Mary Ellen Pleasant in Ingleside: Stories of Geneva Cottage

As an innovative entrepreneur whose heart was set on righteous social justice, Mary Ellen Pleasant belongs to San Francisco; now Ingleside can lay a claim to her remarkable legacy as well. Pleasant had far grander properties than her modest ranch on San Jose Avenue, set among the expansive vegetable fields of the nineteenth century. But this was where she built a business important to her early career, and the place she retreated to at the end of her life when her empire was crumbling. In between, she used the land and the house there she named Geneva Cottage for many different purposes—from a brief stint as a sex-party venue, to a ranch for hogs and cattle, to a home she extended to her Black friends and family members in times of need. In 1900, she sold the whole block, under duress, to the engineer and architect who built the Geneva Car Barn, Office Building, and Powerhouse.[1] It was one of the last of her many properties that she sold as her fortunes dwindled before her death in January 1904.

Outpost on the Old San Jose Road

The property Pleasant held at San Jose and Geneva Avenues has not before this had the documentation it is due. The large cottage there was located where the landmarked Geneva Office Building now sits, which is currently being developed as a community arts center. The area is a major transit hub, with Balboa Park Station across the street, as well as Balboa Park Upper Yard, an eight-story affordable housing building to begin construction soon. Like the long agricultural history for this area, Pleasant’s presence here has been erased.

Modest as it may have been, the land was important to her, both personally and to the course of her career. In the late 1880s, this ranch was listed among her major assets in a newspaper feature about the wealthiest Black people in the US.[2] It was probably at the bottom of her portfolio in terms of value, certainly in her wealthiest years. But her attachment to it is evidenced by the roles it played in her work and life. More than once she had to go to court to defend her ownership; once she sued her own daughter to get control of it.[3]

Photo of Mary Ellen Pleasant on the veranda of Geneva Cottage, SF Chronicle, 9 Jul 1899.
Photo of Mary Ellen Pleasant on the veranda of Geneva Cottage, SF Chronicle, 9 Jul 1899.

Continue reading “Mary Ellen Pleasant in Ingleside: Stories of Geneva Cottage”

Bruno’s Creamery: Sunnyside’s Legendary Midcentury Corner Soda Fountain

For thirty-five years, Sunnyside had a well-loved and well-patronized restaurant at the corner of Monterey Boulevard and Foerster Street, famous for its opinionated but kind-hearted owner, Bruno Cappa (1911-1984). Bruno’s Creamery Fountain Restaurant counted among its many customers a few of the city’s minor luminaries, but mostly it was a favorite of locals and kids. The place was famous for serving curly fries, forty years before they were on the menus of fast-food chains. Although he was a bit gruff, Bruno is fondly remembered to this day by many people who ate there or just hung out.

Bruno Cappa in front of Bruno's Creamery, about 1960. Photo courtesy Marilyn Cappa Kennedy.
Bruno Cappa in front of Bruno’s Creamery, 599 Monterey Boulevard, San Francisco. About 1960. Photo courtesy Marilyn Cappa Kennedy.

The Shop

The restaurant was an unpretentious place, a narrow space with a counter on the right and pinball machines in the back. Along the left wall were news racks that also held the comic books that were prized as free reading material by local kids. As the years passed, the shop acquired a grill and a donut fryer, along with the special machine for producing his famed curly fries. Behind the counter there were racks with small items like bromo-seltzer and sweets, and on the walls (depending on the décor that year) there were small posters for soda or ice cream.

Interior, Bruno's Creamery, about 1940, shortly after he took over the shop. Bruno Cappa is on the right, and Eva is seated at the counter. Photo courtesy Marilyn Cappa Kennedy.
Interior, Bruno’s Creamery, about 1940, shortly after he took over the shop. Bruno Cappa is on the right, and Eva is seated at the counter. Photo courtesy Marilyn Cappa Kennedy.

The Service

Bruno and his wife Eva stood behind the long counter—he took your order for a burger, and she cooked it up. They both worked hard, putting in 16- or 17-hour days, serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Eva was always quiet, but Bruno often gave unasked-for, if well-intended, advice—like telling an unemployed customer to get a job and feed his family. But then Bruno would send him on his way after a meal with a bag of groceries—under that rude exterior he had a big heart.

Kids came in to play the pinball machines in back, and read the comic books Bruno had for sale. Longtime Sunnyside Frank Koehler recalls that Bruno would say ” ‘Hey, you guys, if you want to read them, you gotta buy ’em’—but since we were regulars, Bruno never enforced the ‘you gotta buy ’em’ rule….But he’d always mention the rule before he ignored it.”

Bruno kept tabs on regulars. One person told me about how if Bruno hadn’t seen you for a while, he would send someone around to your house to make sure you were okay.

