Strothoff in Sunnyside, or How to Love the Utility Poles in the Street

One of a short series of house-based local history—five stories touching on the perennial San Francisco themes of immigration, families, city-building, and self-making, although this post, the last, has ventured pretty far beyond the original remit.

By Amy O’Hair

In all the histories of individual houses I have researched in Sunnyside, only one revealed itself have been designed by an architect. This led me deep into the career of a massively prolific designer, and also into the history of restricted neighborhoods in San Francisco.

House in Sunnyside designed by Charles F Strothoff, 1928. Photo: Amy O'Hair, 2022.
House in Sunnyside designed by Charles F Strothoff, 1928. Photo: Amy O’Hair, 2022.

Designed by Charles F Strothoff in 1928, this anomalous house on Gennessee Street, with its distinctive cylinder turret entrance, is fun to contemplate aesthetically.[1] But it also gives me opportunity to look at the ethics and consequences of the exclusionary policies that were historically built into the houses of the 1920s ‘residence parks’ that are adjacent to Sunnyside, most of which were designed by this architect. That legacy of restricted housing—which has morphed into low-density zoning later in the twentieth century—continues to have a powerful impact on housing affordability and socio-economic segregation in the city.

The presence of an expensive midcentury architect-designed house in Sunnyside is unusual, but it is an exception that proves a rule: there is more of a mixture of land use in the neighborhood. Having never been a residence park, Sunnyside has a variety of housing, built over a longer period, with greater density, commercial activity, and multi-unit buildings; this difference has shaped the nature of the neighborhood, and is worth looking at.

Curved Streets and Straight-up Racism

Sunnyside was laid out in the 1890s, before San Francisco latched onto the ‘City Beautiful’-style planned neighborhoods that dominated house-building in the years between the wars. These ‘residence parks’ went up all over the city between Quake and the Great Depression; to the west of Sunnyside, several were developed where Adolph Sutro’s Forest once stood, such as Westwood Park and Monterey Heights. On a map it is easy to see where Sunnyside’s die-straight rectangular blocks end and the curvy streets of these districts begin.
Continue reading “Strothoff in Sunnyside, or How to Love the Utility Poles in the Street”

Midcentury Stories Out of Sunnyside Houses: A Bridge-Builder and Muni Driver Raises a Family on Congo

House on Congo Street where the Jensens lived in the 1950s and 1960s. Google Streetview.
House on Congo Street where the Jensens lived in the 1950s and 1960s. Google Streetview 2019.

One of a short series of house-based local history—five stories touching on the perennial San Francisco themes of immigration, families, city-building, and self-making.

By Amy O’Hair

After World War II, Gordon and Mary Jensen bought this house at the top of Congo Street on the 700 block. They were then in their thirties, and had two young daughters. Gordon had an adventurous working life in midcentury San Francisco, being part of the historic construction of the Golden Gate Bridge, and teaching Muni bus drivers for many decades.

But the story starts much earlier, in another house two blocks down the street; the couple had met while they were teenagers living across the street from each other.

A Lifetime on Congo Street

Gordon grew up in a house on the 500 block—a tiny shack that had been built after the 1906 Quake. The family had moved to San Francisco from Arhus, a small village in Denmark, by way of Canada, arriving in 1922. They bought this house from another family who were from the very same Danish village. (Read more about them in this piece by the late Murray Schneider here.)

With five kids, the cottage was quite a tight fit, with no bathroom, no electricity, and no refrigerator. Fortunately, Gordon’s father quickly met a man at church who helped them built on and get a bit more room. Still, the conditions were difficult; Gordon slept on a sofa in the living room, with his toddler brother Henry. His younger sister Phyllis slept on a couch in the kitchen, with fixed arms, and later recalled that as she grew, she just curled up more.

On the Edge of a Wild Mountain

Later, when Gordon’s sister Phyllis was in her sixties, she wrote an account of growing up in the little house. Continue reading “Midcentury Stories Out of Sunnyside Houses: A Bridge-Builder and Muni Driver Raises a Family on Congo”

Midcentury Stories Out of Sunnyside Houses: The Italian Craftsman Who Signed His Cabinets

One of a short series of house-based local history—five stories touching on the perennial San Francisco themes of immigration, families, city-building, and self-making.

