Meeting places make possible gatherings that can give rise to group action. Without a place big enough to meet and plan, speak and listen, how do members of a group know they have the number and consensus that can become a force for change? These points seem obvious, but for the real estate speculators laying out Sunnyside in 1891, even the provision of a park space where such a meeting place might be located was not a perceived need. Large union halls were numerous elsewhere in the city in areas with industry, but the rise of mainly residential areas in the late 19th century didn’t anticipate the needs of neighborhood activism.
Sunnyside had no park or public common space in the 1890s, but within a few years, common needs drew people together in private spaces. The first order of business at the first large public gathering of residents was the need for a school. There were 80–100 children in the area, even as sparsely populated as it was then. In January 1896, resident Eugene Dasse called the meeting at a hall he had built a couple of years before (where 54-56 Monterey is now) — Dasse’s Hall. There was such energy at that meeting that the first Sunnyside Improvement Club was spontaneously formed.
The group was successful, although instead of building a school, the school board rented a house for a one-room schoolhouse. There were a lot of other pressing needs as well: the club got the first two streetlights in the neighborhood, and set its sights on six more. The streets dead-ended on all but one side of the neighborhood, so they worked toward getting streets cut through — to Mission Street, Ocean Avenue, and through the impenetrable depths of Adolph Sutro’s private forest. They agitated for better streetcar service — every ten minutes rather than every twenty.
Eugene Dasse: “We are hemmed in on every side by property through which no streets are cut, and only one corner of the entire district that furnishes an inlet and outlet, and that is Circular Ave….We want an outlet over which we can receive our supplies and send to market our products.” SF Call, 29 Jun 1897
Another recurrent problems included was how heavy winter rains would leave parts of unpaved Monterey Blvd (then Sunnyside Ave) in an impassably muddy and rutted condition. Even aside from the lack of sewers and reliable piped water, there were many issues to resolve.
Dasse was a paperhanger who later turned to barkeeping and dealing in curios; born in France, he immigrated with his family as a child in the 1870s. He lived with his aging mother. Why they purchased the lot out in Sunnyside in 1892, just a year after the district was opened up, or why he built a large hall there soon after, is not clear.
Another location where this new improvement club met regularly was Williams’ Hall, which was the Joost Avenue side of the saloon building owned by Charles Williams at 22 Monterey. (Read the story of a big brawl there.) Here are both halls marked on the 1905 Sanborn map, which shows there wasn’t much else along Sunnyside’s nascent business district at this time.
The building still looks like a little hall, though it has long since been made into residences.
Skyrockets, Bonfires, and Dreams of a Zoo
In 1897, there was a great debate about the future location of the Mission Park and Zoo, a facility to serve the families of the Mission District and thereabouts. Several locations were posited, including the present Glen Canyon Park along with many acres around it, the spot favored by Sunnyside locals.
Dasse called a big meeting at his hall in July 1897, featuring fireworks, bonfires, and band music. Attendance was either 500 (SF Call) or maybe 150 (SF Examiner). A special streetcar carrying a brass band, a “big drum,” and festooned with electric lights started at the Ferry Building, went out to Ocean View and back to Sunnyside, picking up members of other districts’ improvement clubs who supported the same location for the new park.
Dasse took the occasion to throw down the gauntlet before Adolph Sutro, who had been steadfastly refusing to grant access to points to the west and south through his vast eucalyptus forest. When the rumor Sutro was about to finally consent was circulated at the meeting, Dasse replied:
“I suppose he saw that we are going to succeed in our movement and he wants to conciliate us so as to sell us some of his land. He is shrewd, but we understand all his moves….We have already provided for our own right of way and we don’t want his land.”
Indeed, just that week the Sunnyside Improvement Club had secured a piece of the House of Correction lot (now City College of SF) to make into a new road giving access down to Ocean Avenue (now Frida Kahlo Way). The following January, Dasse and 48 other local residents–seemingly every able-bodied male in Sunnyside–did the grading themselves.
The Independents versus the Progressives
Toward the end of 1898, the election-season politics split the local activists; Dasse joined with some residents in the Castro-Street Addition (now a part of Glen Park), under the banner of “The Independents” and they met at Haack’s saloon, on the corner of Diamond and Chenery (now Glen Park Cleaners).
