Boarding House Living in Victorian San Francisco

O’Farrell Street Boarding House

The main protagonist of my Victorian San Francisco Mystery series is Annie Fuller, a fictional character who owns a boardinghouse on the south side of the 400 block of O’Farrell Street, between Jones and Taylor. In the small downstairs parlor of this house, she runs a business as a clairvoyant. With much amusement, when I went to check out what this block is like today, I discovered that there was a psychic who was working at 434 O’Farrell, just about where, in my author’s imagination, I had placed Annie’s home.

In the 1870s, O’Farrell street would have been a mixture of older homes and businesses, with a number of homes located above businesses on the first floor. The street itself was named for Jasper O’Farrell, the Irishman who surveyed and lay out the original street plan for the city, creating its unique pattern of streets going up and down the steep hills that exist north Market Street. While the 400 block of O’Farrell was on a slight decline going down towards the four blocks to Market Street, if Annie looked up Taylor from O’Farrell, she would have been looking up the steep incline towards California Street and Nob Hill. After 1873, with the opening of the first cable cars, Nob Hill had become the home of the most wealthy citizens of the city.

San Francisco was known for its boarding house living, with travelers commenting on the number of people who lived in fashionable boardinghouses and hotels. Boardinghouse keeping was also the primary way that married and widowed women contributed to their household income. While the size of boarding houses varied, from my own work on the 1880 U.S census, I found that the average number of boarders that women cared for in their own homes was 5.6. Since single rooms in San Francisco rented for two to eight dollars a month, this represented income of $262 to $537 a year, a very respectable income for that time period. Annie rents out six rooms (although there were 9 boarders in total), which made her a very typical boardinghouse keeper. (By the way, the link up above to boardinghouse keeping was something I wrote years ago for the Women’s Studies Encyclopedia.)

Annie Fuller’s boardinghouse was built in the late 1850s, by her Aunt Agatha and Uncle Timothy, from whom she inherited the home. It is two stories—actually four if you count the attic, which has three usable rooms, and the basement, with the kitchen, laundry and Kathleen’s room. The building is in the Greek Revival style, which was very briefly popular in San Francisco in the 1850s, before the Italianate and Second Empire styles began to dominate. Few of these style homes survived the Earthquake and Fire of 1906, which would have destroyed Annie’s House. Here is a link of a photograph from Jones Street, looking down O’Farrell towards the 400 block of O’Farrell.

Residential houses in the Greek Revival style included a front porch and a pitched roof over the attic, as well as a symmetrical floor plan. In Annie’s boardinghouse, the front door is in center of house, with small parlor and study on left (which has been turned into Madam Sibyl’s domain) a formal parlor and dining room on the right, and stairs going up to a landing then on up to second floor. The usual door to the back of the house (the servants realm) leads to a short passageway, including the back stairs, and a short flight of stairs down to the basement kitchen.

On the second floor on the right-hand side is a suite of two rooms, occupied by the Steins. On the left is Annie’s room, one of the largest in the house, and a bathroom. There are two rooms at the back of the house on that floor, one occupied by Miss Pinehurst, the other shared by the two clerks, Mr. Chapman and Mr.Harvey. In the attic the two spinster seamstresses, Minnie and Millie Moffet, share a room, Barbara Hewitt and her son Jamie share another, and Beatrice O’Rourke, Annie’s cook and housekeeper, has her own room.

As the writer of historical cozy mysteries, Annie Fuller’s boardinghouse offers both a chance to portray what life was like for people who lived in San Francisco in the 1870s and create the small community that characterizes cozy mysteries. The O’Farrell Street boardinghouse, like the small village of the traditional cozy, provides a ready-made group of characters that play the double role of aiding my protagonist as she unravels a mystery and also providing the possibility of new plots for additional works. For example, the teacher Barbara Hewitt and her son James and his dog are introduced in Maids of Misfortune, get to be the center of the plot in the short story Dandy Detects, and play a minor role in my second novel, Uneasy Spirits. They will be even more central to the plot in my third book, Bloody Lessons.

Oberlin, Ohio Rooming House

I suspect that another reason that I created the O’Farrell Street boardinghouse as a key setting in my mysteries had to do with my own history. In my early twenties my husband and I lived in and managed a rooming house (we didn’t provide meals-so it wasn’t a boardinghouse) in the small college town of Oberlin, Ohio. The house was built in the 1800s and was very similar in lay-out to Annie’s house (including bay windows), and I loved the experience of taking care of that house and living in the mini-community that was created by the 8 to 10 people who lived in its rooms.

As a result, every time I return to Annie’s boardinghouse I get to relive, just a little, that tiny bit of my own past. I am curious, have any of you every lived in a boardinghouse? If so, do you identify at all with the Victorian boarding house I have created?

7 Replies to “Boarding House Living in Victorian San Francisco”

  1. Thanks so much for sharing the photos of 19th century San Francisco, Ms. Locke. This just adds another dimension of understanding and enjoyment of your stories and I especially enjoyed your description of the charm and decorum of that era. Looking forward to future writings of yours. Continued success. Sincerely, Linda

  2. It was so interesting to see how Annie’s boarding house may have looked. Not what I had envisioned when I read the story but charming nonetheless. I’d heard how devastaing the earthquake was in 1906 but the photo really brought it into perspective. I’ve never owned or lived in a boardinghouse but my parents ran a bed and breakfast during the summers. I suppose it may be somewhat similar. I greatly enjoy these posts. Can’t wait for the next.

  3. I also am researching bording houses – specifically those in San Jose and Sacramento in the 1890s to 1915. If you have any source hints, do let me know. All the best to you in your writing works; I love reading and writing historical fiction!

  4. Can’t wait to get an opportunity to stop by that area an investigate that atea.. very interested in the old homes..

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