“Bruno was truly a unique individual and quite a character.”[1]

Bruno Cappa behind the counter. Bruno's Creamery, about 1965. Photo courtesy Marilyn Cappa Kennedy.
Bruno Cappa behind the counter. Bruno’s Creamery, about 1965. Photo courtesy Marilyn Cappa Kennedy.

“Bruno was a pain in the neck!”[2]

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Monterey near Joost: 1926 and Today

Looking west on Monterey Boulevard, with Joost Ave coming off on the right up the hill. Move slider to compare photographs. View larger here. Look at other comparison photographs here.

The Sunnyside Crossing is visible on the left in the 1926 photo, where the electric streetcar tracks crossed the Southern Pacific train tracks. The excavations for Interstate 280 removed much of the land on the left side of the 1926 photo.

The Widows Do Business: How the Poole-Bell House Got Its Name

One of a series of articles about the Poole-Bell House on Laidley Street in Fairmount Heights, San Francisco.

On the first day of October 1906, Annie Poole, widow of a disgraced public official, and Teresa Bell, widow of the city’s once-richest financier, met to discuss the sale of the small mansion that now bears both their names, the Poole-Bell House.

Bell was moving out to this remote enclave, the sparsely settled Fairmount district, where the house sat perched on a hill with a fine view of the city in the distance. She wanted to put a bit of space between her and the nattering classes of society. It was a prickly conference; Bell wanted to move in a day earlier than the transfer of the funds between the two women, a presumptuous request that Poole resisted. Bell recorded their conversation, with commentary, in her diary.

“Mrs Poole said she could not personally let me move in until Wednesday. I said I only cared because of the family, her and their discomfort. ‘Oh,’ she said, ‘tell them I am an old cross crank.’ I said, ‘No. I told them the facts that you had no right to let me in your house until you had your money, and that you would not let me in.’

“She stopped laughing quickly and her eyes popped out with surprise. She saw she was not fooling me. With all the lies she had told about ‘the people not removing their things yet,’ her stare of astonishment showed I was right in my surmise as to her not letting me in.

“Of course I do not blame her a bit, but she could have accommodated me one day, considering my paying her in cash down for her furniture, and I paid enough for it too. But it’s all right, she knows nothing about me nor I of her, and she didn’t do business on trust evidently. She is one breed and I another, that is evident.”[1]

Bell thought herself a cut above, as if more money granted more nobility. The irony is that the Bell family scandals far outpaced the minor frisson of shame that the Poole family endured. The Bells provided sensational fodder for newspapers for decades, whereas Poole’s husband had made a mistake and in the way of the times taken the ‘honorable’ way out through suicide.

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The Contractor with a Heart of Gold

One of a series of articles about the Poole-Bell House in Fairmount Heights, San Francisco. This story contains references to sexual abuse of a minor, drug use, and attempted suicide.

The Poole-Bell House had become a bit dilapidated by 1956, its Victorian charm not much cherished in that era of modernist tastes. That year a contractor named Joe LoPresti bought it, one of his many fixer-upper projects. He renovated the large building, removing some of its period features in the process; it took the Gilmores in the 1980s to restore its original appearance. It wasn’t yet the time for San Francisco to rediscover the beauty of its old houses.

LoPresti was a character about town; just before he bought the Poole-Bell House, he got entangled in a public scandal—not as a perpetrator of vice, but as a kind of savior to a “fallen woman.” It was a renovation project, played out on newspaper pages and Herb Caen’s column, that was not destined to end well. The story was built for the 1950s, full of secret sin and dope fiends, public outrage and salvaged female virtue—a tale to put fear into the straight-laced parents and make them worry about their teen daughters—or the seemingly innocuous house on the corner in their middle-class neighborhoods, as a few houses in the city were revealed to actually be prostitution venues.

The story starts in 1954, with a young woman named Paula Winters. That was her prostitution pseudonym—her real name was Shirley Grimes of Daly City. Continue reading “The Contractor with a Heart of Gold”

The Sunnyside Powerhouse: New Photographs

Detail from: Untitled [Sunnyside Powerhouse, San Francisco] 1892c. San Mateo County Historical Association Collection (1990.48). Used with permission and subject to usage restrictions.

Read more about the Sunnyside Powerhouse and the San Francisco and San Mateo Electric Railway.

To add to the recently revealed photo of the Sunnyside Powerhouse, here are five more images from the same album at the San Mateo County Historical Association, including unseen interior shots from the engine room. They were taken by a photographer from the company that supplied the engines, Risdon Iron Works, on the occasion of the opening of the powerhouse and the new electric streetcar line in April 1892.

These new photos are unmatched by any other known ones of Sunnyside’s lost landmark, all of which date to after the powerhouse ceased to operate in 1901. These show a car house and power plant just constructed, ready to revolutionize San Francisco’s urban railways with the introduction of electricity for propulsion. For the first time, the machinery of the powerhouse engine room can be seen.

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