Here is a new map for understanding the historical path that Sunnyside’s tributary of Islais Creek once took through the neighborhood, a composite using color Sanborn maps from the Library of Congress and DavidRumsey.org from the early 1900s. Additional information for areas not covered by Sanborn from Joel Pomerantz’s Seep City project for mapping our city’s old waterways.
A culvert was installed from one side of Monterey to the other at about Edna Street in the 1910s. Part of the creek was contained in a box drain in the 100 block of Flood Ave (north side) about the same time. Other manipulations took place, until the City diverted the water that would have fed it into the sewer system, during the 1920s.
It is perhaps the fate of some unusual structures to attract unusual people. The Sunnyside Conservatory was built in 1902 by one such man, the eccentric inventor William Augustus Merralls, whose interests extended to outré alternative medicine. In 1919, the property was bought from the bank that had repossessed it from Merralls’ destitute widow by another remarkable person, Ernest Van Beckh.
When he and his beautiful wife Angele Ricono Van Beckh moved to Monterey Boulevard, they left behind them a sensational tale—of years of criminal fraud under the guise of occult practices, of spending weeks as fugitives hiding out in the East Bay, of serious charges of grand larceny and a narrow escape from a prison sentence. Before the drama was over, Ernest had shot a man, gravely wounding him. It was a story that few people could live down, but they managed to, in style.
The Van Beckhs liked their luxury and were devoted to each other; Ernest’s crimes paid for his wife Angele’s social and cultural aspirations. When the scandal died down, that loot bought this unusual large property in a modest neighborhood. In Sunnyside, they lived quietly in the lush compound behind tall fences for another five decades, outside of the public view, their crimes safely locked in the past.
The price in 1919 was just thirty-five hundred dollars, and included the house at 258 Monterey Boulevard, the grounds, and the conservatory structure—seven city lots in total. It was a very small price for a man who reputedly had amassed half a million dollars as the ring-leader of a gang of self-proclaimed clairvoyants, fleecing hundreds of vulnerable, gullible victims between 1911 and 1916.
Stories of “The Big Five,” as both the reporters and the dogged Assistant District Attorney bent on their convictions insisted on calling the loose conspiracy, splashed across Bay Area newspapers during the first half of 1916. Then the criminal cases fell apart without convictions, and newer, more compelling events like the Preparedness Day Bombing occupied the attention of readers and local law enforcement.
Fake Silver Mines with a Real Silver Lining
It’s a story worthy of San Francisco, where many people over its short history have come to do the daring and the semi-legal, to make and remake themselves, to feed strange hopes and stranger beliefs, for a profit. Van Beckh used the power of the occult to sell worthless mining stocks and make piles of money. But the ironic twist now for all those in Sunnyside, and from further afield, who enjoy our landmarked local gem is that it was Van Beckh’s mix of ill-gotten wealth and the subsequent need to keep out of the limelight for decades afterwards that meant the Sunnyside Conservatory was mostly saved from destruction. Continue reading “The King of the Clairvoyants: The Man who bought the Sunnyside Conservatory”→
Although I have documented some history on Monterey Boulevard shops, Sunnyside also had many small stores on residential corners all throughout the neighborhood. Here is a great 1970s shot of the Sunnyside Groceteria on the corner of Detroit at Flood, courtesy of Doug daSilva. A slider comparison photo follows.
Having documented the history behind the Fazekas-designed house-number units found all over San Francisco and the Bay Area, I am often asked for help by people wishing to restore their own. Such matters are not my forte. Fortunately, a reader named Sarah has offered a detailed description of the process of refurbishing a unit, and I present it here. (Have anything to add? Write me or post a comment below.)
After removing the unit from the house, this is what Sarah did:
Recently, a significant decision was made by my mom and stepdad to sell my grandmother’s house in the Sunset district. This decision started me off on my journey of restoring the address frame. I wanted to share my restoration process in case it helps others.
This website, which I began in 2015, has not been the only effort to collect and rediscover the stories of this neighborhood; almost twenty years ago, Sunnyside Neighborhood Association initiated a wide-ranging project to rediscover historical materials and record oral histories of old-time residents. One result of the group’s work was to present a history fair in February 2006, where documents and photos were shared with the community. Another product of their efforts was a little booklet, “A Brief Look at Sunnyside”.
The members of Sunnyside Neighborhood Association (SNA) who worked on the project were led by Jennifer Heggie, and included Daphne Powell, Robert Danielson, David Becker, Karen Greenwood Henke, Bill Wilson, and Rick Lopez. They were aided in their work by Woody LaBounty and Lori Ungaretti at Western Neighborhoods Project (WNP). Other contributors included Julia Bergman, City College of San Francisco’s Chief Librarian and Archivist (now deceased), and local history author Jacqueline Proctor, as well as two workers at St Finn Barr Church, Denise McEvoy and Kathleen Ramsay.
