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Making a mark on Pacific Heights

John Field designed the six shingled row houses at 2641-63 Union Street.


Although I’ve lived in Pacific Heights for many years and designed homes here, I never thought of myself as a Pacific Heights architect. When I was asked recently how many houses in the neighborhood I have designed, I had to stop and think. I’d never counted them.

There must be 20 or more, most of them published in Sunset or House and Garden. Alas, they aren’t easy to pick out. There’s no unique window style, no striking modern minimalism; San Francisco wouldn’t stand for such statements in the 1960s and 70s. I designed gracious modern housing, most of it blending in with shingles or hiding behind a Victorian exterior. Even then some of the matrons of Pacific Heights thought my designs were out of place.

They may have had a point. I used bay windows in designs that weren’t Victorian, shingle walls as if they were white plaster, and glass wherever there was a view. I turned a ballroom for a mansion into a three-story home and carved parking out of many existing residences, one of them still with a fireplace, mantle and marble trim in the garage.

The real art of designing in San Francisco has always been capitalizing on whatever view there is, while concealing the exposures that aren’t so good. That’s true for city living everywhere.

Within three blocks on Broadway, I designed three completely new houses that are visually related only by their proportions. On the surrounding blocks are eight or 10 irreverently remodeled Victorians, two of them for my own family.

Probably my best known local project is a group of six shingled row houses at 2641-2663 Union Street. The design provoked a storm of protest from neighbors, who feared their property would be devalued by these houses only 16 feet wide — not realizing their own Victorians were often no wider, although built on wider lots. The design was published in several magazines and won many awards, including a special governor’s award for contemporary California design.

As in all cities, the housing stock is limited in Pacific Heights. New owners want to make their houses their own, so they remodel. People live differently now than they did before, and their houses reflect the changes. But I still harbor a hope that some of the simple elegant spirit of the places I have designed will live on.

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