Moving Victorians

(Note: This post is a slightly longer version of an article I wrote for my local Victorian home group. If you’re going to plagiarize someone, why not yourself?)

San Francisco Victorian Home on the Move. Photo from the San Jose Mercury News website.

A few weeks ago, a rare sight rolled down Franklin Street in San Francisco: a large Italianate Victorian house.  The house, called by some the Englander House, was built in 1882, but it was the last house left on its block–commercial buildings having taken over all others–and thus was inconveniently in the way of an planned eight-story apartment building.

The developer sold the house, instead of demolishing it (likely had to because of historic preservation laws), and the unoccupied house took a six block trip around the corner from 807 Franklin Street to 635 Fulton Street. The trip cost $400,000 to complete, including moving utility lines, trimming trees, and uprooting parking meters to allow the house to roll smoothly by.

Apparently, this house move was the first in San Francisco in 50 years, although vintage “mobile homes” were more common in the 1970s. Previously, older buildings were summarily demolished if they were in the path of a planned development. However, by the 1970s, it became so obvious that San Francisco was losing its historic houses when “urban renewal” was all the rage that historic preservation ordinances were passed.

House moving also occurred in San Francisco much earlier than the 1970s.  The house in the photo below was moved up Steiner Street in 1908. Where it eventually stopped moving is not known. One could assume that its move had something to do with the 1906 earthquake, but I could find no details about it. A careful examination of the downhill side of the house will show the means of hauling this building: a two-horsepower winch–literally two horses. Cables ran from the cribbing supporting the house to capstans driven into the ground. The horses circled the capstan, slowly rotating the capstans and winching the house along. San Francisco’s hills couldn’t have made it an easy task.

Horse-powered moving of a Victorian in San Francisco in 1908.

In fact, it was often the hills that created the need for moving houses. As the city grew, entire neighborhoods were re-graded in an attempt to flatten San Francisco’s infamous hills, sometimes leaving houses isolated and in need of moving to their newer, lower addresses.

Moving a house from its higher previous location to its new re-graded level.

Moving Victorians around town is relatively more common in flat San Jose (the larger and more populous yet less charismatic city at the south end of San Francisco Bay).  A dozen or so houses were moved from the site of the new City Hall into the midst of other Victorian homes in the Hensley Historic District and the Northside neighborhood. We got to watch two of them come past our house very early one morning.

The Houghton-Donner house, built in 1881, was home to Eliza Donner, one of the children in the infamous Donner Party, and her husband Sherman Otis Houghton, who served in Congress. The house was moved in 1909 and negotiations were ongoing in 2007 to move it again when it was destroyed by a “highly suspicious” fire.

So how does all this relate to Steampunk? Between the time when horses provided the power to move houses, and when diesel truck did, steam tractors were the vehicle to use. Here’s a picture of a house in Winfield, Kansas, USA being moved by steam tractor.

Steampower!

If you’re interested in this topic, a great book with many photographs is: “San Francisco Relocated” by Diane C. Donovan, part of the Images of America series by Acadia Publishing.

Gamble House Virtual Tour

The Gamble House in Pasadena, California demonstrates the epitome of the Arts and Crafts style. Designed by the noted architects Greene and Greene for David Gamble, the son of one of the founders of the Proctor and Gamble Company.

The Arts and Crafts, or Craftsman, style encompasses natural forms and materials. The Gamble House uses several different species of woods, rocks from the nearby riverbed, and patterns of stained glass reflecting flowers and trees. The architects also designed custom furniture for the house.

Built in 1908, the house remained in the family until 1966. There had been interest from potential buyers–one wanted to paint the intricate woodwork interior white. In order to ensure the preservation of the craftsmanship and artistry of the house, it was donated to the City of Pasadena.

The Gamble House is normally open for tours, but in these Days of Covid, a virtual tour has been devised describing the architecture and history of the house.

So, how does the Gamble House connect with Steampunk? It made its screen debut as Doc Brown’s house in Back to the Future.

Steampunk Architecture – Redux

Transept of the Crystal Palace, 1851, the center of the Steampunk Architecture Universe.

Six years or so ago, I wrote a blog post titled “Steampunk Architecture” in which I gave a short description of several examples of real-life architecture that reflect the Steampunk Aesthetic. Since then it has been one of the most popular posts on my blog. I’ve also presented it as ta talk at the Bay Area’s steampunk con, Clockwork Alchemy.

As luck would have it, I had updated my presentation significantly in preparation for Clockwork Alchemy 2020 which subsequently caught the coronavirus and was postponed until 2021 (we hope). However, I want to present some of my talk here.

Full disclosure, I’m not an architect or a historian, but I am interested in how architecture reflects its society and vice versa, how society affects the architecture it builds. The Victorian Age was such a transformative time with huge changes in social, economic, and technological arenas. The architecture that was built in that time artifacts of that era.

