On April 18, 1906, the greatest natural disaster in American history hit San Francisco in the form of an 8.3 earthquake that opened gas mains, ruptured water lines, cut off telegraph contact with the outside world, and started some four dozen fires that grew into an enormous, wind-whipped conflagration. When it was all over, 3,000 people were dead, 250,000 were homeless, and most of the city's busiest quadrant was leveled. Surprisingly, a few pockets of real estate survived the devastation, as did such structures as the U.S. Mint, the Flood mansion on Nob Hill, Old St. Mary's in Chinatown, and a few outlying architectural icons like Mission Dolores and the Conservatory of Flowers. All stand to this day, as do the favorites that follow.
Jones, McAllister, & Market streets
Legendary architect Willis Polk called Albert Pissis' ornate, domed edifice “the most beautiful building in San Francisco” when it was constructed in 1892, but despite its rococo styling and fine detail, it's not too surprising that it survived an earthquake 30 times more powerful than the 1989 Loma Prieta: You can tell just by looking at the thing that it's meant to last. Twelve robust pillars flank a circular vestibule, a green rotunda topped with a spire rises above this angular intersection, and set into the clad stonework between the pillars are 10 intricately framed vaulted windows. The overall effect is strong, harmonious, and undeniably gorgeous.
Filbert & Sansome
Beneficial winds and independent sources of H2O saved the crests of Russian and Telegraph hills from complete destruction, and just below Coit Tower there are several fine old homes in the early-Victorian Carpenter Gothic style. Our favorite is the handsome two-story at 228 Filbert. Situated along the rustic and rickety Filbert Steps, surrounded by gorgeous bay views, and framed in encroaching foliage, this 1873 home features the clean lines, simple clapboards, and peaked roofline of a Gold Country cottage, transported bodily to this dazzling perch.
Fort Point National Monument
The Presidio, end of Marine Drive (under the Golden Gate Bridge toll plaza), 556-1693
Fort Point was built in the most weather-beaten corner of the city to protect San Francisco Bay from seaborne attack 150 years ago, so a little thing like an earthquake wasn't going to ruffle its 12-foot-thick brick and granite walls much. Its four stories of winding stone staircases and well-preserved barracks, hospital, stockade, and powder magazine are fun and kind of eerie to explore, especially with the Golden Gate's fierce winds and fog swirling about. Just inside the entrance stands one of the city's true treasures: a bronze cannon cast in Peru in 1684 and etched with the coat of arms of the Royal House of Spain. Fort Point never fired a shot in anger (it was already obsolete when it was completed in 1861) and today looks pretty much the way it did back then.
2220 Sacramento (at Laguna)
West of Van Ness and the 1906 fire line stand several lovely vintage structures, some of them dating back to the 1850s. The three-story Cudworth mansion at 2040 Union is especially noteworthy if only for its storied history (the notorious Gas Pipe Thieves used it as a hideout in the 1890s), but the splendid old chateau at 2220 Sacramento is our favorite. Built in 1887 by Utah Sen. Richard C. Chambers, this hugely impressive twin-turreted Queen Anne Victorian was for several years the Mansions bed-and-breakfast, one of city's great boutique hotels, ornately and eccentrically decorated with tapestries, memorabilia, and the world's largest collection of sculptures by radical S.F. artist Beniamino Benvenuto Bufano.
722 Montgomery (at Jackson)
Although the quake and fire wiped out the Barbary Coast's dance halls, brothels, and saloons, three square blocks of the neighborhood emerged more or less unscathed, and these Gold Rush-era offices and warehouses offer a rare glimpse into San Francisco's past. Alongside the original Ghirardelli chocolate factory and the fabled Hotaling's Whiskey warehouse (as the old ditty goes, “If, as they say, God spanked the town/ For being over-frisky,/ Why did He burn His churches down/ And spare Hotaling's Whiskey?”) is the Belli Building. This handsomely restored brick-and-brass structure has housed many an enterprise (most notably the Melodeon Theater, a favored venue of superstar Lotta Crabtree) since it was built a half-century before the earthquake.