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.

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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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Revealed! New photograph of the Sunnyside Powerhouse

See the rest of these fabulous new photos here.

Thanks to the sharp eye of David Gallagher of Western Neighborhoods Project, this early photo of the Sunnyside Powerhouse has been unearthed from an album at the San Mateo County Historical Association. The association had not identified it, but David recognized Sunnyside’s lost landmark and kindly alerted me.

Untitled [The Sunnyside Powerhouse, San Francisco] 1892c. San Mateo County Historical Association Collection (1990.40.50).
Untitled [Sunnyside Powerhouse, San Francisco] 1892c. San Mateo County Historical Association Collection (1990.40.50). Used with permission and subject to usage restrictions.
The photo was taken, to the best of my estimation, shortly after construction of the powerhouse and car barn was finished in April 1892. That month saw the opening of the pioneering streetcar system, the San Francisco and San Mateo Electric Railway, the first one powered by electricity in the city.

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A Year on the Balboa Reservoir: Photos IV

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

Okay, it’s been more than a year of photographing this soon-to-be-lost semi-wild open space. By this time next year, maybe, the lower portion of the Balboa Reservoir will have begun its transformation into a housing development.

Graffiti. Balboa Reservoir. Nov 2020. Photo: Amy O'Hair
Graffiti. Balboa Reservoir. Nov 2020. Photo: Amy O’Hair
A coyote, quietly hunting on the Balboa Reservoir. Dec 2020. Photo: Amy O'Hair
A coyote, quietly hunting on the Balboa Reservoir. Dec 2020. Photo: Amy O’Hair
Berm walker. Balboa Reservoir. Nov 2020. Photo: Amy O'Hair
Berm walker. Balboa Reservoir. Nov 2020. Photo: Amy O’Hair

Continue reading “A Year on the Balboa Reservoir: Photos IV”

The Detroit Steps: Some historical images, and a vignette

The public stairway in Sunnyside called the Detroit Steps is currently the focus of an art and landscaping project. The stairway runs along the route of a planned street that was never built due to the steep hillside. In other places in Sunnyside, such unbuildable “paper” streets—that is, streets that only existed on maps—were simply excised altogether. (More about that here.)

Stairway beauty spots, decorated with art and landscaping, free of cars, and perhaps with a view, are a longstanding San Francisco tradition, given the impracticality of building roadways on various blocks of the city’s steep hills. From the high-buzz tourist attraction at 16th Avenue—to the many undecorated and largely unknown stairways such as Mandalay Steps or the Detroit Steps—this is a city full of wonderful public stairways.

The Detroit Steps Through Time

The present-day concrete stairs were installed at the Lower Detroit Steps (south of Monterey) the 1930s, and the Upper Detroit Steps (north of Monterey) in the 1960s. Like many of the steeply sloped blocks on either side of Monterey Boulevard, the nearby lots went undeveloped for a long time, as the photos below well show. It took the apartment-building boom in the 1950s-1970s to fill out Monterey’s unbuilt hillsides (and thereby deprive the neighborhood kids of some adventures). The great increase in density along Monterey makes the preciousness of any public open space away from traffic all the more important now. Continue reading “The Detroit Steps: Some historical images, and a vignette”

Sargent Johnson and the City College Gym Reliefs

When the old gymnasiums at the City College of San Francisco Ocean Campus were torn down in 2008, as the new Wellness Center was built, three pieces of artwork by Sargent Johnson attached to the structures had to come down too. Fortunately they were preserved, though their destiny remains undetermined.

Mounted over the entrances of the old gyms were three bas-reliefs Johnson created when it was built in 1940. Architect Timothy Pflueger commissioned the works, just as he commissioned art for almost every building he designed, even something as modest as a gym.

The gyms (one for women, one for men) were two of the first three buildings designed by Pflueger and constructed for the campus, the third being Science Hall. That building’s colorful murals are much better known as public art, and still stand. Johnson’s works were removed before the gyms were demolished, and have been in storage since then.

The Sports Figures

The three reliefs depict sports-related subjects: a group of female ball players; a female tennis player; and a group of male athletes. They are made of cast concrete.

On the South Gymnasium (women’s) there were two figures. First, a set of three women playing medicine ball. (See the end of this article for an explanation of medicine ball.)

Sargent Johnson, medicine ball players, cast concrete relief, 7’4” x 9’, 1940. City College of San Francisco. Photo: Will Maynez.
Sargent Johnson, medicine ball players, cast concrete relief, 7’4” x 9’, 1940. City College of San Francisco. Photo: Will Maynez.

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Fazekas, Redux

If you haven’t already, please read the original post about Anton Fazekas and his little invention: The little sculpture affixed to your house: Anton Fazekas and the making of a midcentury San Francisco sensation.


My post in July 2020 about Anton Fazekas and his house-number sensation turned out to be a minor sensation itself, bringing visitors to this blog in great numbers. Thank you for all the tweets, Reddit posts, and other links that spread the word. Attention to this minute part of the domestic built environment seems to have been a little anodyne in an age of upheaval.

In this follow-up post there are more photos, many from readers, taken in San Francisco and other Bay Area cities. I show some rehabilitated units, and some rare and odd finds. Also, I address the pressing issue of where to get replacement bulbs and numbers, with a link for the technical info you need to replace a bulb. And we get a peek at a 3D printed reproduction of a Fazekas.

If you have additional information, tips for renovation, or images to share, please write me. In particular, if you have a resource for unattached refurbished Fazekases for sale, please let me know.

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Monterey Boulevard shops: Some midcentury photos

The covid-19 pandemic has put a temporary halt to my history walks, including the one that highlights Monterey Boulevard shops, restaurants, and businesses of decades past. But here are some photos, most never seen before, showing businesses from the 1950s to the 1970s. From the San Francisco Office of the Assessor-Recorder Photographs Collection, at the San Francisco History Center.

Many businesses on the boulevard came and went without ever being recorded visually in the public record, such as the old Safeway (1942-1972) that was located in the parking lot of the current Safeway. Or Bruno’s Creamery Restaurant, at Foerster Street, site of many happy hours for local kids.

The big push to plant street trees in the 1970s has changed the look of the street completely, as these photos well show. Photos are ordered from 400s to 700s, Edna Street to Ridgewood Avenue, with each followed by a present-day photo. Do you have a photo taken on Monterey to share? Write me.

1955. 429 Monterey Blvd. Jack Specialty Barber Shop, mid-1940s to early 1980s. San Francisco Office of Assessor-Recorder Photographs Collection, San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library sfpl.org/sfphotos/asr
1955. 429 Monterey Blvd. Jack Specialty Barber Shop, mid-1940s to early 1980s. Note 25MPH speed sign, before it went to 30 in the 1970s. San Francisco Office of Assessor-Recorder Photographs Collection, San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library sfpl.org/sfphotos/asr

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