Restoring Victorian Masterpieces
San Francisco’s original skyline came from the tall and elegant collection of Victorian houses that were all the rage in the City’s earliest days.
These beauties began popping up in the South Park Development of San Francisco in 1852, inspired by the “London row house style” and named after Queen Victoria of England.
While fans often only get to see the outside of these homes, owners are privy to dozens of design accouterments that include hand-crafted moldings, fanciful door hardware, and dramatically elegant lighting fixtures. Much of the hardware found in these homes was cast locally and installed by craftsmen.
The Leichtling House
The Leichtling family purchased a Victorian a block away from Japantown in San Francisco back in the late 1970s. This house was built in 1883 and had done a turn as a rooming house, as many were during World War II, for shipyard workers. According to Dr. Jonathan Leichtling, an antique lighting enthusiast and longtime client of Biro and Sons, the house had not been updated in about 30 years.
Seeing much of the original Victorian’s charm still alive, the Leichtling’s felt it was important to restore as much of the rest as possible.
“The restoration of Victorians in San Francisco has a lot to do with the lighting,” Doctor Leichtling explains.
Martin Biro says, “All of the Victorians had chandelier lamps and wall fixtures that were powered by gas because that’s all they had back then. It’s beautiful stuff, but obviously, that’s not how we power our houses today.”
The Biros have been working with Victorian restorationists, like Dr. Leichtling, to convert the old gas fixtures into electrical units.
“I turned to the Biros because I knew we needed somebody who was mechanically adept at dissembling, restoring, polishing, and replacing parts with bits that will work in an archival way but that is up to modern code standards,” says Doctor Leichtling.
The Biros worked on 12 chandeliers for the Leichtlings. The project took just about eight months to complete.
“It entails a lot of work,” Martin says. “We dismantle the fixture, repair it where needed, polish it, lacquer it, and then add wire and sockets for modern bulbs.”
The Hidden Gems
Owners of Victorians often overlook some of the more beautiful pieces in their homes, including original hinges, knobs, doorknob plates, window latches, kitchen cabinet knobs, etc.
Martin has an opinion. “It always behooves the homeowner to save the original hardware,” he says. “The quality of the craftsmanship in the hardware is amazing, plus the bones of the house are built with that hardware, and it’s easier to restore and reuse than have a finish carpenter refit everything.”
“Putting back a door hinge on an original door is a lot easier than rehanging a door,” he adds.
The restoration process entails stripping off paint to get to the base piece, and then they start refinishing. “So, we’ll go through a polishing and de-lacquering process, and we’ll repair any cracked or broken pieces,” Martin explains.
There have been times when a piece is impossible to fix, or there’s a missing part. Not to worry, Martin says, “we fabricate missing parts all the time. We have so much experience working with these things that we know what’s needed and how to make it work.”
Dr. Leichtling is happy that he took the time and energy to restore the light fixtures for his home. “Their work is exquisite,” he says. “They come from a long line of silversmiths, so they really know how to work with these metals. Some of the hardware is very intricately designed, which requires special equipment and know-how.”
The Biros are happy to maintain the history of these amazing homes. “The architecture of San Francisco is unique and beautiful,” Martin says. “We’re grateful to be part of the effort to preserve the beauty of these homes.”