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Younger Residents Are Restoring These San Francisco Properties to Their Authentic Glory

San Francisco’s storied Victorians are making a comeback.

For over a decade, young homeowners—fueled by tech money and the dominance of modern architecture—were heavily reworking the city’s cache of historic properties. Many century-old homes had their interiors gutted to create open-plan living spaces, their architectural details removed to make way for precise corners, their woodwork painted bright white and their exteriors washed in various shades of gray.

Amid the pandemic, the tide is finally starting to turn. A growing number of younger residents of San Francisco are choosing to purchase and restore historic properties—in particular the Victorians that are so synonymous with the city.

According to Realtor.com, views of Victorian and Edwardian properties in San Francisco have increased by 80% year-to-year, and the median price-per-square-foot for these homes reached $1,050 in January, up 8.7% from last year. Views per property of modern single-family homes, meanwhile, were down 5.7% over the same period, with a 1.8% increase in price-per-square-foot to $831. News Corp. , owner of The Wall Street Journal, also operates Realtor.com under license from the National Association of Realtors.

Tracy Labernik and Evan Sirc purchased the Noe Valley Victorian at top for $3.2 million in December 2018. During the pandemic, they painted it bubble gum pink. The front parlor, seen here, features many original Victorian details, such as decorative moldings, cornices and a picture rail on the wall.

(Jason Henry for The Wall Street Journal)

“For the last 10-12 years during the massive economic boom here, houses were in such demand that you had people buying Victorians, painting them a solid dark gray and stripping out the interiors in an effort to modernize the appearance of a house that they obviously didn’t like that much,” says Lynne Rutter, a decorative painter who serves as the president of Artistic License, a coalition of local artisans dedicated to period revival work. “Recently, I have seen far more thoughtful restoration happening, and younger homeowners who are doing more considerate work. They are eager to know more about their homes and will ask a lot of questions,” she says.

The Covid-19 outbreak has accelerated this trend, according to Bonnie Spindler, a real-estate agent who specializes in Victorians. Although San Francisco, like many urban centers, experienced a slowdown in general market activity during the pandemic, single-family homes saw a significant spike in interest, as many residents who chose to stay within the city looked to move out of apartments in exchange for something with more personal space. Amid this shift, the appeal of Victorian homes with original floor plans has increased, as people have found that open-concept housing isn’t as conducive to stay-at-home-life.

“If you are on Zoom calls, you can’t have two office meetings going at the same time,” Ms. Spindler says. “Everyone was gutting the walls between the kitchen and dining room, but if you burned shallots and had to start over, the entire house would smell like burned shallots.”

San Francisco’s Four Seasons housesSan Francisco’s Four Seasons houses—a row of four Queen Anne-style residences in the Upper Haight district built in the 1890s. Aimée Leifer and Tjarko Leifer bought the Winter house (third from left) in October 2016.

(Jason Henry for The Wall Street Journal)

The Leifers wanted to preserve the history of their home while also updating it for modern life. They restored the original newel-post light in the entry, for example, but kept the main staircase painted a nontraditional white.

(Jason Henry for The Wall Street Journal)

Traditional Victorian homes (built during the reign of Queen Victoria, from 1837 to 1901) were designed with a specific area for every function of domestic life—dining room, drawing room, kitchen, parlor—often separated by pocket doors. “Living at home with no chance of entertaining has led some people to appreciate the beauty and uniqueness of San Francisco homes,” says Fiona Woods, a contractor with a focus on historic properties.

Victorian homes were devised with private chambers meant to allow for at-home doctor visits and births, and to protect against the deadly diseases that were so prevalent during the period, something that has become all the more timely in light of Covid-19. Toilets were kept separate from the rest of the bathroom, surfaces were finished in easy-to-clean porcelain and marble, and transom windows assured that sunlight and fresh air could circulate even when the doors were closed.

“Victorian architecture built in the era of disease and health paranoia has often been criticized for its overly sequestered and fragmented interior layouts that seemed outdated and fussy in previous decades,” Ms. Woods says. “Now it’s become surprisingly practical.”

The interiors of Jennifer Tobits and Sarah Piepmeier’s Victorian feature an eclectic mix of new and antique furnishings. Shown here is the dining room, which is located in what would have originally been a parlor.

(Jason Henry for The Wall Street Journal)

In San Francisco, the result of this Victorian renaissance is a fusion of historic and modern design, modified for contemporary living—a notable departure from traditional movements of the past. “In the 1970s, when a lot of Victorians were being restored in earnest, many of the owners created time capsules inside of them, with all of the layers of window treatments and elaborate wallpaper and theme rooms full of 19th-century antiques,” Ms. Rutter says. “What is so different now are things like the use of space, or the eclectic mix of design from multiple eras.”

