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The Neighborhoods

Pacific Heights
Historical Profile of the Pacific Heights Neighborhood

Some regard the neighborhood of Pacific Heights to be home to the finest Victorian and early 20th century houses in San Francisco. (Its boundaries are roughly California Street on the south, Van Ness Avenue on the east, Green and Union streets on the north, and the Presidio park and Presidio Avenue on the west.)


During the Gold Rush, all of San Francisco west of Larkin Street was outside of the city limits. The land was claimed by private parties under often conflicting pre-emption claims. In order to sort this out, and to devote land to streets and schools, the city passed the Van Ness Ordinance in 1855, resulting in a land survey. The vast, new tract was referred to as the “Western Addition.”  (Today it is considered three neighborhoods: the Western Addition to the south, Pacific Heights in the middle, Cow Hollow and the Marina District to the north.)

Pacific Heights saw only scattered development until about 1868. In the first half of that year, a dozen large houses were built—more followed. Tract housing was also built, though the neighborhood became known for its “fine residences.” Mass transit came in the 1870s, when the Sutter Street Railway pushed two horsecar lines into the neighborhood. (One went out Bush Street to Fillmore, thence along Fillmore to California, and west along California to Laurel Hill Cemetery; the other ran along Pacific Avenue to Fillmore.) By the 1890s four cable car lines ran into the neighborhood.


By the early 1880s, Pacific Heights supplanted Nob Hill as the city’s premier elite district. The great wealth generated by the Comstock Lode, the Southern Pacific Railroad, the city’s manufactories and its shipping firms found expression in the architecture of the neighborhood. The larger houses sprouted towers, wings, and bay windows so that their footprints were anything but rectangular. During the late 1860s and the 1870s houses were designed in the Italianate style and were relatively restrained in feeling, but after 1880 this restraint gave way to the exuberant—even ostentatious—Eastlake and Queen Anne styles. After 1889 a reaction against these “Victorian” styles set in, and over the next three decades newer architects—notably A. Page Brown, Albert Pissis, Willis Polk, Ernest Coxhead, Frank S. Van Trees, Bliss and Faville, Edgar Mathews, and C. A. Meussdorffer—designed Classical Revival and Shingle style houses and apartments in the neighborhood.


Most large houses located east of Fillmore Street were replaced by apartment towers in the 1920s, 1950s, and 1960s, but some fine old houses remain. The area west of Fillmore Street is generally lacking in tall buildings, and retains much more of its Victorian feeling. Many notable houses from the early 20th century can be found in the northwestern corner of the neighborhood (north of Pacific Avenue and west of Fillmore Street).

— taken from the Victorian Alliance‘s 2006 “Grande Dame Victorians... Along the Fireline in Pacific Heights” catalog

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