San Francisco’s Sunset District Experiences an Architectural Renaissance

When most people think of San Francisco architecture they imagine ornate wood Victorians standing several stories high, not the cottage-like cookie-cutter homes that blanket the city’s western neighborhoods. However, it’s looking like that could change.

In an effort to study the unique architecture of the western neighborhoods, the City of San Francisco’s Planning Department has embarked on a comprehensive survey to identify historic buildings constructed in the Sunset district from 1924 to 1950. The goal is to look at why so many of these un-San Franciscan homes cropped up at that time.

“Several groupings of houses have a picturesque or old-world charm, they are single family houses designed in a wide range of period architectural styles, such as storybook, Mediterranean, and French provincial,” says Mary Brown, who is a preservation planner for the San Francisco Planning Department. “They are like miniature chateaus or castles and give a whimsical appearance.”

Around 100 years ago, the Sunset was an unpopulated territory covered in wind-swept sand dunes. But, in the 1930’s, something happened—the Great Depression. Under President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal era programs, thousands of homes were built in the Sunset to both spur construction and increase home ownership through mortgage financing, according to Brown. These programs brought in droves of working class families who purchased their homes for $3,000 to $5000.

What was different about building design in the Sunset wasn’t only the move away from Victorian architecture, but also smaller house sizes, garages, and stucco facades. While many of these row homes have identical floor plans, several architectural flourishes make each one individual— such as castle-like turrets, porthole windows, and fenestration patterns.

“The facades had different ornamentation,” says Woody LaBounty, who is a founder of the Western Neighborhoods Project, which is collaborating on the city’s survey. “They were just different enough that if you were coming home from a bar on a foggy night, you’d recognize it.”

During the Sunset’s construction boom, several architects made a name for themselves, including Oliver Rousseau, Henry Doelger, and the Stoneson Brothers. Rousseau was known for fully embracing the storybook revival style and created several homes that looked like something out of the fairy tale Hansel and Gretel, while Doelger and the Stoneson Brothers were famous for building the largest number of homes in the district.

The Sunset survey will look at 2,800 properties to determine if they qualify as historic resources. Along with the survey, the city is planning public walking tours of the neighborhood to view the wide spectrum of the houses’ different design features. Brown says the city plans to have the survey done by the end of this year. 

“In the past the Sunset was maligned as this boring, fog-ridden wasteland,” LaBounty says. “It’s gratifying that people are now finding interest in it.”