Sunnyside Conservatory is this neighborhood’s only city landmark, and certainly our premier historical treasure. 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. But who was the man who built it? Some history has been written about him, but not all of it has been complete or accurate; the roles his two wives played in the story have also not been fully told.
William Augustus Merralls with his first wife Lizzie A. Merralls built the Sunnyside Conservatory about 1902. William was a prolific and creative inventor, turning his hand to everything from machinery for extracting gold to refrigerators to automobile starters, and registering over twenty patents in as many years. (Here is a full list.) The Conservatory was a special place to keep and display the many special plants he acquired on his travels.[i] He may have picked a modest neighborhood to settle down in, but his ideas and his ambitions knew few limits.
This article aims to correct some oft-repeated but unsubstantiated claims about and dates for William Merralls’ life, many of which appear to be based on a neighborhood history document that lacks any citation, written by a Sunnyside historian, Thomas Malim, in the 1970s.[ii] Access to digitized records today has made it much easier to get facts straight, and offers many interesting new angles on the Merralls’ family. Still, one thing remains missing: an image of the man himself; he appears to have never had one made.[iii]
In March 1897 Lizzie A. Merralls bought the house and lot at 236 Sunnyside Avenue (later renamed 258 Monterey Blvd) from C.H. Taylor and his wife, as well as the lot behind on Joost Ave.[iv] Over the next five years, as William’s mining machinery and other business interests grew, the couple purchased the adjacent lots, giving them by June of 1902 all the lots that would make up the Conservatory grounds, plus two on Joost Ave. Here is a detailed account of the real estate transactions, all of which were in Lizzie Merralls’ name.
That the Conservatory was built during the last half of 1902 is suggested by the 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.[v] “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.
The Merralls Complex
In any case the remarkable building and surrounding complex were well finished by the time the map maker for the 1905 Sanborn maps charted its various components, including a 25-foot-square wire-covered coop, presumably for chickens, and perhaps other food animals.
Like all William’s projects, his home complex on Sunnyside Ave (as it was called then) had breadth and scale, although ultimately the practical aspects of supporting his soaring visions proved to be the grit in his finely tuned gears, and spelled the end of the presence of the Merralls family in Sunnyside twenty years after they arrived.
Included in the house complex was an observatory, which I’ve marked by an added red circle in the above map. From inside an observer could view the night skies through a window in its roof, which rotated three hundred and sixty degrees—surely apt for the scope of William’s visionary imagination.
Sometime before the 1915 Sanborn map[vi] was made, the Merralls’ built out the street frontage of the house by an additional fifteen feet, not counting the window bays. It certainly looked as though they had come to Sunnyside to stay.
A Hall for Sunnyside Neighbors
As well as inventing machines and ideas, William entered into a great many ventures in mining, finance, and manufacturing, and travelled widely during the course of his 62 years. (Here is a full list of his projects.) Newspapers from the time offer some interesting details about the Merralls’ life, including the struggles with finances that his second wife Temperance Laura contended with after William’s untimely death. She had difficulties holding onto what they had built and the life she had become accustomed to, eventually losing title to all their property on Sunnyside Ave. For either of his wives, it can’t have been easy to live with an inventor whose fertile mind was drawn into so many novel and risky ventures in far-flung places—some of which paid very well, but all of which would have needed plenty of ready cash.
Despite his widely ranging prospects and travels, Sunnyside was home. It was the place William and his first wife Lizzie chose to build the remarkable Conservatory, which was of unique octagonal design. In the neighborhood they also engaged in local activities, like building a community hall for the neighborhood in 1899. The building of the hall (located at 10 Flood Ave) required forming an association and incorporating as a company—something William had done many times before as a businessman.[vii]
William was the chairman of the founding group, yet his name does not appear after this in association with the Hall. Getting it finished seems to have been difficult—it needed the extra boost of two special events. The women of the neighborhood held a dance to raise funds to pay for the property about a year after the cornerstone was laid, and a social was held for the same reason a few months later.[viii] William Merralls was very good at starting projects.
