By Amy O’Hair
Updated July 2023
The Sunnyside Conservatory is this neighborhood’s only city landmark, and one of San Francisco’s historical treasures. People who have never heard of Sunnyside come from all over the Bay Area to get married or celebrate other events in its beautifully restored building and grounds. Some of the palms and monkey puzzle trees are more than a century old.
Who was the man who built it? William A. Merralls (1852-1914) was a prolific inventor and inveterate entrepreneur, and built the unusual octagonal structure about 1902. His wide range of hobbies extended to collecting exotic plants, and this was an oasis of lush beauty in which to show them off.
After coming to the US from England as a young man, Merralls, with some training in engineering and a restless, creative mind, turned his hand to everything from machinery for extracting gold to refrigerators to automobile starters. He registered over twenty patents in as many years. He may have picked a modest neighborhood to settle down in, but his ideas and his ambitions knew few limits.
In 1897, when Merralls was at the peak of his career inventing and selling mining machines, he and his first wife Lizzie bought the house at 258 Sunnyside Avenue (later Monterey Blvd). But their domestic visions went beyond just the house. Over the next few years, they bought the adjacent properties, six additional lots, finally building the conservatory structure and landscaping extensively. The brass sign currently mounted on the fence at the Sunnyside Conservatory may claim a date of 1898 for the structure, but the Merralls’ did not own all the land until June 1902.
The Merralls Complex
The remarkable building and surrounding complex were finished in time to be recorded by the map maker for the 1905 Sanborn Insurance Maps. The features on the grounds included a 25-foot-square wire-covered coop, presumably for chickens, and perhaps other animals. Also connected to the house was an observatory (red circle); inside the special tower Mr Merralls could observe the night skies through a window in its roof that rotated three hundred and sixty degrees—an apt device for the scope of his visionary imagination.
About 1912, Merralls expanded the front of the house at 258 Monterey, adding some fifteen feet, and bringing the structure out to the property line.
After William’s first wife Lizzie died, he married Temperance Laura Clarke of Ontario, Canada. They were passionate and shared unusual interests. Their short life together marked Merralls’ most ambitious period. Read the story of their life together here.
WA Merralls’ Early Life
William Augustus Merralls came to the US with his widowed mother from Chatham, Kent, England, in 1869 at age seventeen. By 1880 he was living in Leadville, Colorado, newly married to Lizzie. They soon relocated to Kansas City. In 1888, at the age of 36, Merralls was granted his first patent, a gold separator, which was soon followed by another, for a method for extracting gold from the fine dust from riverbed mining. In a news article alluding to the discovery of gold near Kansas City in December 1889, Merralls stated his method “can save every particle of gold now lost.” From then through the 1910s, he filed many new patents for mining machines. By 1892 Merralls was in Los Angeles, the year he won a silver medal at the California State Fair, for “Best Machine for Extracting Gold from Placer and Quartz.” (Here is a summary timeline for pivotal events in William’s life.)
Westward to Riches
It was in San Francisco that William started his most successful venture, The Merralls Mill Company, which sold powerful, useful machinery needed by many mining operations all over the West and even Mexico. This company lasted longer and had fewer legal issues than some of his other pursuits. The business was located in the second block of First Street, in the heart of the metal manufacturing center of SF at the time. It manufactured a variety of mining machines and sold them widely, most of which crushed and pulverized rock in increasingly efficient ways, so that all traces of gold could be extracted.
Lawsuits and Unfinished Business
Like any ambitious serial entrepreneur, William periodically found himself the target of lawsuits. He had a propensity for moving onto the next project before the last was finished, and so was pursued for assessments after he had transferred his attentions to other investments. Once he was named in a suit against companies accused of being “get-rich-quick” schemes. I have no doubt the pressure to fund his own companies may have led him to novel methods of raising money. He also did his share of suing others. Having invented many mining machines and sold them profitably through the Merralls Mill Company for many years, he filed a lawsuit against two Los Angeles firms in June 1906, alleging infringement on his stamp mill patent, stating he is “the originator of the only real crushing apparatus.” Two years later the court decided there had been no infringement of patent in the case.
William and Women
One interesting mining project he entered into just after moving to San Francisco did not last long before busting up in contentions between participants: the Ideal Placer Mining Water and Power Company. What was novel about it was that, aside from William, all the directors were women—although the incorporation announcement doesn’t reveal this, being a sea of first initials instead of first names. But a year and a half later, one of the women sued the others as well as William, charging he violated the guidelines of the corporation. The women’s names and their ambitions for a noble project are shown (and, it must be said, ridiculed to some degree).
That William liked and trusted women is perhaps suggested by his two apparently companionate marriages. Both his wives accompanied him on many of his trips for business. His first wife Lizzie was the owner of almost all the real property that the couple ever held, from the beginning of their married life. Perhaps this helped keep their property further from the reach of those who would sue William’s companies—although surely his propensity to incorporate anything he touched would have prevented this anyway.
William hardly thought the accomplishments of the past were sufficient for the needs of the future—as shown by his relentless pursuit of improvements to technology, even on his own inventions. So perhaps he was just as open to the notion that traditional arrangements of gender roles held little intrinsic value. Neither of his marriages produced children, however, and so were never put in that particular crucible.
Death of an Inventor
On 2 September 1914, William Augustus Merralls, died, aged 62. He was hit by a Southern Pacific train on Fernside Boulevard near Garfield Street in Alameda. He was visiting friends in the company of two women who described the incident at the trial later. Merralls had gone ahead of the two women on the tracks. They testified that the train was travelling at a high rate of speed and did not ring its bell, two violations of regulations meant to protect the public from the dangers of steam trains in populated areas.
