San Francisco Neighborhood Archeology Study Over Last Century

Autumn 2003 as if by Kevin Handeland

When the full moon rose more than 100 years ago over San Francisco’s hills as it did last evening, it would have illuminated a much different neighborhood. The eerie pale glow would have cast shadows of chaparral, dune grass and rocks on the sand and mostly empty hill we see above Cow Hollow in photo looking west from Russian Hill to Washerwoman’s Lagoon. The single road running west to the Presidio would have been lined with a few farm shacks and barns, housing Cow Hollow’s namesake and uphill would have been the 25 acre farm and Leale House which stands today as 2475 Pacific. Those cows would have grazed on the mostly empty hillside and wandered down a path to Washerwoman’s lagoon, which would later became Laguna Street.

Over a hundred plus years, what changes led to last night’s moon reflecting off the stone walls of high rise and other 20th century apartments that now fill nearly every plot of land not occupied by the neighborhood’s original Victorian row houses and corner mansions? And what can we recreate from investigation to imagine our Pacific Heights neighborhood 25 and 50 years ago?

First Victorians in Our Neighborhood Over 100 Years Ago

As San Francisco expanded rapidly after the 1849 Gold Rush, more residential areas were needed than the relatively flat lands around and to the South of Market Street. But the steep Nob, Russian and Telegraph hills hemmed in residential expansion to the north and west of downtown. It was San Francisco’s application of the newly invented cable car, which allowed these peaks to be scaled and open new residential neighborhoods.

By the late 1800’s one of those cable car lines ran out Pacific Street. As it crossed Van Ness, it became the catalyst for the initial development of our Pacific Heights neighborhood. As Russian and Nob Hills filled with residences and more were still needed, rows of Victorian homes and grand corner mansions were built from the 1880’s on the rough empty Pacific Heights hills. Our Victorian on the southwest corner of Broadway and Octavia is one of those still remaining Victorian row houses.

As we see from the schematic in California Architect and Building News of March 1892, our home and it’s four uphill neighbors were built by William Hinkel and architect Ed Burns. They were described as "modern houses with both gas and the new electric lighting, along with stain glass windows and crowns, fireplaces, dumbwaiter, chutes and speaking tubes. The ceilings of the great rooms will be of new and elegant plaster decorations. Each house will have interiors of oak, mahogany and maple in principal rooms and clear natural redwood in other rooms. The dining and entry halls will have paneled oak ceilings and high oak wainscoting with inlaid hardwood floors.

The location is one of the best, situated on the sunny side of the block on commanding elevations with unobstructed Marina views." The skyline in years since has altered the unobstructed marine view, but nearly all other features are now as they were over 100 years ago.

From the 1900 Sanborn Fire Insurance map, we see vacant lots in our neighborhood, including many large corner properties. We note buildings in the center of blocks marked with an X and see from the Sanborn key that these are horse stables. The key also indicates that D is symbol for single family dwelling, which fits the description of all the residences in our neighborhood then. Nearly all homes had both front and back yards. Many had large side yards as well, something almost unknown today.

Our most prominent neighbors 100 years ago were a sprinkling of Spreckels. Even though this West Coast sugar baron family lived in a mansion on Van Ness, they bought lots in our blocks. In those days, it was the custom of wealthy families to give grand homes to their children when married. Three of those grand Spreckels homes were built on our block and a couple more on the other side of Pacific. Another Spreckels home, where Teddy Roosevelt lived, was moved from Gough and Pacific to where it stands today at 1942 Pacific, to make room for yet another Spreckels corner mansion.

After the 1906 earthquake destroyed the Van Ness mansion, the Spreckels rebuilt three blocks up our Octavia hill, bordering LaFayette Park and along side other elegance of the day. They would have been the ultimate contrast to the rows of tents in the park, housing burned out residents after the great 1906 fire. Most of the grand old LaFayette homes are gone now, but the Spreckels home remains, now occupied by Danielle Steele.



Neighborhood Rises Higher and Fills Up by 50 Years Ago

From 100 to 50 years ago, the prominent and wealthy lived and played in our neighborhood as indicated by the notes on Spreckels fortune and Syida Spreckels as well as vignettes of Teddy Roosevelt and Sigmund Stern. The Sterns had built their mansion on Pacific across the street from us. Our home looked out on their terraced gardens, which ran all the way down to Broadway. The 1915-50 Sanborn map shows the Stern mansion and gardens along with other significant neighborhood changes. We see the dark shadows of the large classic six to ten story apartment buildings that rose from the 1920’s on to replace grand corner homes as well as Victorian rows. The two best are the elegant co-ops with surrounding gardens, which we still look out on from our Broadway windows.