Simon Wistow and his partner, Stephanie Vacher, had been casually searching for a home to buy in San Francisco for about a year when the pandemic hit. The couple was living in a modest duplex, where sliding pocket doors enclosing the dining room created the only private area outside of the single bedroom. “With both of us working, we had to essentially negotiate who was going to get the dining room to go and take calls. That accelerates the process,” says Mr. Wistow, 43, co-founder and vice president of strategic initiatives for Fastly, a cloud-computing services provider.

As they looked, they realized they wanted something with a bit more history and charm. “We started developing a shorthand for what we call the ‘developer’s special,’ which was a house that had just been gutted and had all of the character sucked out of it,” says Mr. Wistow, who was born in England and raised in Germany.

The exterior of Simon Wistow and Stephanie Vacher’s Victorian (center), which they bought in July 2020 for $3.8 million.

( Jason Henry for The Wall Street Journal)

With the aid of their agent, Tania Toubba of Sotheby’s International Realty, the couple found a 1900 Victorian in Haight Ashbury that had been renovated but still retained many original features and most recently served as an artist residency and gallery space. They bought the six-bedroom, 4,049-square-foot home in July 2020 for $3.8 million, and immediately moved in and began planning restorations and updates, starting with preserving an elaborate but disintegrating stained-glass window at the front of the house. The four-month process, overseen by local specialist Nzilani Glass Conservation, cost approximately $25,000 and involved removing the panels and taking them apart, salvaging all of the original broken pieces and rebuilding the missing glass.

“We love this city in all of its iterations and all of its eras, and being able to take care of wherever we live so that it can survive for another couple hundred years means a lot to us,” says Ms. Vacher, 36, who works as an artist and a website designer. Although the previous renovation added many contemporary elements, the couple plans to rehabilitate, highlight and add when suitable as many Victorian details as possible, including repurposing wood from elsewhere in the house into traditional-style cabinetry, installing period-specific wallpaper and restoring the main staircase, which is original to the house and “covered with more layers than an Everlasting Gobstopper,” Ms. Vacher says.

Aimée Leifer, a 41-year-old venture capitalist and interior designer, and her husband, Tjarko Leifer, 43, the co-founder of Wellio, a food-tech startup that was acquired by Kraft Heinz in 2018, have found a greater appreciation of their Victorian home over the past year.

“Friends with open-concept layouts have lamented their inability to separate out the different areas and activities,” says Ms. Leifer, who has two young boys, ages 3 and 5. “In a Victorian house, we can all be living, working, schooling, doing everything at the same time and not really know what anyone is up to.”

The couple purchased one of the well-known Four Seasons houses—a row of four lavish Queen Anne-style residences in the Upper Haight district built in the 1890s by shipwright John Whelan—for $2.625 million in October 2016. Known as the Winter house, the structure features an intricately painted blue facade that was still in relatively good condition, with a carved snowflake centerpiece on its second floor. The interiors, however, had not been updated in almost 50 years and were in need of a major renovation. “We wanted to strike a balance between preserving the beauty and history of the home while also making it comfortable and updating it for a modern family lifestyle,” Ms. Leifer says.

The Leifers with their sons, ages 3 and 5. During the pandemic, the dining room was often used as an art studio for the boys.

(Jason Henry for The Wall Street Journal)

With a budget of over $1 million, the 13-month project kept most of the original footprint intact while adding a new foundation, plumbing, heating and electrical, as well as an extensive remodel of the kitchen. Surgical renovations were needed to restore original details such as the fireplace surround in the living room and to rehabilitate pocket doors that had been sealed into the walls. They also built out the attic to contain a playroom, office and bathroom, automated the old carriage doors on the garage to house their Tesla and added contemporary touches throughout such as bold wallpaper and furnishings, as well as a backyard honey bear mural by their friend, the local street artist Fnnch.

Fnnch’s then-girlfriend and now wife, Leah Culver, a 38-year-old tech entrepreneur who currently works as a software engineer for Twitter, became one of the most prominent young Victorian homeowners when she purchased an iconic Painted Lady—one of the city’s most photographed Victorians built in the 1890s that sit in what is known as Postcard Row—in January of 2020.

San Francisco Painted Ladies In January 2020, 38-year-old tech entrepreneur Leah Culver purchased one of San Francisco’s iconic Painted Lady Victorians (middle) for $3.55 million. She is documenting the restoration process on an Instagram account.

