The story behind picture rails and why so many San Francisco homes have them

A San Francisco apartment lease typically comes with a lot of conditions. You may be required to cover 75% of the hardwood floors in rugs or prohibited from burning candles or unable to host a pet that weighs more than 30 pounds. But perhaps the most common warning of all is about putting holes in the walls, a decision which could lead to a dip in the security deposit check when you eventually move out.

But for those in older buildings, there’s usually an easy workaround you may not have even realized existed — picture rails.

What you may initially mistake for crown molding is likely actually picture rail molding running horizontally around the room. It usually sits about a foot-and-a-half down from the edge where your walls meet your ceilings, and that molding is specifically there so that you can hang artwork or whatever else your heart desires from it. With the right hooks, you simply attach your item to strings that hang from the hook, which rests on the top of the rail.

Americans began using picture rails around 1840 and the home decor essential stayed in fashion for about 100 years. They were born of practicality, said Bonnie Spindler, a real estate agent and “the Victorian Specialist” of San Francisco, like so many features of that era. Pre-1940 and the invention of drywall, most walls were constructed of plaster and lath, which can crack easily once someone takes a hammer and nail to the wall to position a painting. It was — and still is — difficult and costly to repair these cracks, which is why your landlord wants to make sure you don’t do it.

“Plaster and lath, though quite a sturdy form of wall construction, is vulnerable to the loss of plaster ‘keys’ (the bulbs of plaster that adhere it to the horizontal wood lathes, which are strung between wall studs) from impacts like a hammer driving in a nail,” said Rob Thomson, president of the Victorian Alliance of San Francisco. “Picture rails allow for mounting decor without risking damaging the walls. They are ornate, plain and everything in between.”

The middle class of that era still wanted to have well-appointed homes, so residents took advantage of picture rails to make their homes look wealthier. “In the Victorian era, these middle-class people wanted to look upper class, so they would decorate and make things look as if they had a big mansion,” Spindler said. “…They hung portraits, tapestries, big mirrors, framed works of art and even plates and china. And they didn’t want to screw up their walls.”

Typically, the 1.5-inch to 2-inch strips of molding are placed at the junction of where the wall stops and the cove of the ceiling starts. In homes constructed in the 1900s, it usually lines up with the top of a window. The rails themselves are sturdy and can be repositioned along the wall.

Constructing these items quickly became its own industry, with craftsmen specializing in different molding patterns, as well as hooks to hang from.

Today, residents in San Francisco looking to restore a home or stay true to its original design have only one place to go to find original picture rails. Lorna Kollmeyer, a designer, sculptor, and moldmaker, has owned an ornamental plaster shop in Hunter’s Point for more than 37 years and has an extensive collection of picture rails ranging in style. If a picture rail in a home gets damaged or someone needs extra, they can take a piece of their current style to Kollmeyer and she’ll try and match it, making a whole new mold if she can’t.

Picture rail on display at Lorna Kollmeyer Ornamental Plaster in Hunter's Point.

Picture rail on display at Lorna Kollmeyer Ornamental Plaster in Hunter’s Point.

Lorna Kollmeyer

“It’s a very interesting collection. We’ve tried to create an archive,” Kollmeyer said. “Over the years, I’ve come across a number of patterns, but people still keep turning up with new and pretty ones.”

She said she’s always impressed to see the unique ways people are utilizing them.

While Kollmeyer’s shop supplies ornate and historical moldings, basic versions are sold at your local Home Depot or Lowes and are typically easy to install.

Even with their long history, Spindler said she meets plenty of local residents who have no idea what the rails are, even though most homes still feature a picture rail. “Very few homes are missing picture rails in San Francisco and the ones that do, they look like someone whose eyebrows are shaved off,” Spindler said. “You realize the picture rail is missing.”