Hairpin Insanity: San Francisco’s Famous Lombard Street
San Francisco's Lombard Street. Source: (sftravel.com)
San Francisco is home to many iconic sites—the Gold Gate Bridge, Fisherman’s Wharf, Chinatown, and the townhouse from Full House. Add to that Lombard Street, which claims to be the most crooked street in America. With eight hairpin turns and a steep grade, the one block section between Hyde and Leavenworth streets attracts its own fair share of tourists who what to drive, bike, or walk down this zigzag road. Let’s look at the birth of the iconic Lombard Street.
Lombard Street at night. Source: (kinggeorge.com)
Straight and Steep
Prior to the 1920s, all of Lombard Street, even the steep portion between Hyde and Leavenworth streets, was straight. At this time, however, the automobile was replacing the horse as the favorite mode of transportation. The folks living on Lombard Street want to purchase cars just like their friends and family, but the street was too steep—with its 27% grade—for vehicles to safely drive down it. This caused the value of the property on Lombard Street to decline. No one wanted to live in a place that wouldn’t allow automobiles.
Tourist pamphlets describe Lombard Street in San Francisco as the "crookedest street" while cars zig-zag down the sharp turns. Source: (Photo by Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
Terracing the City
In a newspaper article dated December 6, 1905, that ran in the San Francisco Call, plans for city improvements included terracing some of the steep hills and streets of the city. According to the article the San Francisco Merchants Association had hired William Barclay Parsons, a civil engineer, to devise plans to make them more transportation friendly. A drawing that accompanied the article gave an example of how this terracing would look on the city’s California Street. This drawing is strikingly similar to how Lombard Street now looks.
A Possible Solution
One of the residents of Lombard Street was Carl Henry, a wealthy insurance and drug company executive. Henry owned several lots on Lombard Street as well as the land surrounding the street itself. He came up with an out-of-the-box plan to solve the problem and make it possible for motorized vehicles to access the street. He suggested making the street curve and turn back and forth so cars could travel down the steep street in the same manner as a horse would climb down a big hill—by going side to side. His ideas may have stemmed from the newspaper article for nearly two decades before.
Construction on Lombard Street in 1922. Source: (sfcityguides.org)
The Best Laid Plans…
Carl Henry was convinced that his idea for Lombard Street would work. Since Henry owned the land around the street, he got to work on the project. He envisioned the winding street to have a park-like feel to it. So, he first constructed a lily pond and planted a rose garden. He had planned to present the street and park to the city of San Francisco as a gift. His plans stalled when he died unexpectedly. He left his widow with a mountain of debt and she was forced to sell the Lombard Street property to pay her creditors.
Making the Street Crooked
By the early 1920s, residents of Lombard Street were desperate for a solution. Several of them contacted the city engineer of San Francisco, Clyde Healy, to discuss plans for the street. Drawing on either the 1905 plans or Carl Henry’s plans, Healy designed the hairpin turns of Lombard Street and drew up construction plans. In 1922, the city reduced the grade of the hill from 27% to 16% and built the crooked, cobblestone road. As per the agreement Healy struck between the city and the street’s residents, the city would maintain the street and the residents would pay for the landscaping and the steps. This caused in-fighting among the neighbors. They didn’t want the burden of tending to the landscaping. All, except for one resident.
Lombard Street before the hydrangeas. Source: (sfcityguides.org)
One of Lombard Street’s residents, Peter Bercut, who worked as the Commissioner for Parks and Recreation in San Francisco, annoyed his neighbors by trimming their hedges and planting flowers along the street. Erosion was a problem as the hill was so steep and the flower beds washed out. Bercut hit upon the perfect solution when he was visiting his native France. In the 1940s, he filled Lombard Street with hydrangeas. The shrub held the soil in place, were low-maintenance, and very beautiful. When a travel photograph of Lombard Street, with its hairpin turns and bright, blooming hydrangeas, was published in the late 1950s and made into a postcard in 1961, the unique street became a tourist attraction.
From Two-Way to One-Way
Back in 1939, Lombard Street was switched from a two-way road to a one-way road. By the 1960s, tourists in cars flocked to the top of the hill to drive down the most crooked street in America. The increased traffic was a nuisance to residents. Nearly 400 cars per hour drive down the winding street. By 1980, the city banned tour buses from clogging up Lombard Street, but repeated attempts by residents to close the street to all but residents have failed every time it was presented to the city.
Lombard Street Today
One of San Francisco’s most scenic streets and easily the most famous one, Lombard Street still remains one of the most visited and most photographed spots in the city.