San Francisco’s Stairways to Havens; Trails of the City


Growing up on the Monterey Bay, we and most people we knew, referred to San Francisco simply as “The City”. A visit here was an exciting prospect; a time to get dressed up, to go shopping, to visit a museum or see a show. And of course, a chance to enjoy a delicious meal in one of San Francisco’s famed restaurants. My family still lives near Santa Cruz, but I have lived for the last two decades in the city, and I have loved every minute of it.

In my business I meet many people from other parts of the country, and some have made comparisons about San Francisco with other cities. Some comments include that Dubai has more innovative new architecture, that New York has a more exciting nightlife, and that Vegas has better shows. To this I have replied that San Francisco “is really just a big village.”  The city is actually a collection of small villages, each with its own character and secrets. Tucked away in the dense urban landscape are neighborhoods joined by pedestrian-only lanes and stairways. I would love to share with you a recent walk I took with a friend. Some of these places are hidden gems, and others are well-worn on the tourist trail.  All have small pocket gardens and vistas which delight at every turn.

We begin our tour on the verdant stairway neighborhood in Russian Hill known as “Havens Place”.

San Francisco was once known as the “Gateway to the East”, and a Far Eastern aesthetic was incorporated with Western traditions early on. The interest in alternative ways of thought and living allowed the emergence of Eastern disciplines into the city’s culture. The Buddhist sculpture and other references is evidence of that influence here.


Protected from the prevailing winds off the Pacific and the Bay, subtropical tree ferns, palms and various species of bamboo flourish in the sheltered micro-climate.


There are many gardens tucked in and around Havens Place. A leading San Francisco plantswoman, Tova Wiley started the annual plant sale at Strybing Arboretum in 1967.

On my last visit, we were delighted to meet the owner of this lovely garden at the top of Havens place who invited us inside.

A gazebo, dry stonework and colorful perennial plantings re-inforce the “country in the city” quality of this area.


As we retrace our steps, tantalizing glimpses of the city emerge from the dense foliage.

A short jaunt from Havens Place is another pedestrian-only neighborhood, Macondray Lane. Considered the inspiration for the fictional  “Barbary Lane” in Armistead Maupin’s Tales of The City, the wooded enclave has had many literary associations. Mark Twain is said to have strolled here while courting the poet, Ina Coolbrith, in the 1860’s.

No. 15-17 Macondray Lane was installed in 1872 after being shipped from the East coast and “around the horn” of South America to San Francisco.


This has to be one of my favorite sights along this lane. I appreciate the contrast between classic architecture represented here by this balustrade and the inexorability of nature.

Above Macondray Lane is the summit of Russian Hill. The entrance to this enchanting enclave is approached by paired ramps with Beaux Arts balustrades. Built in 1915 by Willis Polk (1867-1924), the famed architect was also comissioned by the Livermore family to construct the townhouses shown here.

This house on Florence Place on the Vallejo Crest exhibits the origins of the Bay Area regional tradition in architecture. Contrasting sharply with the Victorian and eclectic wood frame revival styles being built in the city at the time, classical forms such as the portico shown here are incorporated with a shingled downswept facade.  I think the Lutyens bench is the perfect period touch, and the newpaper on the steps indicates this structure is enjoyed as a private residence today.

While I was enjoying the view looking southeast to downtown and the Transamerica Pyramid building, I heard the flock of wild parrots which make Russian Hill home pass overhead.


Panoramic views of the city, the bay bridge, Treasure Island and the East Bay hills beyond are enjoyed from the small park on the eastern side of the summit.

Looking south from the park is the achitect’s Willis Polk’s own home and studio. Built in 1892, the shingled structure was a double residence comissioned by the painter, Mrs Virgil Williams. Polk waived his professional fee in exchange for the eastern half of the property. Years ago I visited Polk’s residence on a house tour and was suprised by the different levels which cleverly hugged the hillside. The redwood interior is flooded with light, and this aerie commands close-up views of the downtown skyline with a breathtaking immediacy.

Looking north from the pocket park, luxury pre-war apartment buildings are part of the varied mix of structures which contributes to Russian Hill’s unique urbanity.
In the late 1920’s the legendary French designer Jean Michel Frank created a luxurious modern interior in the penthouse for millionaire Templeton Crocker. Considered one of the masterpieces of 20th century interior design, the penthouse combined modern forms with luxurious materials. Squares of parchment covered the walls and ceiling, whilst modern armchairs in white leather were placed with parsons tables, some fabicated in bronze and others covered in expensive shagreen.