By Amy O’Hair

Although he wasn’t among the first wave of Italian immigrants who moved into Sunnyside after the Quake of 1906, Giuseppe Scorsonelli bought this house on Staples Avenue for himself and his wife Enza in 1963.

Their five children were mostly grown up by then, although the youngest daughter lived with them for a while. It was a big move up from the rented flat where the family lived on Dolores Street. Giuseppe was a cabinet maker, trained in Sicily, and he made the most of finally owning his own home; fitting out the rooms with custom cabinetry of his own design and craftsmanship—and proudly signing the work on the back, invisible to the eye, but revealed decades later when the present owner removed them for renovations.

Giuseppe's signature on the backside of the telephone kiosk. Photo: Jim McCormick.
Giuseppe’s signature on the backside of the telephone kiosk. Photo: Jim McCormick.

In his professional life, Scorsonelli worked for the premier San Francisco cabinet-making firm, Fink & Schindler Company, and helped to craft many fine wooden interiors in churches, bars, and stores that are still a part of the city’s legacy of Italian craftsmanship. Continue reading “Midcentury Stories Out of Sunnyside Houses: The Italian Craftsman Who Signed His Cabinets”

Midcentury Stories Out of Sunnyside Houses: A Companion to Hollywood Starlets Settles Down on Baden Street

One of a short series of house-based local history—five stories touching on the perennial San Francisco themes of immigration, families, city-building, and self-making.

By Amy O’Hair

As a star-struck teen in Los Angeles during the Golden Age of Hollywood, Jane Wardy did more than just swoon over beautiful film stars from afar—she got herself into the intimate lives of three glamorous actresses, one after the other, devoting herself to being their constant companion. Two of those relationships ended with the death of her beloved.

Later in life, after the excitement was over, Wardy settled down in this house on Baden Street, and lived a more sedate existence—although she would then marry three men in succession before she died in her eighties.

Midwest Girl turned Model

Born in Ohio in 1909, her family moved to California in the 1920s. Jane completed two years of high school before launching into work—as a shop clerk and a store model. All her life, despite the capricious lives of her famous companions, Wardy always had steady work.

Glamour photo of Jane Alice Wardy, taken in the 1920s. Philadelphia Inquirer, 5 Jan 1930.
Glamour photo of Jane Alice Wardy, taken in the 1920s. Philadelphia Inquirer, 5 Jan 1930.

At the age of eighteen or nineteen she met and befriended the aspiring starlet and horsewoman Vonceil Viking, who had made a name for herself with a splashy stunt, riding her horse Broadway from New York to Los Angeles on a bet with an English aristocrat, the Marquess of Donegall—for an astonishing $25,000 (something shy of a half a million dollars now).  More about this stunt here.

Vonceil Viking in Washington DC, during her famous ride. 1927. Library of Congress. View whole image here. https://sunnysidehistory.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/04/1927-Voncneil-Viking_WashingtonDC_LoC.jpg
Vonceil Viking and her horse Broadway in Washington DC, during her famous ride. 1927. Library of Congress. View whole image here.  

Continue reading “Midcentury Stories Out of Sunnyside Houses: A Companion to Hollywood Starlets Settles Down on Baden Street”

Midcentury Stories Out of Sunnyside Houses: A Swedish Builder Rebuilds a Family

OOne of a short series of house-based local history—five stories touching on the perennial San Francisco themes of immigration, families, city-building, and self-making. This story contains a description of a suicide.

By Amy O’Hair

During a recent renovation of this 1921 house on Joost Avenue, a fabulous treasure was discovered inside a wall, placed there by the builder and first resident, Carl Swanson. Before we see the prize, first the story of how Carl came to San Francisco and built the home where his broken family would finally be reunited.

House on Joost Avenue built by Carl Swanson in 1921. Photo: Amy O'Hair
House on Joost Avenue built by Carl Swanson in 1921. Photo: Amy O’Hair 2022

From a Swedish Village to a Quake-Ravaged City

Born in Väne-Åsaka in Västergötland, Sweden, Carl Swanson immigrated to the US in 1907 with his younger brother Claus. He was in his late twenties.

