Ben Ladomirak lives on the Peninsula, but he works in a marvelous old house on Union Street in Cow Hollow. The house is one of a pair built for sisters at the end of the 19th century. The buildings are mirror images of each other: three stories, with curved windows, and full of those gingerbread touches beloved in the late Victorian era – leaded glass, cornices, bay windows, ornamental plaster, brick chimneys.
The big, old house is a San Francisco classic, perfect for the headquarters of Teevan Restoration, which is Ladomirak’s company. Ladomirak and his associates – managers and craftsmen – are old-house doctors. They specialize in Victorians particularly, but others as well, and bringing them back to their former glory.
“Restoration is taking what’s there and making it beautiful,” Ladomirak said. “Remodeling is changing it.”
Clinging to the past
A lot of San Franciscans don’t like change, so they cling to the past, even in a center of high tech. The result is a city that prizes its thousands of Victorian houses, wooden reminders of another age. “They are part of the unique fabric of the city,” Ladomirak said.
That wasn’t always true. In the late 19th century, Ernest Peixotto, a highly regarded San Francisco artist, took a look at the city and hated the way it looked. He is quoted in the current issue of the historical journal Argonaut as calling houses of the famous Queen Anne and Eastlake styles “architectural monstrosities” and “nightmares of the architect’s brain.” The houses were “gabled, loaded with fantastic windows and hideous chimneys.” That was in 1893, the high noon of Victorian San Francisco.
The fire and earthquake of 1906 destroyed at least half of San Francisco, and 50 years later, the Victorian survivors were again disdained.
Victorians were famous for being drafty, lacking central heating and being, well, old-fashioned. In the 1950s, contractors went door-to-door offering to remodel Victorians, and replace the elaborate woodwork with stucco or asbestos siding.
Whole areas of the Western Addition, occupied by African Americans mostly, were declared “blighted” and the old houses where they lived were bulldozed. “It was mayhem,” said Bonnie Spindler, now president of the city’s Victorian Alliance, established in 1974.
Gradually, the architectural pendulum swung the other way. The drab old gray and brown Victorians around the city were rehabilitated and emerged as “Painted Ladies,” a term coined in 1978 by authors Elizabeth Pomada and Michael Larsen.
James Teevan ran one of the businesses that specialized in painting the old houses; it was said he had a passion for Victorians and that he knew the history of every old building in San Francisco. Gradually, his company, Teevan Painting, moved from painting into restoration. He sold the company to Ladomirak and his wife, Jesse, and died in 2002.
Teevan is narrowly focused now. “We went from a very large company to a very small one,” Ladomirak said. The move was deliberate: Teevan is a big fish in a much smaller pond. “I wouldn’t say we are thriving, but we are doing well.”
It is a high-end business. Ladomirak likes to point to work his people did on the 1895 Edward Coleman house at the corner of Franklin and California streets. The house changed owners, and it needed restoration, especially on the exterior. Some of the details were made of horsehair and plaster. You can’t buy that sort of thing at the hardware store, so Teevan’s workers fabricated the pieces.
The house is a Queen Anne, white and gray with gold trim. Ladomirak is proud of the work. “Just look at that,” he said.
The building has always been a classic and a showplace. And now it’s worth a fortune: the Zillow real estate website values the Coleman house at $5.966 million. Good taste does cost more.