On our second full day in San Francisco the weather gods were not on our side: the weather was grey and cool, and a major rain and windstorm was supposed to arrive in the area. After a nice breakfast at the Queen Anne Hotel we conveniently joined the Victorian Homes Walking Tour, led by local expert Jay Gifford right at our hotel. The Queen Anne Hotel, our home base during this San Francisco excursion, is a stunning example of Victorian architecture and an official stop on the Victorian Homes Walking Tour.
Jay Gifford, our knowledgeable local expert
Jay has been a long-time resident of San Francisco since 1979. After being downsized from his corporate job, he decided to become a walking tour guide, specializing in the plentiful Victorian architecture that San Francisco has to offer. On this somewhat dreary-looking day he must have had about 25 people in tow, all keen to learn more about San Francisco’s Victorian architectural heritage.
The Queen Anne Hotel, first stop on the Victorian Homes Walking Tour
After describing the building’s interior Jay took our group outside where he explained the difference between Queen Anne, Italianate and Stick Style Victorian architecture. He also explained the term “smothering”, which refers to the removal and covering up of authentic Victorian architectural details as it was often practiced from the 1950s to the 1970s. Many of the remaining 14,000 Victorian properties in this era have now been restored, and even homes that were no longer recognizable as Victorian-era structures, are now being lovingly brought back to their former glory with period details and architectural features.
Victorian-inspired decor at the Queen Anne Hotel
Along the way we also saw two synagogues, various churches and apartment buildings from the 1920s. On Laguna Street we stopped for a great view across San Francisco Bay before we continued our walk through the affluent Pacific Heights district which features an eclectic mix of upscale homes. Jay also pointed out the Victorian homes featured in “Mrs. Doubtfire” and in the “Party of Five” television show.
Two and a half hours later we finished our walk in Cow Hollow on Union Street, a popular shopping and restaurant area, just as the first raindrops were starting to fall. We then sat down I a café with Jay to get a better understanding of San Francisco, its history and the mentality of its residents. This is where it got really interesting.
I inquired into his personal history. Jay, a graduate in marketing and Spanish, came to San Francisco in 1979 from Ann Arbor, Michigan. His original destination was Los Angeles but somehow he got stuck in San Francisco. Over the years Jay has done a lot of traveling to places such as South Africa, Zimbabwe, Egypt, Argentina, Peru, Mexico, China, Australia, Thailand, Russia and all sorts of European countries. He is obviously a passionate traveller with a knack for discoveries off the beaten path.
His best local experience was a trip to St. Petersburg, Russia, where he linked up with a local person over the Internet and got a private car tour all over the city. He explored Poland in a similar manner, after connecting with a Polish woman who showed him the city through the eyes of a local. Jay added that people in San Francisco are generally very worldly and well-travelled. People here love diversity, and they have a well-developed sense of curiosity.
When Jay was downsized in 1996 from his position at IBM, he received a severance package and decided to completely revamp his life. He chose a completely new direction and got into the tour guiding business. After all, he had had numerous visitors from out east over the years to whom he had been giving tours. Taking it to the next step and turning his local knowledge into a profession was a logical conclusion. Jay was finally pursuing his passion.
Initially Jay created a long list of tours but found it was difficult to market such a broad offering. He realized that people truly loved his Victorian homes tour, so he decided to focus on this specific tour. He credits his success to the Internet and added that it took him over 10 years to get into various printed guidebooks. He has held the price steady at $20 for the last decade, which is feasible since he has very little overhead and does not spend a lot on advertising. Today his niece helps him with running the business.