Alamo Square Neighborhood History
The Western Addition exhibits a mix of exuberant architectural styles including Queen Anne, Italianate, Stick, and Gothic Revival. This tour is fittingly centered around Alamo Square park, the quintessential urban green flanked by celebrated rows of Queen Anne homes. Most of the homes date from the late 1870s through 1930, and were architect-designed for affluent downtown merchants. The neighborhood is well known for its dense concentration of intact Victorian and Edwardian era structures exemplified by the iconic “Postcard Row” often featured in photographs, movies, and commercials.
The area began, as did much of San Francisco, as a wind-swept, unfriendly and rocky serpentine hill interspersed with sand dunes. Historic accounts indicate one lone tree stood on Alamo Hill, alongside a watering hole that served the horseback trail from Mission Dolores to the Presidio. (Alamo means poplar tree in Spanish.) There are many underground springs trickling just below the surface, eight of which still exist in the park, resulting in tufts of greener grass and patches of wet, spongy areas. It was in 1856 that James Van Ness set aside 12.7 acres as a city park, naming it Alamo Square, and in 1857 the City officially established the park.
During the 1906 earthquake and fire, citizens stood in the square and observed the fires raging elsewhere; much of this neighborhood was spared. Alamo Square itself provided temporary quarters for tented earthquake refugees.
The Alamo Square Neighborhood Association (ASNA) was founded in the early 1960s when a group of concerned neighbors banded together to fight the City’s plan to slice off the crest of the hill, level it for playing fields and construct a large field house. Over subsequent decades, conditions improved thanks to the energetic efforts of a few key ASNA homeowners. Alamo Square’s 12 blocks was designated a Historic District in July 1984 by San Francisco City Planning Commission Resolution 9962. The District is bounded by Golden Gate Avenue, Divisadero, Webster and Fell Streets.
The District achieved a historic designation because of its significant continuum of distinguished residential architecture by illustrious architects spanning the period from the 1870s to the 1920s. The towered Westerfeld House, the renowned “Postcard Row” with its background of the downtown skyline, and the neighboring streetscapes are as identified worldwide with San Francisco as the cable cars and Coit Tower. With a variety of architectural styles, the District is unified in its residential character, relatively small scale, construction type, materials (principally wood), intense ornamentation (especially at entry and cornice), and use of basements and retaining walls to adjust for hillside sites. Most of the original owner-residents were moderately successful businessmen. A higher than average number of houses were designed by architects, including a virtual cross-section of the City’s better professionals.
The present day neighborhood reflects the type of demographics typical of communities affected by gentrification. Such characteristics include a high number of younger people and upper-middle-class homeowners, along with a diverse older population. Divisadero Street divides Alamo Square from the North Panhandle and is the location of several small businesses, trendy restaurants and bars catering to a younger, professional clientele. Specifically-recognized buildings within the Alamo Square Historic District include the Archbishop’s Mansion, Green Apothecary, Russian Orthodox Church, and the Westerfeld House.
— Neighborhood history prepared by Catherine Accardi, August 29, 2015