One of the earliest houses built in Sunnyside, San Francisco, and certainly the first on its block, has some interesting stories that go with its long history. The man who built it, John Albert Johnson, was a prime moving force in getting a school established for the neighborhood in its early days—when the City was prone to neglecting public services there. But he also conspired to have his wife illegally incarcerated in the County Jail, something that made the newspapers on account of its flagrant violation of the law, that a person cannot be imprisoned without a trial.
The story starts, I believe, in Dublin, Ireland, sometime before 1880 when John met his bride-to-be, Mary. He had come from Sweden, and was destined for the US, at a time when the economic woes in his native country pushed many to emigrate. They had their first child, a daughter named Mary, in Ireland. Then they came to the US, first to Philadelphia, perhaps because, like so many immigrants who were Catholic, as Mary surely was, they found tolerance there amongst the Quakers. It wasn’t long before they moved to San Francisco, about 1890. John was a stone cutter and a gravestone craftsman.
The Big Move to Sunnyside
In 1893, after living South of Market for a while, John bought the lots where the houses at 503 Edna and 400 Hearst now sit, as well as the small empty lot behind. That empty half-lot used to be the backyard of 503 Edna. John built a cottage on these lots, something that was announced in the newspapers. The notice even named the carpenters who were to do the work: Peterson and Olsen. The price of for building the house was $1120.
Gustave Peterson and Andrew Olsen were two carpenters who were active as builders for only a few years in San Francisco, but left some buildings as their legacy, notably the old schoolhouse at 1060 Tennessee and a three-flat building at 1680 McAllister, both competent but restrained examples of late Victorian buildings. There are surely others in SF that did not leave a trace in the newspapers for me to find a century later. Certainly, 503 Edna Street is one of our better-kept Victorians in Sunnyside, having been restored in the 1980s.
The Johnsons, as seen in the 1905 map above, had a well behind the house with a windmill to power the pump, as well as several sheds and outhouses, surely for the horses that provided transport. That windmill, although not noted here, was likely to have been 30 feet tall, as several other houses in Sunnyside at this time had such an arrangement, noted elsewhere on this detailed insurance map.
The two lots next door at what is now 414 Hearst were bought and built on by Sven Johnson, who may have been John’s brother. The map has his name sketched in “S. Jansen”.
The John and Mary Johnson, with their first four children, moved into the new house in late 1893, just two years after lots first went on sale in Sunnyside. There was precious little around them at the time—a couple of houses on nearby blocks, and some small shops down at the other end of Sunnyside. The electric streetcar did not come up Sunnyside Avenue (Monterey Blvd now) until 1909, so horse-drawn carriage was very likely to have been their transportation.
No School in Sunnyside
The need for a school was clearly on John Johnson’s mind, as the father of many children; right away he led a local effort with others in the neighborhood to campaign to get one established. The neighborhood “improvement club,” as such groups were then known as, regularly went down to the School Board to plead their case.
The children would have had to walk to Fairmount School, at Randall and Chenery, perhaps taking the streetcar from Circular and Sunnyside Avenue onward. Residents claimed there were one hundred children in the district, and sensibly enough that it was a burden on the younger children to walk so far to school, especially in foul weather. John continued to campaign even after the City provided the inadequate stop-gap measure in 1896 of renting a house in the neighborhood, a one-class school where younger children could go. Sunnyside needed a real school. (More about this first school here.)
A Crumbling Marriage
The Johnsons had their fifth child, Albert, in 1894. But soon trouble started for the couple, if it hadn’t already begun before. This part of their story becomes part of the public record when the illegal-imprisonment scandal erupted a few years later. Mary, it seems, was habitually drunk. John filed for divorce in 1898, charging “cruelty,” though legal analyses of divorce law at this time in California makes it clear that this was the stated reason about 70% of the time, and was by no means an indication that actual cruelty had taken place. It was how you went about getting a divorce in San Francisco before mere incompatibility was an acceptable reason. A later news story also added her “habitual intemperance” to his grievances. She filed a cross-complaint that charged him with extreme cruelty.
In January 1899, as the divorce begins it process, John A. Johnson apparently did something underhanded and illegal. He colluded with a police officer who “arrested” his wife Mary, and a judge, who “tried” and “sentenced” her to three months in the County Jail. Perhaps this was a crude version of a Victorian Betty Ford Clinic, minus any sort of consent, dignity, or comfort. It was a scandal. When she got out in March, reporters at both the Chronicle and the Call wrote up the shocking story in detail. It was reported how the judge, when asked about what he had done three months before, said he had no recollection of the event. Despite threats of a grand jury trial, it was a one-day news sensation, and passed into oblivion.
Lonely in Sunnyside
John and Mary were, it seems, mismatched. Perhaps they didn’t share a common faith, or a common view on life. Perhaps she missed the dense, highly social atmosphere of the crowded South of Market neighborhood they had left for the bare-hill isolation of wild Sunnyside. He was certainly eager to establish a house where there were no nearby neighbors. Perhaps she missed her green and lush Ireland, as she walked along the dry dirt roads and spotty creek of this unbuilt area. In any case, she took to drink in a bad way. On the day she was “arrested” by the police officer who was in on the scheme, she was walking home, reportedly drunk, probably along Hearst–perhaps having been down to the one of the saloons in Sunnyside, either at 22 Circular Ave. (now 22 Monterey Blvd, where Kabbalah is now) or 101 Baden (building gone). (More on saloons in future post.)
Exit Mary, Enter Frances
John and Mary did not divorce, but Mary died two years later; the cause was not stated in the death notices. A couple of years after that John remarried, a woman named Frances, who was very much younger than him. She had a son by a previous marriage, and together they had two more children, Zelda and Kenneth. And still, after all this time, the City had not built Sunnyside its school. Only the youngest of their children had the privilege of going to school in their own neighborhood, after the first Sunnyside School finally was built in 1909, where the playground of the current school is situated.
By the time of the 1920 US Census, Frances was a young widow of 36, John having died the year before. She lived with her two younger children, as well as two grown sons of John’s. Tragedy struck the family in 1922, when her youngest, Kenny, age 7, was hit by a car at a notorious intersection that—to this day—is a hazard for pedestrians, Edna and Monterey. The child was injured but did not die.
Frances Johnson moved away from Sunnyside by the 1930s; in the 1940 Census another family is shown as renting 503 Edna Street. Then in 1944, Frances Johnson sold both lots to Antonio Mazza, whose family had lived around the corner at 414 Hearst for many years. The brown box at 400 Hearst Ave was built in 1953. It was Mazza who, sometime after 1944, chopped off the backyards of 503 Edna and 400 Hearst, forming a strange half-lot (3116/006A), for reasons best known to himself alone. It has been vacant for all these decades.
This patch has been a neglected eye-sore for years; soon it is to be a three-story house, squeezed onto this “substandard” lot, according to posted notices. Good deed or bad?