A new resident named Gustave Schnee had recently built a house at 66 Joost Ave, and he formed the “Progressive Sunnyside Improvement Club” under the banner of “The Tax-payers,” and they met at Williams’ Hall on Joost. The basic issues for the district hadn’t changed, but the wider issues of City politics sundered the once-unified group. One of the divisive matters then was Mayor Phelan’s city charter reform, a radical piece of legislation whose importance is now largely forgotten.
In 1899, Dasse moved downtown to run a saloon, while his mother continued to live at the place on Circular.
Now Gustave Schnee moved into preeminence as a local leader. (Read about how he fought to get the deadly Southern Pacific steam train tracks removed from Sunnyside.)
A New Hall for the Progressive Era
Schnee joined with William A. Merralls, the inventor who built the Sunnyside Conservatory, who had also recently moved to the neighborhood. Together with others in Sunnyside they formed a corporation to build a new community hall, the first purpose-built hall for the district.
Merralls was a veteran of incorporated projects, forming over 25 in the course of his working life. It was a business-savvy choice, made by people who brought that experience to the neighborhood. Schnee was a real estate dealer, while also working then as a painter.
A lot was chosen at 10 Flood Avenue and the property bought in the name of Merralls’s wife Lizzie Merralls. They raised ten percent of the needed money, and got started. It took about a year to be built, the delay occasioning a special dance in the summer of 1900 to raise the rest of the needed funds.
The new facility quickly became the focus of local activities. A women’s auxiliary formed of sixty women was formed, now having a place to meet. The women held a big Christmas party for local children in Dec 1899, at which Mayor James D Phelan came to present six little girls with books.
Phelan was a confirmed misogynist, so there is some irony in him giving books to girls; a few years earlier he wrote that women “lack … imagination, originality, creative power and invention,” and “Genius … has been totally denied to the female sex.” Phelan’s name was recently removed from a Sunnyside street and replaced with that of artist Frida Kahlo, due to Phelan’s racist legacy; it is far less known that he also hated and feared women.
The End of a Hall
This Sunnyside hall was in use until at least 1903, when the last mention of it occurs in the newspapers. Being a large open structure, it may have been damaged in the 1906 Earthquake, as Lizzie Merralls sold the property one month after that.
The building still stands, a 25’x75′ structure that has since been repurposed as a multi-unit residence, with an additional building now in the tiny backyard.
The Post-Quake Years
After 1906, Sunnyside, like many of the outlying districts, swelled with people seeking an alternative to the density of the downtown area. The drafts of the hard-won plans for the prospective Sunnyside School were lost in the Great Fire. The Sunnyside Improvement Club got right onto the problem after the disaster, successfully petitioning the City to prepare new plans and specifications for the school. Once the school was built in 1909, the club met there in the auditorium.
In 1910, the club celebrated its tenth anniversary at the McGrath family store and house, on Hearst Ave–which surely required clearing the shop floor of shelves, tables, and so on, to make room for the revels. In the newspaper the building was even called a ‘hall.’ The family were Sunnyside old-timers, and one of the sons, Thomas McGrath, a lawyer, would be active in Sunnyside for decades to come.
The club stated its intention to raise money for a new hall on this occasion, something that wouldn’t happen for another 15 years, led by Thomas (more below).
The club also met at John Kaiser’s Restaurant at 211 Sunnyside Ave (now 219 Monterey Blvd).
After the school was built, but was out of session, they also met at the home of one of the officers, Herman Bishop, 410 Foerster street.
The list of problems to be addressed continued to be: getting streets cut through from the dead-ends; getting the schoolhouse built and its playground enlarged; and securing more streetlights. Things would soon show real improvements: a fire station was built after the Quake at San Jose and Ocean avenues, giving proper fire protection for the first time. In 1909, the long-awaited schoolhouse opened and the streetcar tracks would finally be extended down Monterey, a promise that the streetcar company had made 18 years earlier.
There was one outstanding item: Sunnyside did not yet have a full sewer system. Outhouses were the norm, even as telephones and electricity were becoming common. Imagine this–the residents here needed to raise their own funds to pay for the sewers. In 1910 the club ramped up their efforts, holding a mass public meeting for sewers at the school in April. By July they planned a big fund-raising dance at the school, but the School Board refused them the use of the school facilities for the event. So, although the local organization could meet in the new school’s auditorium, it wasn’t really theirs to use as they needed.