Beyond this, the Hall seems to have been used for only a few years, for things like a children’s Christmas party for “400 little ones”[ix] in 1899 and the meeting of the McKinley-for-President club in 1900.[x] The latest reference I find is 1903, when the Sunnyside Improvement Club meets there to adopt a resolution criticizing the United Railway’s poor service on the electric street car line that comes to Sunnyside—infrequent service and poor quality cars.[xi]
The corporation sold the lot and building to Lizzie A. Merralls in 1904. Two years later she tried to sell the building in the classified ads—just four weeks after the Quake of 1906.
I suggest the structure—a classic hall with few internal supports that would interfere with dancing—was damaged in the Quake. It may then have been rebuilt as a dwelling, as the City records state it was built in 1907, although it was suggested to me by someone with experience that at least part of the structure dates to the late nineteenth century. During these years the Sunnyside Improvement Club was meeting in various other places, including the new schoolhouse.[xii]
After Lizzie’s death in 1908, it was sold away by her trustees in 1910. William always needed money for his ever-changing array of projects.
W.A. Merralls’ Early Life
William Augustus Merralls (1852–1914) came to the US with his widowed mother from Chatham, Kent, England, in 1869 at age seventeen.[xiii] By 1880 he was living in Colorado, newly married to Lizzie.[xiv] They soon relocated to Kansas City.
He was apparently an advocate of abstaining from alcohol, as he gave a temperance lecture there in 1885, the first evidence of him in the news.[xv] Intriguingly, he used a bit of high-tech gadgetry in his lecture, a “dissolving-view stereopticon.” That his second wife was actually named “Temperance” perhaps confirms this tenant of his values. (Here is a summary timeline for pivotal events in William’s life.)
In 1888, at the age of 36, Merralls was granted his first patent, a gold separator[xvi], which was soon followed by another, a method for extracting gold from the fine dust from riverbed mining.[xvii] In a news article alluding to the discovery of gold near Kansas City in December 1889, he stated his method “can save every particle of gold now lost.”[xviii] From then through the 1910s, he filed many new patents for mining machines.
Westward to Riches
Perhaps the prospects of California gold were more alluring, because soon after that the Merralls’ moved to Southern California, at least by July 1890.[xix] William was a director of the newly incorporated Aurum Placer Mining Machine Company in San Diego.[xx] Soon the couple relocated to San Francisco, by February 1893.[xxi] In 1896 the voters’ rolls show William living at 1324 Mission Street, South of Market. By the following year Lizzie had purchased the house at 258 Monterey Blvd, and presumably they moved in shortly thereafter.
In San Francisco, William started his apparently most successful company—The Merralls Mill Company—which sold solid and 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.[xxii] 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.
Up, Up and Away
One claim in the local history document by Thomas Malim I aim to correct are the references to Merralls flying-machine accomplishments. Malim appears to have gotten all the information about this particular venture from a stock prospectus—a sales tool, not an independent source of evidence. Although Merralls did own an aeroplane (see below, when his widow is forced to sell it) and participated in an important flying meet[xxiii] as a timer (not a judge)[xxiv], his work in producing, inventing or manufacturing any flying machines seems to have been very limited.
The only evidence for him owning a company called the Merralls Safety Aeroplane Manufacturing Company (as claimed by Malim) is a notice of this company’s forfeiture of corporate rights in a government document in 1911.[xxv] Malim’s statement that Merralls had a company with offices downtown and a “testing grounds” at Van Ness and Hayes is completely unsupported by any listings in the SF Directory or notices in the newspapers. During these years there was but one aeroplane manufacturer of any sort in the city, California Aero Manufacturing and Supply, “balloon and aeroplane supplies,” 441-5 Golden Gate Ave.
William Merralls was a dreamer, and in the case of the aeroplanes, he was certainly on the right track; but by 1910 or so, he would have been only one dreamer in a sea of men feverishly working to get airborne. In any case he was soon onto the burgeoning business of automobiles (more below).
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 (additional required payment on shares) after he had transferred his attentions to other investments.[xxvi] Once he was named in a suit against companies accused of being “get-rich-quick” schemes.[xxvii] I have no doubt the pressure to fund the companies marketing his inventions may have led him to novel methods of raising money. The most ephemeral and public of them may have been the San Francisco Railway Company. Merralls invested in this ephemeral company when it incorporated in June 1904, which then asked the City for various franchises to run electric streetcars in SF, but it had evaporated from all public notice by the beginning of 1905.[xxviii]
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 LA firms in June 1906, alleging infringement on his stamp mill patent, stating he is “the originator of the only real crushing apparatus.”[xxix] Two years later the court decided there had been no infringement of patent in the case.[xxx]
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).[xxxi]
That William liked and trusted women is perhaps suggested by his apparently companionate marriages. Both his wives accompanied him on many of his trips for business.[xxxii] His first wife Lizzie was the owner of almost all the real property that the couple ever held, from the very beginning of their married life.[xxxiii] 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.