But also, then as now, people looking for a way to commit suicide used speeding trains as their weapon of self-harm. It is possible that William A Merralls was one such suicide, being at a low point in his career, and fairly cash-poor by then.
A week later the Southern Pacific engineer was declared “blameless” by the coroner’s inquest. Temperance Merralls filed a lawsuit against Southern Pacific Railway Company the following September, a year after the death, but ultimately she lost. She died in Los Angeles twenty years later.
Legacy for a Neighborhood
William Merralls was a remarkable figure during an exciting period in the city’s history. He chose to come to San Francisco undoubtedly because of the fluid business environment—the city’s perennial milieu. It allowed him to pursue cutting-edge technological advances. He attracted a diverse number of investors over many years, here and elsewhere, people willing to go in with him on his speculative projects, so that he could bring new inventions to market quickly.
He and his first wife Lizzie chose Sunnyside as the neighborhood to settle in and build their dreams—perhaps it was the largely unbuilt blocks along Monterey that offered better prospects for the scope of their plans. They worked over many years to bring those plans to fruition. With his second wife Temperance Laura he formed a devoted and passionate bond, during a time when he was branching out into exciting new fields such as automobiles and airplanes.
The next owners of the Sunnyside Conservatory, the Van Beckhs, have their own amazing story to tell. They lived there for 50 years, long enough for the structure to be spared demolition through midcentury. Later, in the 1970s, it was only through the extraordinary efforts of neighbors and others intent on preserving the conservatory structure that it was saved from complete destruction. The later renovations in the 2000s—which brought us the beautiful public park that we know today—can be credited to further neighborhood organizing. However, those heroic stories are beyond the scope of the present article.
- See this page for a full list of Merralls’ patents: https://sunnysidehistory.org/merralls/w-a-merralls-list-of-patents/ For more details on Merralls’ working life, see the main Merralls page. https://sunnysidehistory.org/merralls/ . ↑
- An account of the serial purchase of the lots that went into the grounds for the Sunnyside Conservatory can be found here: https://sunnysidehistory.org/merralls/chronology-of-property-acquired-for-sunnyside-conservatory/That the Conservatory was built during mid-1902 is strongly suggested not just by the property acquisition dates, but by the absence of the structure on the detailed Sanborn Insurance Maps for 1900. In addition, a lawsuit that was filed in December of that year by a gardener named Ludwig Diessen working on the project. He was buried under a huge pile of dirt and asked for $30,000 ($830K now) in damages. “He was helping fill a wagon with earth from a loam bank with which to beautify the Merralls flower garden, when the bank caved in and buried him beneath it. He says he was damaged to the above amount before he could be dug out again.” The incident surely points to a project of extraordinary scale, in that it required mountains of loam, and suggests that the Conservatory was being landscaped during this time. “Damage Suits Filed,” SF Chronicle, 10 Dec 1902, p.8. ↑
- Details of William Augustus Merralls’ life can be seen on my family tree Facts page for him, on Ancestry.com (paywall, but free to access at any SF Public Library, main or branch). https://www.ancestry.com/family-tree/person/tree/192221236/person/362499779432/facts ↑
- US Census data for Leadville, Colorado, 1880. Year: 1880; Census Place: Leadville, Lake, Colorado; Roll: 91; Page: 413D; Enumeration District: 080. WA Merralls lists occupation as “Mines,” Lizzie states “keeping house.” The 1900 census states they had been married twenty years. ↑
- See https://patents.google.com/patent/US391421A. See https://patents.google.com/patent/US412643A/. Topeka Daily Capital, 17 December 1889, p.5. Report of the California State Agricultural Society. United States: n.p., 1893. https://www.google.com/books/edition/Report_of_the_California_State_Agricultu/FuFEAAAAYAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&dq=california+state+agricultural+society+merralls&pg=PA62 ↑
- Both William and Lizzie appear on a list of stockholders of the Wurmser-Merralls Placer Mining Company who owe delinquent assessment. E.g., LA Herald, 14 May 1892, p.7. ↑
- “Charges Hobson with Perjury,” SF Chronicle, 31 Dec 1904, p.11. ↑
- “Alleges Infringement of Stamp Mill Rights: W.A. Merrals [sic] Asks Sweeping Injunction,” LA Herald, 9 Jun 1906, p.14. “Court Decides No Infringement of Patent,” LA Herald, 12 Feb 1908, p.12. ↑
- “Was Not Ideal,” SF Call, 3 Nov 1894, p.3. Read the whole article here (sign in with SF Public Library card): http://cdnc.ucr.edu/cgi-bin/cdnc?a=d&d=SFC18941103&e=——-en–20–1–txt-txIN——–1 ↑
- Notes in the society pages about their stays at various watering holes of the rich coincide with his business dealings, such as when William and Lizzie go to Vichy Springs near Clear Lake (SF Call, 19 June 1904, p.38) , while William is involved with a mining venture at the Quinby Creek site in Trinity County to the north of this location (Engineering and Mining Journal, Vol.77, p.1020, 23 June 1904). ↑
- This included what appears to be the first property they bought, in Salt Lake City UT, which Lizzie did not sell until 1890 for $1500 ($40K now), according to Salt Lake City Herald, 11 Jul 1890, p.8. This is the only evidence they were ever in Utah, perhaps between the 1880 census when they are in Colorado, and the first mention of William in Kansas City in 1885. ↑
- See The Pacific Reporter, 1920, Vol. 186, p. 778, “Merralls v Southern Pac. Co. (SF 8333)” ↑
- “Accident: Engineer Blameless,” Oakland Tribune, 10 Sep 1914, p.14. “Widow Sues for Death,” Oakland Tribune, 2 Sep 1915, p.12. ↑