So, what is Steampunk Architecture?

Yes, what is it indeed? Given that the many steampunk universes that exist are all fictional, how can there be real-life Steampunk Architecture?

Well, we know what the standard Steampunk Aesthetic is–vaguely Victorian with an overlay of superfluous detail and quasi-functional mechanisms. While there are many variations of this aesthetic (and I’m not going to get bogged down in the arguments about what is and isn’t steampunk), the big tent that is Steampunk contains all manner of variations on these design features.

So let’s take this Steampunk Aesthetic and see how it might have existed in the Real World –the mundane one that we live in, or at least in which our 19th century ancestors did. At the beginning of the 19th century, building materials were stone, brick, plaster, and wood. Any decoration was applied by hand by painting or carving. By the 1830s or so, the steam engine was being refined and soon it was applied to the fabrication of building materials. Steam powered saws, lathes, drills, etc. reduced the cost of building materials and put non-functional building decorations into the hands of the middle class, and on otherwise utilitarian and industrial buildings.

Similarly, the introduction of new building materials enabled bigger, more elaborate and just more impressive buildings. Cast iron, and eventually, steel support beams provided the skeletons of 19th century buildings instead of bricks and stone. Improvements in the production of window glass created larger panes, allowing more light into buildings. Inexpensive ass-produced ornamentation fed the Victorians’ desire for endless design details.

Continue reading

Old House Idiosyncrasies #8–Sarah Winchester’s House

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Winchester House, San Jose, California

Living in San Jose, California and being interested in all things Victorian, it would be impossible for me to ignore the largest Victorian house in the United States, the house built by Sarah Winchester. A recent article on the always interesting Atlas Obscura website which details some of the history of the Winchester House got me thinking about this architectural marvel.

The house, which is gaining some newfound notoriety because of the recently released movie, Winchester, starring Helen Mirren, was Sarah Winchester’s home from 1884 until her death in 1922.  She moved west from New Haven, Connecticut a few years after the death of her husband John, one of the owners of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company.  As her husband’s heir, she received a generous inheritance, as well as a major share of the company.  She moved into a small farmhouse surrounded by orchards, and started adding on, building a home more suitable to her fortune and social standing. Continue reading

The Evolution of the Kitchen

A few years ago, I had the chance to tour the Newport Mansions in Rhode Island, the “summer cottages” of the Gilded Age wealthy.  While the mansions are over-the-top gorgeous (and literally built to impress), I found the kitchens, sculleries, and butlers’ pantries more interesting.  Maybe because I could actually picture the people who worked there.  I’m not sure how much if anything I have in common with the social set of Newport. The photo below shows the amazing kitchen and two story butler’s pantry at The Breakers, one of the more splendid “cottages” in Newport.

The two-story butler's pantry held all of the dishware for the family.

Gavin Ashworth and The Preservation Society of Newport County

This link connects to a site that shows the evolution of the kitchen from the 1870s to the 1970s.  It’s a little click-baity, but the illustrations and photographs of vintage kitchens more than make up for a.

And it’s a good reminder of why those of us who live in vintage houses, generally don’t have kitchens from the period.  I like my refrigerator and microwave, and wouldn’t really enjoy keeping the stove stoked and the ice box full of ice.

Old House Idiosyncrasies #4–Keeping Cool

The Front Porch of the Grand Victorian Bed and Breakfast in Ontario, Canada. This is exactly the type of front porch that we don't have on our house. Photo Source: Tripadvisor.

The Front Porch of the Grand Victorian Bed and Breakfast in Ontario, Canada. This is exactly the type of front porch that we don’t have on our house. Photo Source: Tripadvisor.

I got back from a trip to Banff, Alberta, Canada a week or so ago, where it had snowed on us three times (yes! In August!). We arrived at San Francisco International and could feel the heat as soon as I stepped onto the jetway. Our very temperate week was ending in a tropical weekend.

Now, I grew up in Boston, so I’m used to hot and humid summers, and at least the summers in the Bay Area aren’t too sticky. But I live in a Victorian house, and staying even somewhat comfortable when the mercury pushes into the triple digits takes a bit of work.

A recent article describes “10 Ways Victorians Managed to Stay Cool Without A/C”.  Reading through it though, I think it should more accurately be entitled “How Victorians Managed not to Die of Heat Exhaustion” as several of the methods don’t sound particularly effective. Continue reading

Old House Idiosyncrasies #2–Imbrication

DSC_0271Imbrication is a fancy word that means the overlapping of edges, such as in scales or tiles.  Or shingles, as it turns out.  In architectural parlance, imbrication is the use of specially shaped shingles to create a decorative effect.  Imbrication is often seen in Victorian homes, especially those built in the Queen Anne style, between about 1880-1900. Continue reading