Mr Bell’s San Francisco: Discovering Russian Hill



Russian Hill’s name comes from the discovery of a cemetery containing the remains of Russian sailors or trappers in 1850. This hilltop warren of parks and rare pre-earthquake architecture make this one of San Francisco’s loveliest areas to explore.


I start my explorations on the corner of Jones and Vallejo streets. The Beaux Arts balustrade in front of me was designed in 1915 by Willis Polk, he was one of the post earthquake architects employed to reconstruct the city.


On the left side of the stairway are some Spanish tile roofed Mission Revival style houses with their typical balconies and arched windows. A lot of the properties on Vallejo Street were built between 1888 and the 1940’s.


At the top of the steps is Russian Hill Place where the backs of those Mission Revival homes have their gardens.


Opposite is Florence Street where at the end is a lovely view of the rooftops of Nob Hill. Some of the homes along this street are Pueblo Mission Revival style.


At the top of Vallejo Street Polk designed some houses in the Bay Area Tradition style, moving away from the gingerbread house design of the Victorian era. The house at number 1019 was built in 1892 and hosted among others Robert Louis Stevenson and Laura Ingalls Wilder, Polk’s own house is at 1013 and is a single sided six story building in the English Arts and Crafts style.


Just below his house Polk created the zigzagging Beaux Arts style Vallejo Street Steps, known locally as “the ramps”. This extensive three part stairway has gardens that are overflowing with plants, palms, pines and cypress trees. At the bottom of the steps is the small Coolbrith Park, the views from here are beautiful and you can see the islands in the bay, North Beach, the Bay Bridge, and the lower Financial District.

On Taylor Street there should be a creaky wooden staircase to take me up to Macondray Lane, however it seems the staircase was a little too creaky and needed replacing so I make my way up some more sturdy stone steps and enter Macondray Lane from the other side.


Macondray Lane is a two block walkway that winds through dense vegetation, it’s filled with “Edwardian” cottages and is really pretty. Numbers 5 to 17 are rare earthquake survivors and have beautiful plaster garlands that drape of their doorways. In Armistead Maupin’s book and television series Tales of the City, Macondray Lane was used as the setting for the fictional Barbary Lane.

On Green Street on the block between Hyde and Leavenworth streets is an area called “the Paris block”, a reference to the house at number 1050 which looks like those in Paris. Also along this block are the last firehouse built for horse drawn vehicles, and the flamboyant 1857 Freusier Octagon House with its mansard roof and cupola.


At Hyde Street I take a right and walk down until I reach the top of Lombard Street, one of the most photographed and crooked streets in the city. Lombard Street has a natural 27% incline but this was levelled slightly to 16% in 1922 when cobblestones were used to pave the street. The street incorporates eight scenic switchbacks which were introduced on the suggestion of a local property owner as a way of increasing pedestrian safety in the 1920’s. Today the street is a major draw for tourists but also is home to some of the most expensive property in San Francisco.

So now I’ve walked down to the bottom of Lombard Street I make the slow climb back up to the top and find myself a nice spot on Hyde Street for a little bit of light refreshment.

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I live in London and work for a large international airline but apart from being my job travel is my passion. I've been very lucky and have travelled all over the world. In this my 20th year working for the airline I decided to start photographing and writing about the places I visit including my home town London. I hope you enjoy my adventures around the world.

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