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A 3-story Victorian on a teacher’s salary? My tour of SF’s Blue Painted Lady was full of delightful surprises

George Horsfall, owner of the Blue Painted Lady, poses for a portrait at the entrance of his private home, where he was raised and gives public tours daily, on Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2023. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

While just about everyone knows the Painted Ladies—the iconic row of Victorian houses that grace Alamo Square (and the opening sequence of Full House), not everyone knows what it’s like to live in one. 

But thanks to George Patrick Horsfall, who lives in the Blue Painted Lady at 712 Steiner St., anyone can get a peek behind the gingerbread trim. He opens his private home to the public every day at 4 p.m. 

I recently met with Horsfall, a generous and gregarious steward of this slice of San Francisco history, for a tour of his home. During my visit, I was met with many delightful surprises.

Owner and tour guide George Horsfall leads Robin Perry and Caria Tomczykowska through the blue Victorian house of Painted Ladies fame on Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2023. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

Painted Ladies, Working Class

If you thought only millionaires lived in the famed Painted Ladies, you’d be forgiven. The house neighboring Horsfall’s, known as the Pink Painted Lady, is on the market for a cool $3.55 million—and that one is in need of a complete renovation

Yet Horsfall’s mother bought the Blue Painted Lady as—wait for it—a school teacher. Horsfall inherited the house after his mother’s death in January 2021. 

The very first owner of the Blue Painted Lady was not a billionaire but a dentist, and from the 1920s to the 1940s, the stretch of Steiner Street was so dangerous it was a place you’d go out of your way to avoid, according to Horsfall. 

The credit for their revitalization goes to gay men who moved into the homes into the 1980s and did much to fix them up. 

The homes, designed and constructed by builder Matthew Kavanaugh from 1892 to 1896, were not intended for the rich and famous but for everyday people—Kavanaugh himself lived in the home at 722 Steiner St. 

Detail of hand-painted wallpaper in the bathroom of George Horsfall’s Blue Painted Lady | Camille Cohen/The Standard

Breaking the Fishbowl Myth

Horsfall says it’s a common theme among visitors—and I’ve thought it myself—that it must be like living inside a fishbowl to have a home throngs of tourists come to visit every day. 

Yet inside the Blue Painted Lady, it is calm and quiet and not a soul is visible from behind the lace curtain windows on the first floor. 

And on the third floor, where the upper pane of the glass window is uncovered, you have the sense you are looking at all the spectators rather than the other way around. 

The home, with its backyard full of wisteria and hummingbirds, is a calm oasis, a respite from city life where you hear nothing at all. 

George Horsfall guides Robin Perry and Caria Tomczykowska through the Blue Painted Lady on Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2023. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

The Steinhenge Effect

Horsfall is quick to point out the magical light tricks of his stunning home, including a stained glass window that casts rainbow prisms onto your hands. 

But the most stunning trick of all is what Horsfall calls “Steinhenge,” a portmanteau between Stonehenge and Steiner Street. 

When the sun begins to set, westerly light hits 712 Steiner St. in such a way that only the Blue Painted Lady is lit up, as if it’s under a heavenly spotlight.  

Detail of a sculpture and a painted portrait of the great-grandmother of George Horsfall, the owner of the Blue Painted Lady | Camille Cohen/The Standard

A Public Home That’s Deeply Personal 

It can be easy to feel as if the Painted Ladies, given their iconic place in the city’s psyche, belong to the city itself instead of individuals. Horsfall claims that many visitors to his home think the city maintains the houses as a tourist destination or that no one lives in them at all—that they are merely a stage set. 

While Horsfall may make his (very famous) home available to the public, it’s a deeply personal place, one that is decorated with heirlooms from his large Swedish family. 

There’s the Chinese lamp with its unusual furled red shade—an item he and his cousins used to think was made with human skin when they were kids. There’s a gas lamp from 1905 that Horsfall converted into an electric light fixture. There’s the crowns of candles for the Swedish holiday Saint Lucia’s Day. There’s the uneaten top tiers of family members’ wedding cakes that somehow have survived for decades. There’s the portrait of Horsfall’s great-grandfather, who the homeowner lovingly calls “the little man.” 

People are so enraptured with the tales of Horsfall’s relatives that, by the end of the tour, they often lament they don’t have a family like his. 

“But they do,” Horsfall reassures them. “Mine just had storage.”

George Horsfall, owner of the Blue Painted Lady, shows memorabilia of his family in his private home, where he was raised and gives public tours daily. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

A Person, Not a Place 

People fall in love with the Blue Painted Lady. Horsfall tells the story of a Bavarian SWAT team member so smitten with the house the homeowner repeatedly says he “was like a puppy dog about her.” 

The Painted Ladies appear in over 70 movies and television shows, according to Horsfall, further cementing them as celebrities. 

And given the “lady” moniker, the house becomes a she—and even more like a person in people’s minds. 

Horsfall, in turn, receives many gifts. But all of them are addressed to the house, not him: keepsakes and paintings and, one time, three boxes of fresh, gourmet meats. While Horsfall insists many times that she’s the celebrity, to me, it seems he’s the real star of the show.

Thanks to his gregariousness and generosity, he has me convinced about the magic of living in a Painted Lady. 

“Good shit happens here,” said Horsfall. “My life has gotten so large thanks to this house.”

Below, more good stuff from another Painted Lady—this time, the pink one.

Video by Jesse Rogala