For the Golden Gate International Exposition, sculptor Robert Boardman Howard created a magnificent fountain called The Whales. Later it was installed at the Steinhart Aquarium at the California Academy of Sciences, where it was a familiar sight to visitors for half a century. Then it languished in storage outdoors at City College of San Francisco Ocean Campus. Restoration has yet to happen, and now it is tucked away at an SF Arts Commission storage facility awaiting funding and badly needed attention.
Curious Sunnysiders walking through nearby City College may have noticed the sculpture stored there over the last several years. It was a sad site–noble and elegant killer whales peeking forlornly out from under tarpaulins and straps. In real life, some communities of this species are endangered; these massive animals rendered in stone looked equally condemned to extinction.
Congo Street in the Sunnyside neighborhood runs nine blocks, from Circular Avenue to Bosworth Street, from the edge of the I-280 freeway to the edge of Glen Canyon Park. It makes the ‘C’ in the short run of alphabetical street names that begins with Acadia Street on the east and ends with Hamburg Street on the west (changed to Ridgewood Avenue in 1927).
The name has been a mystery of sorts to many. A scooter messenger I once knew who liked to contemplate the city’s enigmas used to find himself pleasantly puzzled when stopped at Congo on his way out Monterey Boulevard. If you live in the neighborhood, it’s easy for the name to become part of the furniture—used but not noticed.
Unlike the picturesque set of river-themed street names in a Sacramento suburb, where ‘Congo’ sits next to ‘Klamath’ and ‘Nile,’ Sunnyside’s Congo seems without meaningful context, being next to streets named Detroit and Baden. How it came to be the choice of the Sunnyside Land Company when the district was laid out in 1891 is the story of idealized capitalist aspirations that would soon meet the realities of imperialist atrocities against indigenous peoples in the heart of Africa.
In the two decades following the naming of the street in Sunnyside, the Congo in Africa was the site of a genocide of staggering proportions. Many people have told the story; this article highlights only some of it, including a few heroes of humanitarian reform of the time who should be better known, as well as an African American poet who evoked the Congo throughout his long working life.
And the Congo has resonance in the immediate present: the recent efforts of the Black Lives Matter movement in Belgium may finally knock the villain responsible for the atrocities, King Leopold II, off his plinth. Better a century too late than never.
Blood on his hands. Many statues King Leopold II were defaced and removed during Black Lives Matter protests in Belgium, June 2020. The (UK) Independent.
One of many statues King Leopold II , being removed from its public location in Brussels, Belgium, June 2020. Reuters.
Statue of King Leopold II in Brussels, Belgium, smeared with red paint during the Black Lives Matter protests. in June 2020. Photo: John Thys. Getty Images.
The third set of class photos from Sunnyside School. See the first group here. See the second group here. I am grateful for the spontaneous contributions of one-time Sunnyside students Anthony Eckstein and Alan Hansen. Read more about Sunnyside School here.
During the 1960s, before court-mandated busing was instituted, Sunnyside was one of two schools where students from the Bayview were bused to, in order to relieve congestion at the overcrowded Bret Harte Elementary School. That meant a greater diversity of kids at Sunnyside, even before the official busing program began in 1973. And it shows in these two sets of photos, from the late-1940s and the mid-1960s.*
Most houses in the city have numbers on their fronts; there are a small part of the house’s exterior decor and often escape notice. On my recent socially distanced neighborhood walks I’ve been looking at them. Many houses in Sunnyside, as well as neighborhoods all over the city, have numbers encased in little frames like these.
There turns out to be an interesting history behind these numbers that begins with an artist named Anton Fazekas (1878-1966).
The Sculptor and the Designs
Fazekas was the designer and manufacturer of these ornamental house numbers, each with a little bulb to light up the digits. He patented three models in the early 1930s. They were solidly fabricated of die-cast iron, and held space for four or five numerals depending on the model, with large, plain, readable numerals made of enameled metal. Later he added italic numerals. The digits slotted into the back and were secured with a little bar that screwed down. The hood protecting the bulb could be removed, allowing the bulb to be easily changed. Continue reading “The little sculpture affixed to your house: Anton Fazekas and the making of a midcentury San Francisco sensation”→
Endemic as racism has been to American culture and politics since its beginning, there have always been those who fought the engulfing tide, in large and small ways. This post recounts, in the words of the time, a minor incident where one man’s racism was countered with another one’s resistance.
David Jackson Staples (1824-1900) and his wife Mary Winslow Staples (1830-1895) are the namesakes for Staples Avenue in Sunnyside. They came from Massachusetts just after the Gold Rush, bringing with them an antipathy to slavery and a strong conviction of the importance of philanthropic work for the public good.
