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Peer inside some of the grandest private Victorian homes in San Francisco

A woman in a white dress and hat sits on a white sofa in a Victorian home filled with antiques.
Docent Aja De Coudreaux gives explanations of objects inside 824 Grove St. during a tour of a series of stately Victorians decorated for the holidays. | Source: Camille Cohen for The Standard

There’s nary a nightclub in San Francisco’s Alamo Square, but on Sunday evening, lines stretching for more than two blocks prompted passing cyclists and cars to ask the same question: What was everyone waiting around for? 

The grand attraction was a holiday home tour of five of the city’s stateliest Victorians—private homes not typically open to the public—festooned with elaborate Christmas displays that took days to prepare.  

People stand in line outside on a city block where there is an open garage.
Hundreds of vintage- and history-loving community members flocked to Alamo Square to tour a series of stately Victorian homes decorated for the holidays. | Source: Camille Cohen for The Standard

“There was a lot of pent-up demand,” said Joe Mallet, president of the Victorian Alliance of San Francisco, which organized the tour. 

While the group has organized numerous home tours in the past—typically in October—this is the first holiday-themed tour and also the first since the pandemic. 

Nearly 1,000 people turned out to peer inside the spectacular homes, with the $50 price of admission benefiting the Victorian Alliance. The group has raised and given away nearly $500,000 since its founding, said member Jim Warshell, who opened his home at 700 Hayes St., known as the Fisk House, for touring. 

An antique wooden bed has a collection of antique objects on it, including vintage dolls and Christmas decorations.
Antique dolls, wreaths and ephemera are on display in a bedroom inside 824 Grove St., a Victorian-era home in Alamo Square. | Source: Camille Cohen for The Standard

“It’s about education,” he said, and “getting people inside so they are more interested in preserving them.” 

The other goal, Warshell said, is raising money to preserve and restore Victorian structures. A fleet of docents, many of them dressed in period costume, was on hand to guide tourgoers and introduce the cluster of five historic homes on the self-paced walk. The long lines—people waited upward of 30 minutes to enter 712 Steiner St., the Blue Painted Lady of Alamo Square—had the upside of encouraging people to make new friends and even share some vodka. 

“Every house has a surprise,” said Adam Klafter, the alliance’s vice president. “They all have something different to offer.” 

A person walks down a flight of stars.
Decorating these homes for the holidays can take days. | Source: Camille Cohen for The Standard

Multiple houses had still-functional gas light fixtures, with living rooms illuminated by the flickering glow of yesteryear. Others had operational coal stoves. At 700 Hayes St., the owners set the dining table with a place card for every previous owner. Another house—813 Grove St.—had the owners pouring deliciously strong eggnog. 

But the most astonishing of the homes was the Italianate confection at 824 Grove St., known as the Brune-Reutlinger House. Longtime homeowner Richard Reutlinger, who died in 2019, collected an impressive array of Victoriana over his more than five decades in the house, and the current owners are continuing his legacy. There’s a walnut Eastlake table that seats 22 people, a bedroom set previously owned by long-ago San Francisco Mayor Adolph Sutro and a player piano with vintage audio effects including hoof beats and pistol shots. 

A old suit hangs from a mannequin.
The suit of the former owner of 824 Grove St. is on display inside a Victorian home in Alamo Square. | Source: Camille Cohen for The Standard

“He worked his butt off for 54 years,” owner Robert Pritchard said of Reutlinger. “He poured his blood into this house.” 

Though the tour was dizzying in its ornamental detail—from Limoges china to extinct mahogany, taxidermied squirrels to Bradbury & Bradbury wallpaper—the lasting impression of the tour is not the fine furnishings but the ephemera as reflections of the personalities of the inhabitants, like San Francisco native Maurice Duran. 

Duran loves Christmas, and his house at 908 Steiner St. proves it—he travels every year to a small town near Yosemite to collect his 11-foot silvertip fir tree, and then decorates it with glass icicles and vintage bubble lights, ornaments that are on theme with the midcentury cookie jar collection that decorates the kitchen. 

“I grew up in the Excelsior, in the worst house on my block, and now I live in the best house on my block,” he said. “This is San Francisco.”