Few things are so quintessentially San Franciscan as Victorian houses, but there’s another style of classic SF home that’s even more numerous in the city and, whether everyone realizes it or not, exerts even greater influence over the city’s aesthetic.
Edwardians are what we might think of as siblings to Victorians–or, with an eye toward their royal namesakes, the offspring of the Victorian movement.
In truth, the two styles are so closely related that they’re often confused, and a lot of what people assume is Victorian housing turns out to have a secret identity from a later date. Here’s a handy Front Steps guide to what distinguishes the distinguished (if often overlooked) Edwardians in our midst.
Period Pieces: The simplest and most decisive way to define an Edwardian home is simply chronological: Just as Victorians mostly date to the reign of England’s Queen Victoria, Edwardian homes recall the comparatively brief reign of her son, King Edward VII, from 1901 to 1910.
But even this standard isn’t set in stone (or wood, or plaster, or whatever other materials you prefer). After all, if King Edward died on May 6, 1910, and a San Franciscan finished building a house on May 7, how could we say it’s not an Edwardian, despite the sudden dearth of royal Edwards?
So there’s also a kind of grace period that extends after the king is dead. How long? Well, opinions vary–often the beginning of World War I in 1914 serves as a benchmark. Generally it’s agreed that if you try to stretch it much into the post-war period you’d be pushing it–but just as with Victorian styles, if a home looks the part and (for lack of a better word) feels the part, then the period might not matter so much.
Less Is More: In terms of style, Edwardians bear what you might call a family resemblance to popular Victorian homes before them, and indeed, many of the features of 19th century SF housing repeated themselves in the early years of the new century.
But generally speaking, an Edwardian is less busy and baroque than a Vic: The Edwardian look is a bit more stark, a bit less finely detailed, and in many cases a bit less imposing. It’s notable that the Edwardian period also saw the emergence of Craftsman homes–more on those another time–as both reflect the same desire for a lighter touch.
Of course, to our modern eyes, Edwardians still look quite ornate, which is why they’re so often mistaken for Victorians by casual observers. Some historians and critics argue that the two styles are really not all that distinct, and that it’s mostly just a matter of degree. The separation is real though: It’s not a coincidence that they stopped building quite so many SF houses with towers and turrets around his time.
Location, Location, Location: If you did the math on when the Edwardian period occurred, you’ve already figured out possibly the most important thing about these homes. Namely, most of them postdate the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire.
Much of the city’s venerable Victorian stock went up in flames over a few fateful days in April of that year, excepting those neighborhoods west of the few successful firebreaks, and a handful of lucky specimens scattered elsewhere.
In the eastern and downtown areas that required the most extensive rebuilding, the new homes created were Edwardian homes–both by default due to the when construction happened, but also on account of tastes had changed. In some cases the more straightforward Edwardian aesthetic was also cheaper and faster than rebuilding a Vic stick for stick might have been.
This is also why you often see big old apartment buildings in neighborhoods like the Tenderloin in the Edwardian style, incidentally.
Spreading Out: Whereas Victorians originally sported elaborate and sometimes labyrinthine layouts, an Edwardian interior emphasized less imposing choices, like bigger (and fewer) rooms and halls, smaller fireplaces, more natural light, parquet floors, and, as with exteriors, a generally simpler and more straightforward style of decorating. Light colors and wallpapers were particularly popular for a time.
As with many old houses, it can be harder and harder to find Edwardians that have preserved their interiors to any significant degree on the market nowadays. Although since modern designers often have tastes closer to the Edwardian aesthetic than some older housing styles the changes over the last century may be less dramatic. Indeed, in their way, we might call Edwardians the earliest modern homes.
Odds are the San Francisco Edwardian will just never be as famous or as in-demand as its queenly forebear. Which is why it’s so ironic that Edwardian homes have probably done more to fertilize the public’s appreciation of what they think is the Victorian style than most of the city’s actual Vics.
Still, there is a certain appeal–or in this case perhaps we should say nobility–in being recognized only by a discerning few. Next time you’re window shopping for your favorite SF homes, take an extra moment to try to pick out some kingly examples of the previous century for particular appreciation.
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