The intersection of Foerster and Joost is not just a street corner in Sunnyside, it’s the stormy tale of a family torn apart by the relentless greed of one uncle, Behrend Joost, and the industrious loyalty of his nephew, Constantine Foerster, that finally gave way under the pressure of it. Joost went down in a long spiral of lawsuits, but Foerster survived and prospered, saved by taking the terrible decision to break his bond to his uncle, and stake his future in the company of men of better judgment and ethics.
Constantine E.A. Foerster was a successful and industrious corporate attorney in late nineteenth-century San Francisco. At the age of sixteen, he got his start in the city working for his uncle, a scrappy, ill-mannered hardware dealer named Behrend Joost. For many years his fortunes were deeply entwined with this uncouth entrepreneur, including as the attorney for Joost’s project to build San Francisco’s first electric streetcar system. The property speculation project called Sunnyside went along with the streetcar, and Foerster was one of several officers in the company whose names remain on the streets there. Continue reading “Foerster: Work Hard, Die Young, and Leave a Good Name”→
One of Sunnyside’s shortest streets is Acadia–the ‘A’ in the brief set of alphabetized north-south streets. The name reaches deep into history, like many of the somewhat obscure choices made by the Sunnyside Land Company in 1891 when the district was laid out–such as Congo, Gennessee, and Detroit. Like those names, Acadia touches on the history of colonization and land appropriation.
Also like some of the neighborhood’s other streets, it suffered from misspelling over the years. ‘Arcadia’ was the name in directories and on maps for a time. It was a natural mistake; Arcadia, meaning a place of rural contentment, is the English version of the French word l’Acadie. The name originated in ancient Greece, referring to an isolated place there where the people lived in pastoral simplicity.
An International Atrocity
To start with, the political history: L’Acadie (anglicized to Acadia) was the name of the place where French pioneers explored and later colonists settled in eastern Canada—areas that are now called New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Nova Scotia.
When interest in San Francisco’s unique Victorians houses revived in the 1960s and 1970s, Fairmount Heights’ local example of the glorious era, the Poole-Bell House on Laidley Street, became an object of interest of preservationists and aficionados.
Legends that had grown up around the house—local lore and neighborhood stories—finally saw print. In the way of things, once in print, the stories had a resilience, despite the lack of historical grounding. From then until the 2000s, the house was noted in various places, but almost every fact recorded about it was wrong. The stories took on a robust life of their own, and hung on for decades.
Much of the narrative centered on the legendary Mary EllenPleasant, although she never lived there—never even set foot in the house. But her own sensational history meant that when something of the building was published, Pleasant’s previous association with one important owner, Teresa Bell, cast a long heavy shadow over every account.
The Poole-Bell House was never quite a mansion, but it was grander than most homes in Fairmount Heights in the early years of the district. It was built in the Italianate style in 1887 by attorney John P Poole; later a top story was added by Teresa Bell in about 1908. Such a fine home was in line with the original aspirations of the investors who laid out Fairmount Heights with generously sized lots—San Francisco’s first suburb, circa 1862. (Read more about the founding of Fairmount here.)
The district was planned to coincide with the building of the San Francisco-San Jose steam railroad in the early 1860s. It was a kind of commuter district; if you could afford the property, you could also spring for the steeper fare for the steam train—more than the nickel for the streetcar. There was a railway depot located nearby to deposit passengers from downtown. Streetcar service did not come this far south until a line was laid on Mission Street to Valencia in 1883.
Later the original large Fairmount lots were subdivided, and smaller, more modest houses went up all over the district, especially after the construction of the electric streetcar line along Chenery Street in 1892. (Read more about that here.)
Still, even as late as 1930, the large Poole-Bell property was basically intact, sitting in an expansive lot on the hillside, with a good view of the growing city. It took a man with a dark past as a notorious Alaska gold-mining claims jumper, to change forever its stately elegance. Robert Nixon Chipps bought the property in 1929. He promptly sold off numerous lots from the large estate to developers for smaller houses, and divided the large aging house into three flats.
The Poole-Bell House once sat alone on a massive lot on the hillside above Laidley Street, overlooking the city—a large elegant home built in 1887 by attorney John P Poole. It was subsequently owned by Teresa Bell, the widow of nineteenth-century financier Thomas Bell. But many other people have lived there since she left in 1918. In the 1930s, it was subdivided into three flats, and later into four units.
The sensational and now rather tired legends about the house are due for retirement; there are better stories to tell about this local landmark. In 1967, it was acquired by another widow, Polly Gilmore. She and her adult son Read Gilmore lived there for twenty years; they had a big impact on the life of this historic house, and on the life of the city.
Polly GIlmore. 1988c. Photo: Francisco Gutierrez. Courtesy Roger Heffner.
Read GIlmore. 1988c. Photo: Francisco Gutierrez. Courtesy Roger Heffner.