On Green Street known as “The Paris block” a few brightly painted Victorians are similar to the type of structures which compose the city.

The house at 1055 Green Street has a facinating history. Originally built in 1866, the house was spared the flames of the great San Francisco fire of 1906. In 1915, the architect Julia Morgan (architect: Hearst castle) transformed the house into the Italianate villa we see today. Decades later the interiors were re-worked by the late elder statesman of San Francisco design, Anthony Hail. An enfilade of light filled well-proportioned rooms separated by tall double doors housed museum quality Russian, Scandinavian and French Neoclassic antiques. The rather quiet front facade gives little hint as to the true scope of the villa, the interiors of which came to epitomize the very best of the highly sophisticated taste and style of San Francisco.
The villa’s association with the best of design continued with later occupants, being recently featured in Architectural Digest with the work of the designer, James Marzo. It is interesting to note the fabric swatches taped to the windows in the image shown here suggesting a current design project.

Next door is the ”Feusier-Octagon House”, originally built in 1857. The Second Empire mansard roof was added in the 1880’s. Once considered a model design for healthful living, the San Francisco landmark is one of a few octagon houses which populate the city.

Across the street “Engine House #31  was built in 1907 as a firehouse following the San Francisco earthquake and fire.

Leaving Russian Hill and trekking through the colorful Italian North Beach district we come to Telegraph Hill. Coit tower, placed advantageously on its summit, can be admired from various vantage points in the city as we have seen.  To San Franciscans and its many visitors, the hill and its tower are seemingly interchangeable.

Departing from the commanding heights of the tower, we make our way to another pedestrian stairway neighborhood, the Filbert steps.

Unlike the other stairways we have traversed, there is nothing “secret” or “hidden ” about these descending walkways. On a recent visit we met people from all over the world enjoying this neighborhood’s ambiance. A friend with me said it was like visiting the United Nations considering the various languages heard. It was a wonderfully “only in San Francisco” kind of experience.


This particular section of the steps has a strong Mediterranean quality. The warm, dry summers and the cool wet winters which characterize the Mediterranean climate model, along with the sheltered position of this location, allows glorious displays of Bouganvilia sp. and other frost tender species to thrive.


Leaving this section of the Filbert steps, we can view an Art Deco apartment building immortalized as the residence of Lauren Bacall and the sanctuary of Humphrey Bogart in the 1947 film noir classic, Dark Passage.  I can just imagine the period streetlight amidst swirling fog with the vintage sounds of foghorns.


At night, Coit tower is lit by floodlights.  Combined with the atmosphere of evening fog, the tower is a comforting presence.

San Francisco, along with places like Grenwich Village in Manhattan ,were in the last century havens of Bohemia;  artists, writers and thinkers who rejected the status quo found a place of great beauty and intellectual ferment here. Two world class universities were established near the city in the late 19th century: The University of California at Berkeley  and Stanford. The funding and the rivalry of these two institutions cannot be underestimated in the grounding of the Bay Area as an intellectual center. The development of computer innovations and the internet was naturally born in this free and innovative milieu.

In the 1930’s a remarkable woman named Grace Marchant lived  here at Filbert Steps and Napier Lane. Disgusted by the trash and neglect on these hillsides, Grace Marchant personally moved mountains of refuse including old bed springs and household junk, planting trees and flowering shrubs which flourish today.

Today the garden is treasured by the Telegraph Hill residents who have maintained the garden and insured its survival on a difficult, sloping site.


On the bright sunny morning when we recently visited these steps, the aroma of fresh coffee drifted from this terrace.


Here at the intersection of the Filbert Steps and Napier Lane is a good place to sit on the hand-made bench and commune in  the sheltered setting. The colorful wild parrots which we heard on Russian hill have made this their primary home and dart among the buildings and branches.


Sitting on the bench we can see the gate to the garden itself.


The gardens are completely organic, and mass plantings of drought tolerant species conserve water and prevent erosion.


It is hot now in the Marchant gardens. The fragrance of rose is heady.


Sitting in this garden at the end of our walk, I was reminded of how much I love living here. The city is not without its share of urban problems, but living here has proved to be as exciting and fun as visits were in my youth. I am still discovering things about the city I call home, where a hidden garden is around every corner.