(Jason Henry for The Wall Street Journal)

“I wanted something move-in ready, but the things I was seeing just weren’t the right fit. A lot of them were modern or redone to be modern, and some of them weren’t done particularly well,” Ms. Culver says of her year-and-a-half search. The yellow-and-pink-hued three-level Painted Lady was on the market for less than a month before Culver purchased it for $3.55 million, or $800,000 over asking price.

The 2,588-square-foot property had been remodeled haphazardly in the 1960s or ‘70s and had fallen into disrepair. Ms. Culver is in the midst of planning an extensive restoration that will cost nearly as much as the purchase price. Although the layout of the bedrooms and some of the public areas will be reconfigured, she plans to restore as many historical details as possible based on old photographs and on touring her neighbors’ homes. As she awaits approvals from the city planning department, Ms. Culver has launched an Instagram account, @pinkpaintedlady, detailing the process, which currently has 16,600 followers.

In February 2021, the landmark Englander House was moved from its original location to a new spot seven blocks away. It was the first time in 40 years that a Victorian home had been relocated in San Francisco.In February 2021, the landmark Englander House was moved from its original location to a new spot seven blocks away. It was the first time in 40 years that a Victorian home had been relocated in San Francisco.

(Carlos Avila Gonzalez/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)

Ms. Culver’s house isn’t the only Victorian that has gained attention on social media. In February, a crowd of mask-clad, iPhone-wielding onlookers filled the streets by Civic Center to watch the Englander House, a landmark Victorian residence built in 1880, move from its original location at 807 Franklin Street to a new spot seven blocks away, to make way for the construction of a 48-unit luxury rental facility. Videos of the house uploaded to Twitter and Instagram soon went viral.

It was the first time in 40 years that a Victorian home had been relocated in San Francisco, and the carefully orchestrated production, which involved lifting the 80-ton two-story Italianate-style structure and transporting it slowly by truck on large eight-wheel dollies, cost around $500,000 and took over three years to plan and get approved, according to Toby Morris, co-founder of Kerman Morris Architects, the firm in charge of the project.

In the new location, the house will be adjoined to a Victorian-era former mortuary and rehabilitated into 17 new apartments.

Jennifer Tobits (left) and wife Sarah Piepmeier, with their dogs Eleanor and Hunter, in front of their Victorian home.Jennifer Tobits (left) and wife Sarah Piepmeier, with their dogs Eleanor and Hunter, in front of their Victorian home.

(Jason Henry for The Wall Street Journal)

For Jennifer Tobits, a 46-year-old art conservator, preservation was top of mind when she purchased a 1900 Victorian in the Lower Haight district with her wife, attorney Sarah Piepmeier, 47, for $2.995 million in May 2016. The home was previously owned by Mark Stoermer, the bassist for the rock band The Killers, who listed it for the exact price he paid after only a few months, according to the couple. “This house was a total fixer-upper. It was a mess,” Ms. Tobits says. “But it was charming and the bones were great.”

Over the past few years, the couple has embarked on a slow and deliberate restoration that has involved replacing the roof and reconfiguring the second floor while retaining and reusing original doors and hardware and restoring Lincrusta wall coverings via a company from the U.K. that has been in business since 1877. They even reclaimed their neighbor’s 1890s Minton tiles and used them for the floor of their front porch.

The interior décor is an eclectic mix of new and antique furnishings, while nearly all of the architectural elements are either original, repurposed or reproduced to be authentically Victorian.

During the pandemic, Ms. Tobits and Ms. Piepmeier turned their attention to the facade. Referencing a black-and-white photograph found at the California Historical Society, they replaced windows, cleaned stained glass and re-created and salvaged parts of the damaged redwood exterior. The house was also given a new paint job: deep navy trimmed with shades of ivory and gray and highlighted with copper and 23.75-karat gold leaf detailing that illuminates its ornamental elements.

The exterior color palette of Victorian houses is perhaps one of the most divisive subjects when it comes to their historic preservation. Although San Francisco Victorians were originally painted neutral tones, they are better known for a rainbow of exuberant hues, a trend that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s.

Earlier this year, attorney Tracy Labernik and her husband, Evan Sirc, a radiologist, both 40 years old, spent over $35,000 transforming their recently purchased Italianate-style Victorian’s exterior from blue to bubble gum pink.

“I remember we were both standing on the sidewalk looking up at the house and grinning ear-to-ear,” says Ms. Labernik. “Whether it’s a way to find a small spark of joy in this pandemic, or something else, we aren’t sure. But it’s what we picture when we think of San Francisco Victorians.”

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