His first wife, Lizzie A. Merralls, died on 20 March 1908, presumably at the house on Sunnyside Ave. Outside of the large number of real estate transactions in her name, there is not much in the public record to speak to her life. He soon married again.
Temperance Laura of Canada
Three days after a Canadian woman named Temperance Laura Clarke Neely obtained a divorce in Detroit MI from her husband, she married William Merralls, in July 1909. The ceremony took place in her hometown of Ontario, where her family had lived for generations.[xxxiv] William and Temperance returned to San Francisco. She had three grown children from her previous marriage. Her youngest, Charles F. N. Merralls, then 21, took her new husband’s last name and lived with the Merralls’ on Sunnyside Ave. He married in 1913, and the couple continued to live in the Merralls’ house until at least late 1916.
Temperance is reported in Malim’s history of the Conservatory (available here) to have started “Sunnyside Laboratories” at the house. I have not been able to find any independent documentation for this claim. One Sunnyside neighbor I had contact with said he heard that radium was used here. This certainly seems like the sort of progress-driven belief—radioactive substances were thought to be miracle cures in the early twentieth century—that William wholeheartedly lived by his whole life.
However there really is no evidence from the public record to support this claim, so perhaps it must remain in the realm of evocative neighborhood myth. Malim, writing 40 years ago, would have been able to speak with Sunnyside residents who are now long gone, whose oral knowledge would have been a mix of fact, half-fact, and fiction. His account surely carries some core of truth, without anyone now being able to say how much.
In about August 1911, Temperance and William set off for an 18-month extended tour of “eastern cities.”[xxxv] The object of the trip, from William’s point of view, was likely to have been to secure funding and facilities for producing his imminent new invention, an automobile starter. This was an innovative design, using a cylinder of compressed air, seven inches in diameter and four feet long, which would be part of the vehicle. This concept was eventually replaced by the battery-based starters that cars today still use. It was a time of intense innovation for automobiles—many different and innovative types of technologies vying for dominance.
This pursuit signaled a definite shift away from any mining-related machines. He filed for his engine-starter patent in September 1912,[xxxvi] established a company in Detroit to manufacture them in October, and by the following year, the device was written up in numerous trade publications like The Motor World and Motor Boating, as well as being listed in trade directories. While in the area, the couple visited her family in Ontario, leaving a trace of their travels in the record of border crossings there.[xxxvii]
By April 1913 the engine starter company’s address was listed as 1777 Broadway, New York City, where Merralls then incorporated yet another company, Merralls Air and Steam Engine Company, to make engine starters, the same month.[xxxviii] Perhaps he did this in New York to keep it out of legal entanglements in California. Twelve months later he incorporated another company in San Francisco, Merralls Air, Steam, and Gas Engine Company, with a different set of investors.[xxxix]
Temperance Returns to the City
Early in this busy year for William’s engine-starter business, Temperance returned to San Francisco, at least by February 1913. Intriguingly, there is a classified advertisement for a “six-room house” on Sunnyside Ave. Whether this is their own house on offer or another they own is not clear. No sales record in the news followed.
Shortly after that, Temperance notifies the society page that she is at home to her friends on Wednesdays. She puts notices of this sort for a few weeks running—notices which seem to me the work of a women determined in difficult times to keep her head up and her friends by her side.
This is why I surmise that the photograph taken in front of the Conservatory is of Temperance herself (detail below), sometime between about 1915 and late 1916. (This detail is from a photo I think mislabeled as dating to 1919 on OutsideLands.org.) She stands basking in the sun with two of her pit-bull terriers at her feet, another dog near her on a low wall. She looks like a confident and resilient woman.
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.[xli]
Malim speculated that Merralls was in ill health and had money troubles, distracting him. Many people were killed during these years by silent and speeding Southern Pacific trains, as I have written about elsewhere, due to persistent and willful violations by Southern Pacific of laws designed to protect the public in urban areas.