On the ship over, he fell in love with a Swedish woman named Vendla. He would ask her to marry him no fewer than seven times over the coming years. Before ending up in San Francisco, Carl stopped off in Vermont to train with the famed Vermont Marble Works; after he moved to the city, he continued to work for the company’s site here, carving and polishing stone. Continue reading “Midcentury Stories Out of Sunnyside Houses: A Swedish Builder Rebuilds a Family”

A New Video on the Life of Mary Ellen Pleasant

I am pleased to introduce a new video created by a YouTube videographer, Cato Jones. It’s carefully researched, strikes a balanced tone, and captures all the salient points in this remarkable figure’s life. That is not an easy accomplishment, as Pleasant is in many ways a ‘difficult’ historical subject, having lived her life by her own rules.

The Sensational Life of America’s First Black Woman Millionaire – Mary Ellen Pleasant


Watch on YouTube here.

Having done some research on Pleasant, I was happy to contribute some images and background to support Jones’ work.

Here is my own piece about Mary Ellen Pleasant’s Ingleside ranch, Geneva Cottage, which revealed some previously undocumented aspects of Pleasant’s life in the city. In another piece I touch on Pleasant’s tumultuous relationship with Teresa Bell, owner of the Poole-Bell House, a local landmark.

Sunnyside in the 1970s: Trees, Traffic, Taxes

By Amy O’Hair

Traffic calming – planting and saving trees – safe places for children to play – newly revealed local history: the issues on the minds of Sunnysiders fifty years ago were not so different from things that interest residents now. The newsletters of Sunnyside’s local organization from those years have recently been archived and made available online at the Internet Archive, and tell some inspiring stories about actions that still impact our lives today.

Although Sunnyside has seen organized advocacy by residents since the 1890s (more here), the current organization, Sunnyside Neighborhood Association (SNA), dates to late 1974.[1] The 1970s saw a surge of local activism in the many neighborhoods in San Francisco. Five decades later, we still enjoy some of the fruits of that upwelling, for instance in open spaces that were established as parks. There was also a downside to the activism then that still affects the city; in some areas, such as the Richmond district, residents fought density with downzoning measures, working to exclude multi-unit buildings and “retain local character,” resulting in a dearth of housing units in subsequent decades, and de facto residential segregation.

But SNA was, according to the record of these early newsletters, more intent on trees, parks, and calming traffic. Monterey Boulevard had already undergone big changes in the 1950s and 1960s, with an extensive apartment-building boom. The 1970s saw even more upzoning on the boulevard. SNA didn’t oppose more housing, but as we’ll see, it did try to rescue trees that were eventually to fall victim to a particularly determined developer of multi-unit buildings, among many other projects, such as tree-planting and boosting local businesses.

The publication of the new archive of the SNA newsletters is due to the work of LisaRuth Elliott and her team for the Neighborhood Newspapers of San Francisco project on the Internet Archive. Continue reading “Sunnyside in the 1970s: Trees, Traffic, Taxes”

Another Year on the Balboa Reservoir: Photos V

Part of a series of posts about the history of the Balboa Reservoir. View more photos here, and here, and here and here.

The shabby open space that makes up the remaining portion of the Balboa Reservoir was certainly one place where a person was unlikely to catch Covid this year. Plenty of people came to chill out, literally in the fog or figuratively in the solitude.

From February to June 2021, the reservoir land played its part in the recovery by serving as an overflow route for people in cars coming to the adjacent City College of San Francisco mass vaccination site. The goats were back for their annual munch in August. The big storm in October briefly left more standing water than this would-be reservoir ever held before. Construction on the planned housing project. for the site is due to begin in 2022. All photographs Amy O’Hair except where noted otherwise. Thanks to Susan Sutton and Joanna Pearlstein for their contributions.

A dramatic sunset at Balboa Reservoir in March 2021.
A sunset at Balboa Reservoir in March 2021.
This modest swing has seen a lot of both joy and contemplation over the years. Sept 2021.
Masked teens, lounging on the berm. Mar 2021.
Masked teens, lounging on the berm. Mar 2021.

Continue reading “Another Year on the Balboa Reservoir: Photos V”