Largest of S.F.'s Painted Ladies up for sale

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A group stops for a photo in front of the seven Painted Ladies. Michael Shannon's home (left) is up for sale.

For the first time in 35 years the oldest, largest and most detailed of the seven sisters - known worldwide as the Painted Ladies and Postcard Row - has gone on the real estate market.

The ornate Queen Anne Victorian with Italianate touches sits across from Alamo Square on the corner of Steiner and Grove streets and is always in the corner of pictures taken by tourists. The asking price is $1 under $4 million. It was set by owner Michael Shannon based on square footage, 4,600, and neighborhood comparables, meaning that there are none, even among the six matching houses for which it serves as an exclamation point.

The last time one of them was sold was author Alice Walker's house next door. About 15 years ago, Walker offered it to Shannon for $600,000, which he now wishes he'd taken, because five years later it sold again for $1.2 million.

His house is 1,000 square feet larger than the others, with four bedrooms, 3 1/2 baths, plus a garden au pair apartment. According to Shannon, who has researched the history, the home was constructed as the personal residence of builder Matthew Kavanaugh, who owned all the adjacent lots to the south. After Kavanaugh finished his own place, he built the three matching houses at the far end on spec. When they sold for around $8,000 apiece, Kavanaugh finished the strip, in 1896.

Shannon says that building records went up in the flames of 1906 but Water Department records were saved, and the plumbing hookup to his house at 722 Steiner was June 11, 1892.

Leftover hippies

Shannon, 66, and his late partner bought the house on Dec. 5, 1975, for $65,000. Included in the deal was a parlor full of intractable Haight-Ashbury spillovers.

"I took possession in 1976, but didn't really take full possession because there were so many hippies living here," says Shannon while sitting in the parlor. "There were about 30 living in this room." Nothing budged them until Shannon spread a rumor that the FBI was coming by for a search. "They were gone by the end of the day."

Shannon has hosted so many weddings there - including his mother's, his sister's and his own - that he had himself ordained a minister. Now he has Parkinson's disease and can't keep the place up or negotiate the stairs. He has a dry sense of humor about marketing hype and doesn't mind stirring up a frenzy if it stirs up a bidding war.

The strategy is that people will pay more for a house that has movie and book credits, not to mention tour buses and strangers regularly stopping to take a picture on the front steps and ringing the buzzer for a tour. He had to put that on the disclosure.

"What you need to do is to get what people's affection is for a piece of property," Shannon says. "It's amazing how many people think of this as part of their family and neighborhood, even though they don't live here. If you leave the door open, they'll just walk in off the street."

S.F. Disneyland

"Living here feels like Disneyland at times," adds Thomas Zickgraf, 41, Shannon's spouse and partner in Michael Shannon Associates, a furniture design company. "Everyone's outside taking photos and looking at the house, so you feel like you're inside an attraction."

Based upon the years that he has put into retrofitting and refurbishing the place, Shannon felt justified in giving himself top billing over the builder in what he has named "the Shannon-Kavanaugh House." It is printed on business cards and a slick brochure by the entryway.

The first thing a visitor sees in the front hall is the flame of a gas lamp on the newel post. Gas lamps also flicker in the parlor, whose ceilings are 12 feet.


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