In October 1910, they held a big ball at the Glen Park Pavilion (where the current recreation center stands in Glen Canyon). It was a success, and by November they had the money needed, and sewers were on their way. The SF Call–always a booster for ‘The Districts’–featured the photos of several of the officers.
In the years that followed, the club, now with reportedly 130 members, continued to meet at the school and at Bishop’s house on Foerster, but to a degree the urgency that had driven the efforts in the past was lessened, as some of the problems were addressed. Later in the 1910s, Monterey Blvd was cut through Sutro’s forest, Phelan Ave to Ocean Ave was widened and improved, and an underpass was installed at the bottom of Congo Street, so people could get to the Excelsior district.
The Meteoric Rise of an Unstoppable PTA
The 1920s changed Sunnyside markedly: Monterey Blvd was built out with dozens of shops on the western three blocks, and thousands of houses filled up the previously vacant lots. It was a boom. With all these new residents came a wave of active mothers, who gathered their forces in the Parent-Teacher Association of Sunnyside School. Those mothers successfully pushed for a new, larger, safer school building in 1925, and set up a myriad of programs benefiting families in the neighborhood. They were part of the effort to establish some park facilities in Balboa Park (now City College of SF) where the long-promised recreational developments had never been fulfilled. In 1927, there was a big parade, opening ceremony, and tennis tournament, when the Gennessee Courts were opened. (Read more here.) A semi-pro baseball team called the Sunnyside Merchants had an excellent season in 1927.
Queen of Sunnyside
One of the accomplishments of the improvement club then was the building of the Sunnyside Community Hall, at 620 Monterey Blvd. In 1926 money was raised by an incorporated group of residents, just like Schnee and Merralls had done 25 years before. Thomas McGrath led the effort, fulfilling the intentions he had stated for the neighborhood 15 years before. A groundbreaking in June was celebrated with a big fete and marked by a “Queen of Sunnyside” contest.
The winner was Mary Baumgartner, the 18-year-old the daughter of a widow who lived with her children at 405 Detroit (house since replaced). A few years after this exciting event, Mary was married, remaining in Sunnyside in a house on the 600 block of Hearst Ave for most of her life, near her mother.
At the groundbreaking, Mary turned the first shovelful of dirt, and a diamond ring was placed on her finger.
The New Hall
The Sunnyside Community Hall broke ground in June of 1926, and was finished in a year. The building, which filled thee 25’x100′ lots, cost $15,000 and contained “an attractive lobby with fireplace, large dance floor, stage with dressing rooms, and a fully equipped kitchen.” The board of directors held a big opening event, with speeches, a music program, community singing, and a dramatic skit.
Then, in the depths of the Depression, in 1933, the bank that held the loan took back the building, according to the Sale Ledger at the SF Assessor’s. It was sold to a church in 1939, and has remained a church or private social club of one sort or another since (although it was sold in 2018 to an individual).
The structure on Monterey Blvd near Foerster still stands.
1930s to 1970s: Quiet Years and Old Memories
Although it has lost a dedicated venue for events, the Sunnyside Improvement Club continued in some form for decades to come–although practically speaking, the Sunnyside School PTA was a greater force for change in the area. In 1935, the Examiner noted that the executive board of their PTA was larger than the whole membership body at most other schools. Some of the work done by this group included an impressive list of parent-education programs for local families, as well as events. The PTA allowed stay-at-home mothers to mobilize for activism and social connection; they often met for events at their own houses. In the 1960s, the PTA was instrumental in getting the long-planned but still unbuilt Sunnyside Playground funded and constructed. And a PTA always has a built-in meeting place–the school facility itself.
The Sunnyside Improvement Club did continue in some form, until the last mention in print in the SF Examiner in 1972, in a list of neighborhood organizations, with the address listed as the school. After 76 years of nearly continuous existence, this organization effectively was dissolved.
One of the notable things that the newspapers turn up in the 1960s to 1980s, is that membership in the Sunnyside Improvement Club is included in old-timers’ obituaries–people who lived in Sunnyside in the 1910s and 1920s when there was much to do and the local enthusiasm to do it held their involvement as an important achievement of their life.
Thomas McGrath passed away in 1964. Read his obituary here.