The Sanborn map also reflects signs of the times, as we see dark shadows of the many garages constructed in front of buildings to replace the center block stables. In the 1930’s a law said no cars could be parked on street overnight. Imagine that today. Sanborn updated the 1915 map through 1950 by pasting over the old outline. This shows up as a dark spot on the microfiche we reviewed at the San Francisco library and indicates new building from 1915-50. Sanborn also shows the cost of the Great Depression, as our home and uphill neighbors are classified as rooming houses, rather than single family dwellings. And to translate this all to visual image, we have the remarkable 1928 photo from about our roofline west from Above San Francisco.

By 25 Years Ago, Glass and Concrete Towers and Modern Boxy Homes for More Neighbors

Shortly after the last Sanborn 1950 microfiche, the Stern home and gardens were taken down and replaced by a block long series of modern stucco apartments abutting the Octavia sidewalk. The few remaining grand corner homes were marked for destruction and replacement with glass towers, as we now look out on at both north corners of Laguna and Pacific. And four of our five Victorian row houses were owned by a developer, who had taken similar old Painted Ladies down and replaced them with a large apartment high rise.

But attitudes were changing. The Fontana apartments, built in the late 1960’s next to Ghiradelli on the Bay, outraged many, as people imagined what our neighborhoods and waterfront might look like with such unchecked development. Then in 1968 the Historic Sites Project of the Junior League of San Francisco culminated in the book Here Today. It was probably the most successful Junior League fundraiser ever. More importantly, it provided a record of San Francisco’s remaining architectural treasures and rallied people to the movement to preserve rather than replace what remained. In the late 1970’s this groundswell of sentiment led to the Duskin amendment, which limited height to 40 feet in many neighbors and imposed strict planning limits on neighborhood construction.

As we close our neighborhood archaeology study at 25 years ago, we can see how we were then by looking closely at the Above San Francisco photo at the bottom left. Our home and its uphill Painted Lady sisters are in the center right. The Spreckels grand houses west on our block are gone, replaced by high rise apartments. The Spreckels mansion site on Pacific and Gough is vacant pending building of a Mormon Church. 1818 Broadway is cleared but not rebuilt. And it won’t be reconstructed as the planned high-rise. The two Spreckels homes on the southeast corner of Pacific and Laguna stand. After California Historical Society, they are now again private homes.

The beautiful old high rises across Broadway from us and on Vallejo soar as elegantly as ever and their remaining Victorian neighbors give a hint of that original unblemished Bay view. Even though a modern high rise has replaced the corner Victorian to the west, the mammoth gray concrete high rise of today hasn’t replaced the old homes across Laguna. And at the top of our hill is still the lush green of LaFayette Park. The refugee tents and spectacular mansions of a century ago are gone, replaced by a newer version of elegant high rise city living. But the Spreckels home that replaced their burnt out Van Ness mansion remains.

As we conclude our photomontage of our neighborhood over the past century, it is with the poignant display of some of what has been lost, gained and changed in the lower right corner. But this only gives us an idea of how the buildings have changed. A neighborhood is and always has been much more than buildings.


Change in Neighborhood Life Over a Century

In some respects the people of our neighborhood have changed much less than the buildings, still nearly all white, as they were a hundred years ago. As The World Rushed In portrays the flood of people to San Francisco, they came from every country and corner of the globe, to add to Spanish and Mexican Hispanic populations, which had by then largely replaced the Indians.

Back then, culture values and economic opportunities kept the burgeoning Asian population in Chinatown. Large influxes of other racial groups, like blacks and Hispanics, would come in much later decades, mostly to neighborhoods south of Pacific Heights. A few wealthy Asians bought remaining grand homes in our neighborhood, and Chinese have long ago breached the bounds of Chinatown and now own much of the property throughout San Francisco.

Skyrocketing property values of recent decades has kept our neighborhood largely white…and old. The dichotomy between what young people earn after their school years and what it costs to buy a home has widened to a chasm over the past generation or so. The result is few young families own homes in our neighborhood. I remember hearing that it cost over fifteen times as much to build our garage a few years ago, which is nothing more than a concrete box under our back yard, than Hinkel paid for land and to build our whole house in 1892.

The young people we see are mostly renters walking dogs, a species of life that, along with cars, have dramatically increased in recent years. And for me, it has been a long way to playmates ever since our downstairs preschool closed. The grand Broadway mansions of the Floods, Grants and others up the block are now Hamlin and Sacred Heart Schools, but the long lines of cars at school’s start and end show that the kids are mostly not neighbors.

Guess we are still a long way from the all sizes, shapes, ages, colors and backgrounds embodied in Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition that my parents talked about as being ready to take over about the same 25 year ago timeframe I concluded our neighborhood archeology tour. It all makes me wonder what someone will say about us when another SI history teacher assigns this neighborhood archeology project 100 years from now. Hopefully, our home will still be Here Today then, and there will still be a few teens left to update my hundred-year survey.