Did San Francisco Put the 'Bay' in Bay Windows?

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In many early San Francisco homes, the sidewalls of each building butt up against each other. Bay windows bring more light into the home.  (Christopher Beale/KQED)

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here are so many bay windows in San Francisco, Oakland and other cities around the Bay Area, it would be easy to assume they were invented here.

But were they?

Bay Curious listener Ayran Michaels wants to know, “Why are bay windows such a prominent architectural style here in the Bay Area?”

To answer this, we need to go back in time.

Where Do Bay Windows Come From?

The bay window has its roots in the 17th and 18th centuries. An architectural feature called an oriel, began to appear on the homes of British elite.

An oriel looks like a large stone bay window. It’s “...basically a three-sided or four-sided appendage to a building that cantilevers out over the ground beneath,” said Christopher VerPlanck, an independent architectural historian in San Francisco.

Although the oriel started out as an embellishment on British manor houses — residents would often put a chapel or throne in them — the feature ultimately made its way into urban housing as well. Many working-class Brits live in what’s called terrace housing: identical homes built close together. These row houses were made of brick and were packed together so tightly that there were only two outward-facing walls. One at the front, and one at the back.

"If you have limited space to put the windows in the front of the house, if you've got a three-sided bay window, it lets a lot more light into the interior of the house," said VerPlanck.

Redwood was easy to work with, allowing local builders to create ornate embellishments around the bay windows. (Christopher Beale/KQED)

When Europeans immigrated to the East Coast of what became the United States, they brought the bay window with them. Dense cities like Boston, New York and others along the eastern seaboard all have bay windows because of this connection.

So, if the bay window came from Britain and then New England, how did it become so closely associated with San Francisco?

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Fur traders had been visiting California for years, but the Gold Rush made it a destination for fortune-seekers. California officially became a state in 1850.

"San Francisco was really a maritime outpost of New England and New York," VerPlanck said. "I mean, most of the early Anglo-American settlers came from those cities." And those early settlers built some of the city's first houses.

Housing lots in San Francisco were narrow, averaging 25 feet wide, and "in many cases the sidewalls butt up against each other," said VerPlanck. The settlers already had a model to work with, inspired by those humble, brick row houses in Europe — the bay window.

A few people built bay windows onto their homes and before long, Christopher VerPlanck said, "everybody did them."

"Now, back then, San Francisco was isolated," said Jay Gifford, a San Francisco resident and tour guide for Victorian Home Walk. "In other words, we had to build with what was local. And what was local was redwood."

Redwood is a notoriously strong and easy to work construction material that, in the mid 1800s, was easy to find in places like Marin and the East Bay.

Jay Gifford leads a Victorian Home Walk tour. (Christopher Beale/KQED)

"The wood was cheap so all the houses were over-embellished, so the bay windows have so much detail," Gifford said.

After World War II, bay windows became less common in new construction. According to VerPlanck, they started making a comeback in the 1980s when "people start to desire a return to this more traditional architecture, and you really start to see that get incorporated into apartment buildings in San Francisco in the last two decades of the twentieth century."

But what about the name, "bay window," surely that’s a reference to our glorious San Francisco Bay, right? Sorry, nope.

"It’s a reference to the physical shape of the bay window because it looks like a bay in [the] plan," VerPlanck said.

While San Franciscans may have had nothing to do with inventing the bay window, our city has certainly become known for them. And that, in and of itself, is pretty cool.