Friday, March 13, 2009

Walking Tours

San Francisco has lots of old houses. The city itself is relatively new -- it's about the same age as New Zealand -- and so it has plenty of Victorian houses (at least in the parts that weren't destroyed by the fire).

On Friday, we went to Pacific Heights to do a tour with the San Francisco City Guides. This group offers free walking tours of various parts of the city, and you can donate at the end of the tour if you think it was worth it. Our guide was Steve, an exuberant real estate agent who enjoyed loudly telling everybody that New Zealanders were the nicest people in the world. Of course, after that we had to live up to our reputation, and we had to behave ourselves for the rest of the tour.

Steve was quite knowledgeable about the different types of Victorian houses. In San Francisco, there are three main types: Italianettes, built mainly in the 1870s, Sticks in the 1880s, and Queen Annes in the 1890s. He explained how you could tell them apart, and as soon as we can upload photos we'll post a good picture of a canonical set of Italianettes so you can too. Most Italianettes in the area we were looking at were worth around US$2 million. The garages that most of them had added as a basement cost around US$400,000, which seemed like a lot until we found out how much the houses were worth.

After we'd been shocked by the price we moved on to see various other houses of interest in the area, including the ex-British embassy. While we were hearing about its history, the current owner came out the front door and invited us in for a tour of the house. It was amazing seeing how some people live! He had bought this huge house just to house his art collection, which was very impressive. There was a 'Souper Dress', Renaissance paintings dating from the 1500s, a bed bought from Heast Castle, and beautiful furnishings everywhere. The Royal room contained an Arts and Crafts bed, and was where Prince Philip stayed once. During his stay he had to use a secret escape path because of IRA raids.

Each room in the house had been decorated by a different designer as part of the 2004 Decorator Showcase (held in May each year). The sad thing was that the owner didn't even live in the house! He and his wife and daughter lived in an apartment, and used the house for entertaining, charity events, and to host musicians who were in town for a show.

Our next stop was a famous house in Steiner St, which was used in the movie Mrs Doubtfire. Stuart was very excited to see this house :)

After this we raced off from the tour to catch a bus to Land's End for our second walking tour of the day at Sutro Heights. This is an area of land on the coast that was owned by Adolf Sutro in the late 1800s, which he planted with tropical plants and decorated with statuary and opened to the public. He built his house there, but still kept the grounds open for the public, and even built a railway out to the area so that people could visit for the day.

The gardens were a great attraction to the people of San Francisco. The statues that Sutro imported from Europe often cost more to ship than they were actually worth, and were all replicas of famous statues. No picnics were allowed in the gardens, as Sutro wanted to keep them neat. At the edge of the gardens, overlooking the ocean, Sutro built a sun deck. The remains of the stone steps down the cliff to it are still visible.

Sutro had a great collection of books, and he had always hoped to start a library. For whatever reason, this never came about, and unfortunately he wasn't very clear about this in his will. So, his collection of books (which included plenty of rarities and first editions) was put into storage after his death. Unfortunately, they were kept in two places, and one of the places wasn't fireproofed. 60% of his books burned in the 1906 fire.

Sutro was still a businessman as well as a philanthropist, and he eventually sold off the railway to his gardens. The first thing the new owners did was double the price to 10¢, which incensed Sutro. He promptly built another railway, resumed charging 5¢ for it, and charged anybody who used the old railway 25¢ to get in to the gardens (which were free for everybody else).

He also built a massive bath complex down next to the sea, which had the largest indoor swimming pool of its time. The complex had 20,000 swimming costumes (people had to hire them to swim there) which gives some indication of the numbers of people who went. The baths had a tunnel system that used the sea to fill and drain the pools, ensuring that they were clean. It is still not completely understood how this system worked.

Further around the coast was a memorial made from the bridge of the USS San Francisco which had holes from battle. You could also see a dangerous rocky part of the coast where there had been a few shipwrecks, and the tour guide told us that a couple of the rocks were actually parts of ships that had been wrecked there.

From there it was just a short bus ride back to Fisherman's Wharf where we got some fried chicken from Safeway. By this time the weather had packed up again, so we had a damp ride back to our hotel room and called it a night.

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