Alexander Clark Real Estate

‘The Front Steps’: Meet the City Architect Who Dethroned the Richmond’s Victorians

The late 19th century, when development in the Richmond truly escalated, was the golden age of the Queen Anne-style Victorian, and the neighborhood sports many fine specimens–but not, evidently, as many as there could have been, thanks to one man and his unsolicited opinion.

In 1900, architect Newton J. Tharp published an essay in Overland Monthly with the incredible headline “What Bad There Is and What Good There Might Be In Inexpensive Architecture,” bemoaning the state of “the dwellings of the poor and of the middle classes in California” as too presumptuous.

In short, Tharp didn’t like the Victorians–and he wasn’t shy, singling out the Richmond as “particularly unfortunate” and the Vics here as “dreary and characterless.”

Speaking of presumptions, Newt, who exactly asked you? Well, according to his obituary, Tharp was actually the official San Francisco city architect, so his opinion presumably carried a lot of weight in some corridors.

(Some of Tharp’s “dreary” Vics.)

Rather than the “swaggering pretension and vulgar ugliness” of the Inner Richmond–geez man, tell us what you really think?–Tharp idealized the “quiet dignity and simplicity of the dwellings of peasants” in Europe, home styles that emphasized “man in his littleness” instead of the baroque ambitiousness of San Francisco architecture.

Working Americans, Tharp preached, should build their homes of humble materials like “common brick made from the nearest bank of clay” (just the thing for a seismic zone…), and not bother with showy additions like arches. “The arch,” he lectured, “is characteristic of masonry only, and has no reason for existence in wood.” Well la-dee-da, Mr. Tharp.

Tharp’s arch comments made an impression, and many SF architects shifted to more straightforward Edwardian and Craftsman designs. Nearly 90 years later, the Foundation For San Francisco’s Architectural Heritage blamed/credited Tharp in particular for devaluing Vics at the turn of the century.

(“An instructive contrast” between baroque and “peasant” styles.)

In fairness, while his attitude is hard to stomach these days, the simpler and more rustic homes Tharp liked are indeed beautiful in their own right, and many of Tharp’s own designs from the time still stand and remain pleasing.

But today as then, Richmond homebuyers continue to favor Vics specifically for the baroque details that made Tharp carp. True, the wooden arches still don’t really hold anything up–but they receive plenty of support from the public.

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