A week later the Southern Pacific engineer was declared “blameless” by the coroner’s inquest.[xlii] Temperance Merralls filed her lawsuit against Southern Pacific Railway Company the following September, a year after the death.[xliii] When she lost she appealed to the California Supreme court, where in January 1920 she was granted a new trial,[xliv] but I was unable to find what happened after this.
Life after William
Temperance continued to live in the house on Sunnyside Avenue after William’s death, having as company in these years her daughter-in-law, Eline Merralls (Mrs Charles F.N. Merralls). Charles served on the board of William’s company, the Merralls Air, Steam and Gas Engine Company, located at 519 California Street (building gone).[xlv]
The two women made the news a few times, once when Eline lost a purse with a bit of cash in it. The cash in her purse would be worth $2500 today, a large sum to take on an outing.
Another time they were burgled at the house, the thief making away with $285 in jewelry. Eline is called Temperance’s “sister-in-law”; perhaps they were more like sisters to each other than mother and daughter-in-law.
Temperance left traces in the newspapers when she tried to raise money in those straitened times. She placed two classified ads to sell William’s belongings in 1915, as well as selling the property directly behind the house just a couple of months after he died in 1914.[xlvi]
What could be more poignant than selling off your recently deceased husband’s prized custom aeroplane in the classified ads?
The family’s last listing in the SF directory was 1916. The report of the burglary in April of that year (above) is the last mention of the Merralls’ in San Francisco.
By May 1917, Charles and Eline Merralls relocated to El Centro in Southern California: Charles makes the news when he wins a sales contest at a Dodge Brothers dealer in San Diego, two weeks of which he spent confined to a sick-bed doing deals on the telephone, reports one newspaper.[xlvii] He got a gold watch for his efforts. The 1920 census also shows the couple in El Centro, with Charles as an agency manager for an auto dealer. Later Charles F.N. Merralls runs the Rubbercraft Company, and also files three patents himself.[xlviii]
The SF Recorder’s office records the date for the repossession by California Pacific Title and Insurance Company of all Temperance’s real estate as December 1916. In January 1918 it shows up in the SF Chronicle real estate listing: all the property on Sunnyside Avenue, including the Conservatory and house, and valued at $6,525.89 ($105K now).[xlix]
Temperance probably moved to Southern California with her son and daughter-in-law when they left, probably in late 1916. She was in Los Angeles for both the 1920 and 1930 census, and died there on 25 April 1930.
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 the fluid business environment—then as now—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 its largely undeveloped blocks then offered better prospects for the scope of their plans. They worked over many years to bring those plans to fruition.
Today what remains is a remarkable building, the Sunnyside Conservatory. It is also important to remember that this landmark was very nearly lost more than once, its value initially realized by only a few people. It was only through the extraordinary efforts of neighbors and others intent on preserving it that it was saved from complete demolition in the 1970s. In addition, the later extraordinary renovations in the 2000s were due to further neighborhood organizing. However, those heroic stories are beyond the scope of the present article.
- To browse archives of the SF Call listed below : http://cdnc.ucr.edu/cgi-bin/cdnc?a=cl&cl=CL1&sp=SFC&e=——-en–20–1–txt-txIN——–1
- To browse archives of the SF Chronicle listed below (sign in with SF public card): http://ezproxy.sfpl.org/login?url=http://infoweb.newsbank.com/resources/search/nb?p=AMNEWS&t=pubname%3A142051F45F422A02%257CSFCB%21Multiple%2BPublications&b=pubname
[ii] The original document is here: http://www.shapingsf.org/images/Sunnyside_District_Thos_Malim_1976.pdf .
[iii] Voter records in 1892, 1894, and 1896 state that William Merralls was 5’ 8 ½ ” (or 10” in one record), had black hair, hazel (or brown) eyes, and a scar on his right temple.
[iv] Real estate notices, SF Chronicle, 5 March 1897, p.14.
[v] “Damage Suits Filed,” SF Chronicle, 10 Dec 1902, p.8.
