom and a rising demand for new housing.
You can find Victorian, Edwardian, Italiante, San Francisco Sticks, and Queen Anne-style homes all in the area. They're characterized by a mix of window styles dominated by semi-octagonal, rectangular, trapezoidal, and circular-bayed plans. The District is united by its common materials. Wood is predominantly used for both interior and exterior structures and must be repainted frequently, which is probably why you can always find colorful homes around.
Most of the buildings are two to three story residential homes with visually-heavy decorative ornamentation on the cornices and entrances. These features include: Classical-style moldings, Classical columns, pillars, or pilasters with leaf patterns, round or fish scale shingles, brackets at cornice, portico and pediment, and cartouches and garlands.There are also several apartment buildings at the corners of the blocks decorated with the same archicture-heavy features.
Also known as "Postcard Row” and the “Seven Sisters”, the Painted Ladies are visible from Alamo Square Park and have become a famous pop culture stable, notably being featured as the home of the “Full House” show in the 1990’s.
These Queen Anne-style homes were built during the 1890s by developer Matthew Kavanaugh, who lived just next door. And in 1963, San Francisco artist Butch Kardum and his team experimented with painting the facades various vivid colors which led to a colorist phenomenon transforming many streets and neighborhoods.
Today the Painted Ladies have come to symbolize much of San Francisco’s unique Victorian architecture. Some of it’s distinct exterior features include:
- An asymmetrical façade with a dominant top front-facing gable, cantilevered out beyond the plane of the wall below
- Overhanging eaves and detailed brackets
- Round, dominant corner tower
- Gingerbread-style gables
- A small porch covering the primary entrance area
- Differing wall textures, including patterned wood shingles shaped into varying designs
- Painted classical columns, spindles and balustrades
- Cutaway bay windows
- Intricate stain-glass paneling
Just like all of the other San Francisco neighborhoods, Alamo Square and it’s neighboring district NoPa have no shortage of amazing places to eat. Here are a few to consider:
Brenda's Meat and Three
Little Star Pizza