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San Francisco's old 'Victorians' come back like new

Until recently, most Americans have scorned their architectural heritage. San franciscans were no exception. Thousands of San Francisco's 19th-century frame "Victorians" were demolished or allowed to run down past the point of no return. Many other houses had their Victorian charm modernized right out of existence.

Contractors stripped the houses of their richly carved doorways, window trim, and roofline cornices and covered their clapboard facades with asbestos shingles , stucco, "cultured rock," and even aluminum siding.

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But attitudes toward the cities and old houses have changed dramatically in the last few years. San Franciscans now realize that their long-neglected "Victorians" account for much of their city's beauty and, as a result, they are trying to undo some of the damage of past decades.

One of the leaders in this work is San Francisco Victoriana, a restoration firm founded in 1972.

"San Francisco is one of the luckiest cities in America when it comes to rescuing this defaced architectural heritage," declares Gary Kray, one of the firm's three partners.

"'Victorians' are built of wood, not stone or brick, like the 19the-century houses in most American cities," he adds. "You can put back wooden ornamental detail and clapboard. But restoring the facade of a modernized stone or brick-front building is much, much harder."

San Francisco Victoriana offers a custom-design service for would-be house restorers. The firm's designers prepare plans showing what the much-altered building originally looked like. Most house modernizations leave one or two original elements intact. San Francisco Victoriana architects and designers use their remnants as clues to the appearance of the missing features.

Sometimes well-preserved houses on either side of the building in question are helpful because many Victorians were erected as part of a row of five or six identical houses. Occasionally, San Francisco Victoriana finds a 100-year-old photograph of the house in its original condition in a local museum or library.

San Francisco Victoriana doesn't leave the homeowner with a set of restoration plans and no way to achieve them economically.

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The firm sells ready-made duplicates of almost any detail that went into a Victorian: 75 different plaster ceiling rosettes, 8 front doors, 200 redwood moldings, 30 lighting fixtures, and 40 hardware pieces, to name just a few stock items in its showroom located at 606 Natoma Street in downtown San Francisco. The firm also designs and manufactures restoration items on a custom basis.

Bill Lambert, one of the three partners, estimates that San Francisco Victoriana has designed and produced custom details for 400 houses, mostly in San Francisco. About 80 once-defaced houses wear one of San Francisco Victoriana's new "old" facades.

An entirely new facade for the typical two-story "Victorian" costs $15,000 to paint.Although that seems like a lot of money, real-estate brokers figure that by restoring the facade of a badly modernized "Victorian" the resale value goes up by more than the actual cash outlay for the work.

San Francisco Victoriana is a business success, but it also has won praise from architects and historic-preservation leaders all across the US. Gary Kray, Bill Lambert, and Gary Root, the third partner, set up strict aesthetic and manufacturing standards in the beginning and have stuck to them.

The brass hardware, for example, is solid brass, just as it was in the 19th century. The trio uses traditional redwood for their moldings, gingerbread trim , and doors, even though no one can tell the difference from a cheaper wood once it is painted.

Of course, San Francisco Victoriana has to draw the line on historical accuracy somewhere. "We don't use square nails," Mr. Kray says, "even though they are authentic to the Victorian period."

Until 1977 San Francisco Victoriana, as the name implies, concerned itself mostly with San Francisco and the Bay Area. But the thrust of their business now has changed to include the entire country. San Francisco Victoriana design services and ready-made items already have been used on a house in Chicago. Also, the firm is expanding its catalog of ready-made architectural details for the nationwide market.

Nonetheless, San Francisco Victoriana has not forgotten its Bay Area origins.

"After all, there are more than 13,000 'Victorians' in San Francisco alone," according to Mr. Kray, "and more than half of them require restoration to regain their original splendor."

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