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Why Are San Francisco Houses So Close Together?

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San Francisco was originally laid out on a grid system. Many of the city's houses were built so close together because housing lots were subdivided into plots as little as 25 feet wide -- just enough room for a parlor and a staircase.  (Santiago La Rotta via Flickr)

In San Francisco, the houses are quite cozy — sometimes mere inches apart. We can hear our neighbors’ wailing babies, their band practice and even their showers.

This design is pretty common in cities across the country, but Friedel Pretorius, this week’s Bay Curious question asker, couldn’t help noticing it here.

“I like walking around San Francisco and just observing all the different houses,” says Friedel. “And I noticed that a lot of the buildings in San Francisco are really close together, like less than a foot.”

She wants to know why they are so close and how they ended up this way.

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“There’s always rot and maintenance that old houses need, and I just wonder how are they built and how are they maintained,” Friedel says.

Charles Fracchia has the answer. He’s the founder of the San Francisco Museum and Historical Society, and has written several books on San Francisco history.

I meet him in the Jackson Square area, just north of the Transamerica Pyramid, where some of the city’s oldest buildings still stand. His bushy white eyebrows peek out from circular rimmed glasses that give him a scholarly look.

This house once stood at 1916 Sacramento Street and was built in 1878. The parlors on each floor were 15 and a half feet wide and the staircase was about five feet wide. Today, apartments occupy this lot.
This house, called the H. W. Newbauer House, once stood at 1916 Sacramento St. and was built in 1878. The parlors on each floor were 15 and a half feet wide and the staircase was about 5 feet wide. Today, apartments occupy this lot. (Quarterly Architectural News, October 1879)

“So you notice every one of these is on a lot next to each other, basically back to back,” says Fracchia. “There are no side yards or gardens.”

We’re looking at a series of brick buildings, two to three stories tall, very plain. He tells me this tight style of building was common in old European settlements, too.

“Ancient towns and cities had a wall around them. So you wanted to compress your real estate as much as you can,” says Fracchia, offering Paris in the Middle Ages as an example.

He tells me cities were designed this way to protect against invaders.

I ask him how San Francisco made this idea its own, and he ushers me into a nearby private dining club he’s a member of, to show me some framed paintings of what the city looked like before it was a city … before it became squished together.

“Here’s the one I really wanted to show you,” he says. “You notice there are just a handful of buildings over here. So very few buildings.”

Charles Fracchia points to a drawing of San Francisco before the Gold Rush. (Sarah Craig/KQED)

We are looking at a painting dated from 1846 to 1847. It’s right before the Gold Rush and right after the U.S. took over California from Mexico. At that point, there’s not really much to the city — it’s mostly sand dunes and it looks like peaceful, rolling countryside.

But even with so few people, there was a city council. They convinced the federal government to give them the land San Francisco sits on. And then, Fracchia says, they started divvying that land up.

“They did this late in 1846, when they hired O’Farrell to do the survey,” he says.

Jasper O’Farrell was an Irish-born surveyor. O’Farrell Street in San Francisco is named after him. He designed ranchos and other towns in California.

“When he was given the job, there are about, let’s say, 500 people in the settlement of Yerba Buena,” says Fracchia.

Charles Fracchia in front of a photo of San Francisco’s original waterfront. (Sarah Craig/KQED)

O’Farrell had no idea what the future held for this little settlement and he had to guess how big the city would become. With little direction from the city council, he was given free rein to design it however he fancied. He started with a grid — a format already in place by the Mexican settlers.

Fracchia then points out another drawing of an early map of the city with streets running perpendicular to one another.

The map has a bunch of teeny boxes, and each box represents a city block. Each of those blocks is divided into six smaller lots called varas — a Spanish unit of measurement.

After O’Farrell finalized his map, the city started auctioning off these varas. The ones South of Market were going for cheap: $12.67. But those close to downtown were pricey: $50 to $100 per vara.

And as they are auctioning them off, the Gold Rush happens.

All of a sudden, there’s a huge demand to cram together an exploding population. A lot of people need to fit into not much space.

The varas got subdivided into smaller lots, some less than 25 feet wide.

“It’s a very typical real estate operation in large U.S. cities,” says Fracchia. “You can get more money by splitting the lots up.”

But 25 feet is not that much space. Another local historian, William Kostura, says that it was just enough room for a parlor and a staircase. So in most cases, houses were built to take up the entire lot.

To build these houses, the walls had to be built first, on the ground, and then lifted into place using a system of levers and pulleys. This still happens.

In addition to the unique building techniques, Fracchia says the small lots also influenced the architecture of the buildings.

“That gave way to the shape of San Francisco flats or houses. You know, a long narrow corridor called a railroad flat. Little rooms off that. You don’t have any kind of expansion,” he says.

This house once stood at 1916 Sacramento St. and was built in 1878. The parlors on each floor were 15½ feet wide and the staircase was about 5 feet wide. Today, apartments occupy this lot. (Quarterly Architectural News, October 1879)

A lot of these houses were often built with small gaps separating them — like 1 or 2 feet — to allow light to come in through the side walls.

Maintaining those walls can get tricky.

How do you fix a house when you can’t get to the side?

Ben Ladomirak from Teevan works on all sorts of houses in San Francisco, and he tells me he’s done everything imaginable.

“There is nothing that exists on a home that we haven’t done,” he says.

He comes across houses that are super close together all the time, but he says “none are wide enough that you could get a person in there. I mean, I might be able to get a tiny person that’s not me. But all jokes aside, you can’t get in there.”

And that means that he can’t paint them — which causes problems.

“UV damages the paint, which then makes the paint peel, which then makes the wood split and crack, which lets the water in, and it’s really water that does the damage,” he says.

This doesn’t happen that often because most walls are shaded from the sun. But when it does happen, it’s a big deal. If Ben thinks the wall is rotted out and the building might fall down, he has to do something.

“The only way we’ll be able to deal with it is from the inside of your house. We cannot get to it from the outside,” he says.

“Imagine everything on the wall being stripped down, all the sheetrock out, and you have the vertical studs that you can see. If they are damaged, you are doing the best you can from the inside of your house.”

So he fixes the wall from the inside, but Ben also needs to protect the outside. He does this by connecting the roofs of the two buildings, or by making sure one roof overlaps the other.

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Then, you just have to hope that your roof keeps the water out.

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