San Francisco Lombard Street

Welcome to the Lombard Street!

This “crookedest street” is on many lists of top San Francisco attractions. Most people love it and it will be exciting to visit this place with your friends by sitting on the back seat of your little car, giggling in delight and shouting “Hooray!” as you drive downhill. On the downside, during busy times, the wait for the short ride down can feel longer than a round trip to the moon.

For a behavioral scientist, this would be the perfect place to study scatterbrained tourist behavior. They could take notes as distracted picture-takers block traffic, stop pedestrians and even impede the local parrot flock flying overhead. Their assistants could tally family portraits that are photo-bombed, on purpose or by accident. And biology grad students could analyze whether daily close encounters with automobile bumpers make the charming roadside flowers feel paranoid. If it weren’t for that zany tourist scene, people would be looking the opposite direction, at a view that takes in half the city and the street’s residents would enjoy more peace and quiet around their $1 million to $3 million homes.

San Francisco famously boasts some of the steepest streets in the country. Whether you’re walking or driving, the varying gradient of the road is sure to catch your attention and give your heart rate a healthy boost. Lombard Street is one of the most unique of the vertically endowed roads and is a great stop to add to any itinerary. It is an East–West Street in San Francisco, California that is famous for a steep, one-block section with eight hairpin turns. The street was named after Lombard Street in Philadelphia by San Francisco surveyor Jasper O’Farrell.

People are often puzzled as to why this street is so crooked. The answer is safety. The naturally steep grade of the street posed a severe safety hazard. But did you know that Lombard isn’t truly the “crookedest” street in the world? In fact, it’s not even the crookedest street in San Francisco. That honor belongs to Vermont Street between 20th and 22nd streets in the Portrero Hill neighborhood. Though technically slightly curvier than Lombard, and an interesting sight in its own right, this street doesn’t have the fame or the visual beauty that Lombard Street has, which is why people flock to Lombard Street to take photos during their visit.
Here comes the History that is lying behind these streets. The block of Lombard between Hyde and Leavenworth Streets began as a straight, cobblestone street with a 27% grade.  In the 1920s the people living on this street wanted cars, but the street was too steep for vehicles. Carl Henry, insurance and drug business executive, is credited with, initially proposing the idea of a curved street.  Henry owned half of the lots on the 1000 block of Lombard and land all around the street. He created a lily pond and rose gardens, and had planned to give his land to the city as a park. However, when he died, his widow sold the property to pay off debts.

Since the Lombard Street lots were inaccessible by autos, the property values were not as high as on neighboring streets. The landowners approached city engineer Clyde Healy, who came up with the street design.

A newspaper article published in the San Francisco Call, 6 December 1905, “New Street Transportation Ideas Are Suggested to City’s Merchants” mentions another civil engineer hired by the Merchants Association. This article indicates that in 1905 the Merchants Association hired a civil engineer named William Barclay Parsons to advise them how to improve San Francisco transportation. Parsons advocated the use of tunneling and terracing. The article includes sketches from his report showing how the terracing would look on California Street and on the slopes of Nob Hill. The California Street drawing is very similar to what was actually done on Lombard in 1922 and Vermont in 1928. It seems likely that when Carl Henry proposed the idea of a curved street, he may have been recalling the Parsons’ report, or possibly city engineer Clyde Healy found a copy of the plan for terracing.

A property owner in the area suggested the scenic switchbacks to add aesthetic appeal while increasing safety for pedestrians. When the two-way, brick paved street was constructed in 1922, the curved switchbacks were installed and the grade was reduced to 16%. This one block of the street consists of eight turns and approximately 250 steps on each side. Cars can only drive downhill, eastbound towards Leavenworth Street. The agreement was that the city would pay for the street, and the residents would pay for the steps and maintain the plantings. When the work was completed, people could drive up and down, and the property values rose.    

From the beginning, the neighbors bickered about the plantings, and many would not pay for maintenance. One resident on the block, Peter Bercut, businessman and Commissioner of Parks and Recreation, would trim his neighbors’ shrubbery, which his wife said really annoyed them. Then early one morning before dawn, Bercut hired a bulldozer to mow down all the plants and started planting flowers. Peter Bercut was also an avid horseman. The Bercut Equitation Field in Golden Gate Park was named for him in 1949.   

Bercut’s plantings did not hold back the erosion until, after a trip to his native France, he had the idea to plant hydrangeas. The brilliantly-colored block became known by people living in the neighborhood, but was not a tourist destination until, in the late 1950s, a photograph showing the hydrangeas in bloom was published, and in 1961 was printed on a postcard. Soon thousands of tourists were driving down the street.

The street was made one-way in 1939. During its high season, summer weekends, as many as 350 cars per hour drive down the street. Some tourists even ask to use residents’ bathrooms. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors has been presented with petitions to close the street to all except residents in 1970, 1977, and 1987. Each time the Board has decided there is no cause for the closure, despite Dianne Feinstein taking up the cause for residents when she was a supervisor. Tour buses were banned in 1980.

If you compare today’s crooked street with photos from the past, you see that many older single family homes have been demolished to be replaced by more lucrative multiunit buildings. One house, torn down in the 1970s for a planned 28-story apartment building, was purported to be designed by Bernard Maybeck, although this was disputed by its owner, Louis Petri, a winemaker who owned Italian Swiss Colony. Because of court actions by the residents, this development was never built. That house had once been owned by Elizabeth Huntington Metcalf, daughter of Southern Pacific Railway founder Collis P. Huntington’s nephew and heir, Henry Huntington, whose collections became the Huntington Library and Botanical Gardens in Southern California. She had purchased several of Carl Henry’s lots, including his rose gardens. The land was sold to Petri after her death in 1967.

In 1999 a ‘Crooked Street Task Force’ tried to solve traffic problems around the winding section of Lombard Street. In 2001 the task force decided it would not be legal to permanently close the block to vehicular traffic. Instead, it decided to institute a summer parking ban in the area, to bar eastbound traffic on major holidays, and to increase fines for parking in the area. The task force proposed the use of minibuses to ferry sightseers to the famous block, although residents debated the efficiency of such a solution, since one of the attractions is driving down the twisting section.

Some of San Francisco’s most expensive real estate sits on Lombard Street. The Russian Hill neighborhood in the Lombard Street possesses stately mansions even with the endless array of tourists pouring down the street every day. You can also watch some of the famous homes that are all just steps away from the crooked part of Lombard Street. You can’t go inside them, but you can notice them from the outside as you’re walking around this area. The famous homes include: The Real World House, The Montandon House, Scottie’s Apartment from Vertigo.

Although the walk is steep, visiting Lombard Street doesn’t take a lot of time. From this area you are within short walking distance to North Beach, Chinatown and Fisherman’s Wharf which all have their own attractions. You are also located just a few blocks away from the San Francisco Art Institute, which sometimes has events, lectures and art shows for the public.
But all this doesn’t matter for Lombard Street: it is the most photogenic of them all, especially in the spring and summer when the many chrysanthemums in the well tended flowerbeds are in full bloom.


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