Inside a Painted Lady

May 10, 2012 at 3pm

The thing about the Full House houses, is that they're not. Or, at least most people are confused. Sure, the Tanner family picnicked in Alamo Square park, but their supposed house was actually over on Broderick. This little fact, of course, does nothing to stop "Everywhere You Look" from swelling into my mind's surround sound whenever I approach Postcard Row. 

Regardless of where Danny Tanner and the gang actually lived, those six houses are by far the most famous in the city. And I get it; it's seriously just so... postcardy up there. Despite having lived six blocks away for years now, I'm still compelled to take a picture any time I find myself in Alamo Square. You can't help it! Every angle and time of day is like walking into a new stock photo. While the bridge clearly wins as far as SF icons go, the Painted Ladies have the added interest of people living inside of them. Try to imagine seeing pictures of your apartment everywhere; postcards and snow globes and giant lit up prints on the side of Walgreens. I'd actually love to have a little 3-D rendering of my apartment on a magnet, but imagining it on hundreds of thousands of fridges around the world is pretty intense. It's the kind of thing I get very curious about, so I sent letters to each of the Ladies asking if I could come by and talk about what it's like to live in a perpetual Kodak moment. 

A few days later, I got a call from George, whose mother, Katherine, lives in the second to last house in the row. We set up a time to meet and a few days later, I was sitting in one of the living rooms behind so many wish you were here missives and memories.

Katherine let me in and chatted with me while we waited for George to arrive. She's a beautiful, tough 79-year-old woman. She was both a model and a teacher at San Quentin. Fifteen years ago, she moved into the house to downsize from her five-story place in Ashbury Heights.

Katherine's family moved to San Francisco in the mid-1800s, and the house is full of passed-down family antiques. They've turned the top floor (what used to be the maid's quarters) into an awesome, tiny museum. Notable items include: a ticket from the opening of the Golden Gate Bridge, a photo of the family's first house in the Mission, two generations of wedding cake tops (not just the figurines, the actual TOPS of the cakes, over 100-years-old), a photo of people gathered in Alamo Square park as the city burned after the 1906 earthquake, and another of a woman cooking with her stove on the sidewalk. (You could use your stove after the quake, but not inside a building.) There are dresses and blouses from the 1800s and a pretty foxy photo of Katherine's father, who held the record for swimming the Golden Gate at the turn of the century.

When George arrived, we sat and sipped wine, gossiping about the neighbors. George is the only living person who has been inside all six of the Painted Ladies. Over the years, movies like Invasion of the Body Snatchers have been filmed inside them, and various famous people have been owners. He told me how Alice Walker (who wrote The Color Purple) used to own one and would host mini Tracy Chapman concerts until the neighbors complained she played the same songs over and over. (I can understand it's only so many times before "Fast Car" becomes "Annoying Car.")  Surprisingly, the houses are not considered landmarks, and at one point there were plans to demolish them to put up a freeway circling the city. Fortunately, the man who lived on the north corner during the time spent a good portion of his life making sure it didn't happen. (Thanks, corner guy!)

George is in real estate and told me, "You know, there are about a billion nicer houses in this city. A thousand times more gorgeous. But there's a curiosity about these houses, and it's funny because it didn't always used to be that way." Before the late '60s, the six houses weren't a "thing" at all, and the area used to be pretty rough back in the day. "They'd find bodies in that park," he told me of Alamo Square; families would move out and all of the houses were at one point chopped into apartments. 

These days, all the houses are back to single family homes, and living in them sounds like a bit of an ordeal. Even on a rainy Thursday afternoon, looking out the window and seeing a constant rotation of about half a dozen people peering through their cameras. From the attic we watched a group of teenage girls approach the street. "Watch, they're going to pick their favorite and pose on the steps," George predicted, matter of factly. "Oh look, we win!" he said as they lined up on his front porch for a photo. People approach him daily in the driveway, often asking him which one is "the" Full House house. One evening, a couple approached Katherine with a sleeping three-year-old, asking her to tell the girl she was "Grandma Tanner" when she woke up. She played the part, Golden Retriever and all, and explained that Michelle was at school. George assured her she was going to hell for this.

The two of them, at least, aren't bothered by all the attention. It's nice to interact with people from all over the world, and they've had a few commercials filmed inside their home (the house on the corner has its own agent.) Once, a woman stopped Katherine to give her a puzzle she'd completed of the row, saying she brought it all the way from her kitchen in Turkey. Another time, a friend brought George a greeting card she'd found where he's unknowingly caught sitting on the steps with his dog. George and his family collect all the little things they find of their house and put it in a binder that's overflowing with postcards and pizza coupons and a hilarious card promoting "bear night," with a burly, naked man posed on the lawn.

The two things they could happily do away with: the tour buses that go by with megaphones (the neighbors are actively trying to ban the double deckers) and the frequent loud parade of drunk people walking by in the middle of the night, screaming up at the windows for DJ and Uncle Jesse.

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