Noe Valley Voice December-January 2010

City Guides Opens Eyes in Noe Valley

By Erica Reder 

Edwardians, Italianates, and Queen Anne Victorians like this one at Jersey and Diamond are highlights of a tour led by City Guide Judy Stevens (visible at right).    Photo by Pamela Gerard

On a recent Sunday afternoon, nine people gathered at the Noe Valley Library to take a San Francisco City Guides tour of the neighborhood. For the next two hours, guide Judy Stevens led the group on a walking introduction to the area’s architecture and history. By the end of the walk, participants could identify the three kinds of Victorian houses in Noe Valley, and point out the home of the West Coast’s first car. Another band of local trivia buffs created, courtesy of San Francisco City Guides.

The nonprofit offers free walking tours of San Francisco 360 days a year, covering over 70 itineraries throughout the city. “Noe Valley: A Village Within the City” has been offered since 2008, when experienced guides Susan Walsh and Eileen Keremitsis put together a tour of a neighborhood they knew well.

“I think it’s a great community and so full of beautiful Victorian homes,” says Walsh, a Noe Valley resident. She coordinates the twice-monthly tours, which follow Keremitsis’ original script.

Keremitsis wrote with a local audience in mind. “I assumed originally that the walk would appeal primarily to Noe Valley residents,” Keremitsis explains. This turned out not to be the case. Most groups attract a sizable share of out-of-towners. (Sunday’s tour included visitors from as far away as Connecticut.) Still, the walk retains Keremitsis’ original purpose.

“I wanted to give people some clues as to how they could find out about their own neighborhood, their own block,” she says. “What does a peaked roof tell you? A flat roof? I wanted people to get some clues about when their neighborhood was constructed.”

The history-through-architecture approach figured prominently on Sunday’s tour, which covered roughly 20 blocks of slightly hilly terrain. Stevens gave an over­view of the neighborhood’s major styles and builders before stopping every block or so to point out examples of each. On the corner of Jersey and Diamond streets, participants learned that Queen Anne houses often feature towers and peaked roofs. At Castro and Clipper, they encountered faŤades with builder Fernando Nelson’s donut-shaped details.

The group also saw what Stevens calls Noe Valley’s most unique feature: cluster buildings. These rows of identical houses highlight the neighborhood’s working-class roots. The first example appeared across the street from the library, in the 400 block of Jersey Street.

“It was not a high-rent area,” explains Stevens. “Because of that, builders came in and bought maybe three, five, ten lots in a row. They built virtually identical houses on a scale for the working man.”

Although Noe Valley has become increasingly upscale in recent decades, Keremitsis finds the neighborhood’s modest past appealing.

“One of the things that I like about Noe Valley is that it seems so normal,” she says. “You generally don’t find major architects who did work here. It’s contractors, builders, people who find a way to make things work.”

She believes that ordinary charm draws people to the Noe Valley tour, despite so many itineraries on offer. “It’s a way of finding an anonymous neighborhood,” she says, “and trying to find out what you can about it.”

The tour takes place every first and third Sunday of the month, but Stevens cautions that no two tours are identical. Ten different guides cover the Noe Valley route, and each brings a unique point of view. “We all have our own slant,” says Stevens. “We take off on what interests us most.”

Stevens spotlights architecture, while Walsh underscores the neighborhood’s history. “I’m very into the people who founded Noe Valley,” says Walsh, “and how it became a community.”

Anyone who takes the tour will likely gain a fresh outlook on the neighbor-hood. “They’re going to see stuff after they’ve been on the walk that they’ve never seen before,” says Keremitsis.


Upcoming walks will be held Dec. 5 and 19 and Jan. 2 and 16. The tours start at 1:30 p.m., and depart from the Noe Valley/Sally Brunn Library, 451 Jersey Street at Castro Street. To learn more, visit the City Guides website at

At a recent tour, guide Judy Stevens handed out illustrations of Victorian bric-a-brac by artist Audrey Hulburd.