The Oral Histories
The oral history interviews took place in 1995, 2005, and 2006, and were conducted with six people who grew up in Sunnyside, mostly before the Second World War. To preserve the interviews, the transcripts were later archived at the San Francisco History Center. The subjects described what it was like in the neighborhood, where they played and went to school, what transit they took, the landscapes and animals that were a part of their childhoods, and so on. (I’ll quote extensively from the oral histories later in this post.)
I have kindly been given a few unattached examples of Anton Fazekas’ work in the form of doorbell plates, most with their wonderfully finger-inviting Bakelite buttons still in place.
These little works of art were just some of the vast array of products created and sold by his company, American Art Metal Works, during the 40 years he ran the South-of-Market-based firm. Below, there are a few to be seen mounted on the display behind the master himself on this page from a 1940s-era catalogue. (Do you have a doorbell by Fazekas? Write me.)
First we have one touched with the Art Nouveau vibe, sporting two singing birds, a mottled background, and subtle but nonspecific plant references. It appears to have never been attached to a house, as a film of lacquer across one screw hole is unbroken. I believe many of Fazekas’s metal items shipped with a clear lacquer layer on them. It shows the sculptor’s hand in that there are clear but subtle asymmetries to the design. (About 11 cm tall.)
By Amy O’Hair More photos and history about the Balboa Reservoir here.
The Balboa Reservoir is due for big changes, if all goes to plan—perhaps the last of its many transformations since Adolph Sutro’s eucalyptus trees were cleared from this corner of his massive forest in 1894. From these recent images I hope to someday create then-and-now photo sliders, showing dramatic changes after housing and a park go up on this land. These are places that automated street-mapping cameras never went, but later will go, when there are new streets and houses.
On the Lower Reservoir, the planned housing project has yet to break ground, but I have included some images from the developers’ projections. See plans here (under ‘Meetings’ > PDFs labeled ‘Boards for Community Feedback’; the most recent one has been removed unfortunately). More about the planned housing project on the developers website. Read some recent news on the funding at theIngleside Light.
Meanwhile, on the Upper Reservoir, City College is presently in the process of building the STEAM Center, for science, technology, engineering, arts, and math; a tall crane rises over the construction area, an unusual but increasingly more common sight in these neighborhoods. Read about the new project at the Ingleside Light. Or on CCSF’s own page about the new construction. Rendering and floorplans here.
In related news, the Board of Supervisors has approved naming the extension of Lee Avenue through the housing project after the mayor who set the ball rolling for the new development in 2014: “Mayor Edwin M. Lee 李孟賢市長街”. The other planned new streets have been given generic plant names–read more at the Ingleside Light.
By Amy O’Hair With research contributed by Kathleen Laderman
An eight-year-old firebrand of a girl stands before the camera, knowing perhaps that she is leaving an indelible mark on the public record. She exudes a strong sense of self and an unaffected sense of style. Form follows function, and for climbing the rocks and hills around the Point Conception Lighthouse, for stalking prey in the untamed brush like a ninja, only trousers and a sweater could ever do.
She proudly wears her unconventional attire for an official photograph; those shiny curls and that fancy hat are down to the women at the lighthouse. It’s a bargain, and she struck it. Lillie is a force majeure, even at eight, and if she is determined to wear trousers, perhaps the best the women around her can hope for is to get her hair into some sort of girlish shape for the camera.
Lillie Young had come to the lighthouse on the coast of Santa Barbara County to live with her foster father, Edward Young, who worked as one of the keepers. A photographer from the US Coast Guard had arrived that week, hefting his bulky camera, in order to record the facility and some of its occupants.
It was January 1894, a few years before San Francisco would be treated to stories about this remarkable girl who defied the strictures of late Victorian womanhood, venturing where she pleased in the open land and wild hills around Ocean View and boasting all the requisite skills of any boy her age. The photograph was taken at the midpoint of the best and wildest year of her childhood. It was not the last time she attracted wonder and awe—and surely disapproval—before she seemingly disappeared from view, a bold flame extinguished. Continue reading “Artemis Lost: The Story of a Bold Girl in Turn-of-the-Century Ocean View”→
Founded in 1974, Sunnyside Neighborhood Association is coming up for its fiftieth anniversary. The slim pile of paper newsletters that were entrusted to me from the pre-internet days of the organization have now been scanned, thanks to the volunteer work of LisaRuth Elliott.
View more class photos here. Read more about Sunnyside School here.
My thanks to Richard Tucker for generously sharing his class photos from Sunnyside Elementary School. Richard now lives in Idaho, but he grew up on Joost Avenue, and learned how to scoop up first issues of new comic books from beloved local figure Bruno Cappa, setting off a life-long passion.
Here are his class photos from 1966 to 1970, including the first color photo for the site.