Pacific Heights covers 130 square blocks from Presidio Avenue on the west and Green Street on the north to the city’s main east-west and north-south thoroughfares – Van Ness Avenue and California Street – on the east and south. Pacific Heights occupies the highest ground to the west and north of downtown, and contains two hilltop parks – Alta Plaza in western Pacific Heights and Lafayette Park in eastern Pacific Heights – with spectacular views of the San Francisco Bay, the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz and Angel Islands, and the Marin Headlands. With over 150 years of transformations in style represented, the architecture of the Pacific Heights neighborhood is one of the city’s most richly varied residential areas, with houses of every size and pretension and significant churches and temples.
With other fashionable areas of the city almost entirely built up, Pacific Heights became San Francisco’s choicest residential neighborhood by the last decades of the nineteenth century. The finest mansions in town, except for a few Nob Hill palaces, were built along Broadway and Pacific Avenue, respectively. The wealthy residents of Broadway were assumed to always ride in private carriages, so no streetcar or cable car line ever ran down it. Though those with more money generally preferred north-south streets away from cable car noise, or east-west streets where no cable car existed, California Street was one east-west street with a cable car line that also had large single-family homes, commonly built on two or three lot widths. Extraordinarily wide Van Ness Avenue also demanded ultra-fashionable mansions in the last decades of the nineteenth century, but when the majority of the mansions that lined Van Ness were destroyed in the 1906 earthquake and fire, the street transformed into the commercial belt it has been ever since.
The fire that followed the earthquake in 1906 only jumped Van Ness at Sacramento Street, over to Franklin Street, and then turned south for five blocks. With that one exception, the entire city west of Van Ness, the newly developed Pacific Heights and Western Addition, were spared from direct and immediate destruction. Those burnt out by the fire moved to the fairly recently built upper middle-class enclaves in the western portion of the city, which became crowded and destabilized by rapid development after the disaster. Many homeowners converted single-family homes and spare rooms to apartments and boardinghouses. Many raised their structures and constructed stores at ground level.
In later years, when the remaining single-family mansions became too expensive to maintain, many were transformed into schools, condominiums, or embassies, while others were torn down and replaced by massive apartment buildings. The eastern, or downtown half of Pacific Heights is now an apartment district mixed in with some of the finest, and oldest, Victorian-era survivors in San Francisco. The western part of Pacific Heights, built later than the eastern section – from about 1895 until 1925 – boasts some of the largest and most exquisite remaining single-family dwellings in the city. Lower Pacific Heights is a fairly recent enclave extending from the southern boundary of Pacific Heights, California Street, down to Sutter Street.