Painted Ladies, Jeans, and Strange Birds

By: Stuart J. Fischer, MD

Stuart J. Fischer, MD

Who are San Francisco’s “Painted Ladies”? They’re not a group of colorful women; they’re six Victorian houses in Alamo Square painted in bright colors to show their detail. The houses were built in the 1890s by local resident Matthew Kavanaugh. They’ve appeared in many postcards and guidebooks and formed the backdrop for the television series “Full House.” One of the Ladies was recently listed on the San Francisco realty market for just under $4 million.

Painted Ladies

Speaking of “ladies,” San Francisco’s famous cable cars never had a female operator until 1998, 125 years after they first went into service. The cable cars are the only National Historic Landmark in motion. They were designed by Andrew Smith Hallidie, whose family manufactured wire rope. He conceived the idea of single cars running on an underground cable line. The first line was built in 1873.

Each of the cars has three separate brakes and runs at a constant speed of 9.5 miles per hour. The longest line, California Street, has more than 4 miles of underground cable.

Today there are three cable car lines but the 12 cars on the California Street line are different and heavier than the 28 cars on the two Powell lines. The Powell–Hyde cable car line stops at the top of Lombard Street and offers a great view of Telegraph Hill, Alcatraz, and the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge.

Good herbs
Did you know that originally, the small enclave of San Francisco was known as Yerba Buena (good herb)? In 1846, Capt. John Montgomery landed the USS Portsmouth at Yerba Buena and claimed the area for the United States. He put Lt. Washington Bartlett in charge, and Lt. Bartlett changed the name of the town to San Francisco. He also named Montgomery Street, which runs through downtown, after his captain.

Today, Yerba Buena is the name of an island in San Francisco Bay. A tunnel through Yerba Buena Island connects the two halves of the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge.

Show biz connections
Tony Bennett wasn’t born in San Francisco but is always associated with the city. He first performed his legendary hit, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” at the Venetian Room in the Fairmont Hotel on Nob Hill in 1981. Mr. Bennett continued to perform there for more than 20 years.

Orthopaedic surgeons once appeared at the Venetian Room as well. During the 1982 International Pediatric Orthopaedic Symposium, most of the event rooms at the Fairmont were booked. The evening trauma conference was held in the Venetian Room, with a panel that included AAOS Now editor-in-chief S. Terry Canale, MD, sitting on stage.

Jailbirds and jeans
Alcatraz Island, the famous federal prison known as “The Rock” in San Francisco Bay, is named for the brown pelicans that inhabited the island. Juan Manuel de Ayala, a Spanish explorer who first charted the island, named it “La Isla de los Alcatraces,” using the Spanish word for “strange birds.” The Alcatraz lighthouse is the oldest lighthouse on the Pacific coast.

San Francisco is known for sourdough bread and counterculture, but first made its name as the home of blue jeans. Levi Strauss had been a wholesaler in San Francisco for almost 20 years. In 1872, he was approached by a tailor from Nevada, Jacob Davis, who made work pants for miners and wanted to use metal rivets for the pockets. Together they patented the process and Strauss began to produce “waist overalls” made of denim with copper rivets.

The Giants weren’t the first baseball team to play in San Francisco. The San Francisco Seals played in the Pacific Coast League starting in the early 1930s. In 1932, their shortstop was injured and outfielder Vince DiMaggio, a San Francisco native, asked his manager to give his younger brother Joe a tryout.

Joe DiMaggio played for the Seals for 3 years before moving to the New York Yankees. In 1933, as a member of the Seals, he had hits in 61 straight games, even though he is better known for his 56-game streak with the Yankees.

The Giants played in Seals Stadium during their first two seasons in the Bay area before Candlestick Park was built in 1960.

AT&T Park is built next to an area of San Francisco Bay known as McCovey Cove after the Giants’ famous first baseman. Home run balls hit over the right field wall land in the water and are called “splash hits.” So far, there have been more than 60 splash hits, most of them made by Barry Bonds.

Other landmarks
Russian Hill was named after a Russian cemetery in the area. It is home to Lombard Street, thought to be the crookedest street in the world. The eight switch-back turns were the idea of a local resident to force cars to slow down on the 27 percent grade. The street is paved in red brick and speed is limited to 5 mph.

Bank of America started out as a local San Francisco bank, Bank of Italy, founded by Amadeo Giannini to serve small depositors and borrowers. In 1906, with much of the city destroyed by the San Francisco earthquake, Mr. Giannini was able to move his bank’s deposits by hiding them in a garbage wagon. He then set up a temporary bank near his home.

Later on, Bank of Italy merged with a Los Angeles bank and took the name Bank of America. Mr. Giannini also founded Transamerica Corporation, which was spun off as a separate company. The Transamerica Pyramid, built in 1972, is one of the San Francisco skyline’s most famous landmarks.

The monument on top of Telegraph Hill looks like the nozzle of a fire hose, but it is really the Coit Tower. Many people thought it was built to honor the city’s firefighters because Lillie Coit, who donated the money to build the structure, loved to chase fires and was an honorary member of the Knickerbocker Engine Company. The tower, however, was built after her death and the architect denied any connection.

Stuart J. Fischer, MD, is a member of the AAOS Now editorial board.