[vi] 1915 Sanborn maps through SF Public Library (sign in with library card): http://ezproxy.sfpl.org/login?url=http://sanborn.umi.com/ca/813/dateid-000015.htm?CCSI=12747n
[viii] In August 1900 the Hall was still not paid off, and there was a social event held there to raise funds for it. See SF Chronicle, 5 Aug 1900, p.20.
[ix] Contemporary news items (re a school for the neighborhood) suggest there were only about 100-150 children in Sunnyside at this time.
[x] “Sunnyside Children Entertained,” SF Call, 25 Dec 1899, p.6; “Will Work for McKinley,” SF Chronicle, 6 Oct 1900, p.14.
[xi] “Sunnyside Residents Object to Old Cars,” SF Call, 16 Jan 1903, p.4.
[xii] After this Hall closed, there were several meeting places. In June 1909 the Sunnyside Improvement Club met at 211 Sunnyside Ave (now 219 Monterey); in 1910 it met at the house of John Barrett, 337 Hearst (now 359); in 1911 at 341 Hearst (now 367), in 1912 at 410 Foerster; and finally settling in about 1913 to meet for many years in the auditorium of the new Sunnyside Schoolhouse on Foerster and Hearst (more on the building here).
[xiii] Some of the details about Merralls’ early life come from the family tree on http://Ancestry.com for “Hendrick Wilner and Descendants,” which I believe to have been solidly researched. Free trial membership is available on this genealogy research website.
[xiv] US Census data for Leadville, Colorado. WA Merralls lists occupation as “Mines,” Lizzie states “keeping house.” The 1900 census states they had been married twenty years.
[xv] Topeka Daily Capital, 6 Jan 1885, p.8.
[xviii]Topeka Daily Capital, 17 December 1889, p.5.
[xix] E.g., Mention of “W. A. Merralls, prominent mining man of Riverside,” in San Bernardino Daily Courier, 27 July 1890, p.3. In February 1890 he still lived in Kansas City, when filed a patent that states as much: https://patents.google.com/patent/US449942A/en.
[xx] Notes about new incorporations, Sacramento Record Union, 17 July 1890, p.3.
[xxiii] This exciting event took place 7 Jan 1911. Read about it in this issue of the SF Call (especially p.30). http://cdnc.ucr.edu/cgi-bin/cdnc?a=d&d=SFC19110108&e=——-en–20–1–txt-txIN——–1
[xxiv] W.A. Merralls named among many as a timer for major aviation meet to take place at new air field near Tanforan, San Mateo County, in Jan 1911. See SF Call, 29 Dec 1910, p.3.
[xxv] See this reference by searching this string in quotes on books.google.com : “63299 merrall’s safety aeroplane” [sic].
[xxvi] 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.
[xxvii] “Charges Hobson with Perjury,” SF Chronicle, 31 Dec 1904, p.11.
[xxviii] See SF Call, 28 June 1904, p.9; SF Chronicle, same date, p.16; also SF Call, 28 Jan 1905, p.4.
[xxix] “Alleges Infringement of Stamp Mill Rights: W.A. Merrals [sic] Asks Sweeping Injunction,” LA Herald, 9 Jun 1906, p.14.
[xxx] “Court Decides No Infringement of Patent,” LA Herald, 12 Feb 1908, p.12.
[xxxi] “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
[xxxii] 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).
[xxxiii] 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.
[xxxiv] Thomas Malim’s document wrongly states Temperance is a “nurse from Australia.”
[xxxv] Indicated both by business dealings and a note in the society page of the SF Call (2 Mar 1913, p.50) that Mrs Merralls had recently returned from 18 month tour of eastern cities.
[xxxvii] This is documented in the http://ancestry.com family tree for Merralls. http://person.ancestry.com/tree/14930094/person/698932568/facts Free trial subscription available.
[xxxviii] New York Times, 24 April 1913, p.12.
[xl] See real estate listings, SF Chronicle, 6 Mar 1913, p.17.
[xlii] “Accident: Engineer Blameless,” Oakland Tribune, 10 Sep 1914, p.14.
[xliii] “Widow Sues for Death,” Oakland Tribune, 2 Sep 1915, p.12.
[xlvi] Real Estate listing, SF Chronicle, 29 Nov 1914, p58. Sold to Alexander Woods, lot 19, block 41, Sunnyside.
[xlvii] Santa Cruz Evening News, 12 May 1917, p.7.