Historic brown-shingle houses, sweeping views and botanical treasures comprise Russian Hill, San Francisco’s country getaway.
"This is where the illusion of country living within a city is maintained," said Kathleen Doyle, a member of City Guides, a group of city historians who offer free tours of various San Francisco locales.
Stretching some 35 blocks, this urban retreat derives its name from Russian sailors buried in its soil. The hill encompasses four historical districts and once offered refuge to the literary likes of Jack London and Mark Twain. "This whole area was a haven for artists," Doyle said.
Doyle has a unique way of describing this portion of the City by the Bay - "patrician elegance and bohemian charm." Russian Hill "has become a very ’in’ place to live," she said.
Narrow stairways hidden amid gardens of green scale the hill’s 294 feet. The city’s Powell-Hyde cable car line slides through its heart past Lombard Street - the "crookedest street in the world" - and down to Fisherman’s Wharf.
One of the city’s best views awaits visitors at Vallejo and Jones streets. Coined the "Vallejo crest" by locals, this historic district is perfect for scanning the city’s downtown area, its waterfront, even the East Bay hills of Berkeley and Oakland. The crest also brims with brown-shingle country cottages, some of the most expensive homes in the city. The oldest was built in 1857 on nearby Florence Street. "These types of houses were built as an expression of rebellion against the city’s gingerbread Victorian houses," Doyle said.
According to Doyle, legend has it that a famous San Francisco architect named Willis Polk, who built one of the cottages atop the crest in the late 1800s, had a secret passage constructed by the fireplace so he could slip away with various lady companions.
There are other inspirations, both obvious and hidden, atop the hill.
Walk down the crest about 20 yards and stop at Russian Hill Place, a charming side street boasting little villas similar to those found in Northern Italy.
Turn right at Vallejo and Jones streets and walk across Green Street to the historic district known as Macondray Lane, a narrow dirt path leading down the hill a distance of one block to Taylor Street. Concrete and blacktop yield to a stone walkway hidden from the street by trees and gardens.
Green Street between Jones and Leavenworth streets is another of the hill’s historic districts. Known as the Paris block of the street, at least seven houses on this block are part of the district, including one of two remaining octagon style homes in San Francisco.