A New Association for a New Era
The 1970s in San Francisco saw the rise of neighborhood identity and activism, as the city underwent big changes. In 1974 a group of local residents, led by a realtor named Ken Hoegger, formed the Sunnyside Neighborhood Association (SNA). The pressing problem of the day was parking, as the huge uptick in enrollment at the nearby City College had felt like an invasion of cars on the local streets. But there were many other issues that the group dealt with, like saving trees from a developer’s axe, and planting new trees along Circular Avenue to screen the adjacent I-280 Freeway.
Saving the Conservatory, Twice
One of the most important and lasting accomplishments of the association was saving the Sunnyside Conservatory. The property had been in a private owner’s hands since its building in 1902, and was in a dilapidated condition. In 1978, with support from residents in Glen Park and Miraloma Park as well, they got the City to declare it a landmark. The effort occasioned the first written history of Sunnyside by a local resident (though it is full of factual errors and touches of racism).
Saving it once wasn’t enough; in late 1979 a developer started to demolish the conservatory structure after buying the land. Natural historian and historic photo collector Greg Gaar saw this in process while passing on his bicycle; he raised the alarm, saving it from total destruction. The City had made it a landmark in 1976, but hadn’t bought the land under it, leaving its fate in a kind of limbo.
Soon after, responding to local pressure, and using the Open Space fund (passed in 1974 by the voters), the City bought the land, effectively preventing any future destruction, However, for decades after that there was very little upkeep by the City. Local resident and renowned botanist Ted Kipping took on the job of watering and maintaining the historic gardens during this time.
Broken windows and empty beer bottles–the Sunnyside Conservatory of the 1980s was a favorite spot for vandalism and underage drinking.
SNA was instrumental in fixing up the conservatory in 1988, and then again helping in the full renovation in 2009, which transformed the building into a sought-after SF Recreation and Parks Department venue for events. Friends of Sunnyside Conservatory is a local group formed during this reconstruction that looks after the facility. (Full history of the saving of the conservatory in a future Sunnyside History post.)
Still No Hall
Although Sunnyside has no public hall for gatherings, since the 1970s SNA has met at the hall of the local Roman Catholic church, St Finn Barr’s, as it often does currently. For some of the years of its existence, SNA met at Sunnyside Elementary School–although not since 2001. One year it met at the Ingleside Police Station Community Room, which is not actually in the neighborhood.
The Sunnyside Conservatory has been managed by SF Recreation and Parks Department since its 2009 restoration—it is now a locked but rentable venue popular for weddings and baby showers.
The parks agency allows a certain number of community events at the facility each year, so it has been used by SNA—and also by Glen Park Neighborhoods History Project, the organization that the historian writing this blog belongs to. The conservatory is beautiful facility—the ‘crown jewel’ among the Rec & Parks venues—but it is relatively small and lacks a kitchen, limiting its public uses. However, I imagine William Merralls, who helped build a hall for the neighborhood in 1899, would be pleased to know his beloved conservatory still stands 120 years later, and has a community use.
The absence in Sunnyside of a dedicated public meeting space, a place of adequate size and and fully provisioned, continues to be a deficit for the neighborhood. Planned construction of a large community room in the Balboa Reservoir housing project may offer an excellent new venue for Sunnyside, although not for several years to come.
SF Examiner, 18 March 1892, p12. Real estate notice of purchase of lots 25 and 26, Block 48 Sunnyside, present lots 6768/009 and 6768/034. ↑
SF Call, 25 Jun 1897 and SF Examiner, 25 Jun 1897. ↑
SF Call, 5 Oct 1898. ↑
SF Chronicle, 3 Oct 1898. The coverage itself may have been dictated by the political leanings of the newspapers involved. ↑
Read more about Phelan, despite his legacy of racism: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_D._Phelan. ↑
Quoted in The Public City: The Political Construction of Urban Life in San Francisco 1850-1900, by Philip J Ethington (1994). Ethington explores this unsavory but little known aspect of James D Phelan’s life, pp.384-7. ↑
SF Chronicle, 10 May 1906. ↑
“Orders Plans for Schoolhouse,” SF Call, 29 Sep 1906, p9. ↑
SF Examiner, 27 Jun 1927. ↑
SF Examiner, 24 Aug 1935. ↑
SF Examiner, 28 May 1972, p217. ↑
Conversation with Ken Hoegger, 8 Dec 2018. ↑
Oral history interview with Greg Gaar, 27 May 2018. ↑
Conversation with Ted Kipping, November 2017. ↑
Dates from various issues of Sunnyside News, 1970s-2010s. ↑