On Monterey Boulevard in Sunnyside, there are two unique 3-unit buildings that were designed in 1963 by architect Jonathan Bulkley. Perhaps you have walked by and wondered about the history behind them. Today they stand somewhat altered from their original look. The San Francisco Examiner featured them shortly after their construction. They have unusual triple barrel-vaulted tops and two levels of balconies on the front.
In the course of researching the buildings, I found the architect’s body of work has not been thoroughly documented, although his designs clearly fit into what has been called the Third Bay Tradition, a late phase of Midcentury Modern architecture in San Francisco.
Jonathan Duncan Bulkley (1930-2012) was active as an architect in San Francisco from 1960, when he established Jonathan Bulkley and Associates, until the early 1980s. He trained in the late 1950s at Illinois Institute of Technology under Ludwig Mies van der Rohe during the Modernist icon’s last years teaching at that highly influential school. He had got a contractor’s license in 1958 when he moved to San Francisco, and moved into designing buildings shortly after. He did many renovations and some commercial buildings as well residences.
In addition to designing buildings, Bulkley also later became involved in planning issues, in the Western Addition during the controversial redevelopment years in the 1970s and in the Richmond during the 1980s. One of his projects was the award-winning Friendship Village, an affordable housing project built in 1971.
Two other residential projects also won awards and many were featured in architectural journals through the 1960s. Yet a comprehensive summary of his architectural work is not readily available. I’ve assembled a list of his residential projects, culled from journal and newspaper sources, but which is unlikely to be complete. [See end of this article.]
A Local Architectural Presence
The Monterey buildings never won an award and Bulkley does not appear to have worked to get them included in a journal later, something he clearly did for other early projects (which I’ll detail below). Despite this, the two buildings in Sunnyside feature materials and forms that he consistently employed during his design career, and to the degree they retain these elements, the structures are signature Bulkley work. They remain a distinctive presence on the boulevard.
Each building has a 3-bedroom top flat, with the barrel-vault ceilings in the living-dining-kitchen area and front and rear balconies, with two 1-bedroom apartments below, each with a balcony. The hill rises steeply in the back, and the upper deck connects with bridging deck to a terrace on the slope, a feature Bulkley used elsewhere. Some real estate ads from the 1960s for the buildings:
What is Left?
Outside, the original artist’s drawing showed three trees and a bit of rock garden in front of the entrances, but there is no evidence today for this green feature now. The builder even laid a custom sidewalk, framed with redwood, and filled with a slightly rustic concrete mix, a few squares of which are left today. It extends into the open stairwell.
The ‘re-sawn redwood’ exterior, once exposed, has long ago been painted, but the texture is still evident.
The balcony on the right-hand unit (420) has been rebuilt, while the other (422) has its original form.
Inside, some of the original elements designed for the interior remain, such as the exposed stained redwood ceilings in the open living area in front (and in the bedrooms in 420), the wall-sized sliding mirrored closet doors, the slightly incongruous Mission-style lights in the central sky-lit stairwell, and the flat shallow light-switches—then a cutting edge design.
The original doorknobs were the “Waterlily” design, then new, by local firm Schlage.
There is one of the original hanging light fixtures left, a lovely ovoid, in the dining area of the top unit at 420 Monterey.
Realtor photos of the top unit at 422 Monterey from about 2013 show a more renovated interior, including the removal of the redwood ceilings from the bedrooms. Photos from SF Association of Realtors.
‘Modern as Tomorrow’
Bulkley’s work is clearly part of the Bay Area Modern aesthetic, which related structures to the natural environment and used native or natural materials like the re-sawn redwood mentioned in the piece about the building on Monterey.
There are five themes of San Francisco Modernism identified in the historical context statement about Modernism in the Bay Area published by the SF Planning Dept in 2010:
- Rejection of Historicism: Ornament took the form not of historical reference but of “the richness of materials, particularly wood, and experimentation with design elements,” a consistent feature of Bulkley’s residential projects.
- Flexible Interior Space: Designs with “careful placement of load-bearing walls [which] enabled large, open interiors.” This element is seen in Bulkley’s interiors (photos later in this article).
- Appeal of the Machine Age: “Buildings were designed to maximize space and material, to get the most from the least.” Bulkley thoughtfully and creatively used every beneficial aspect of the narrow, hilly lots in San Francisco that he designed for.
- New Architectural Vocabulary: Among the identified elements in this category that Bulkley used were smooth wood siding, flat roof forms, large glass doors, wood shingles, and projecting overhangs.
- Indoor/Outdoor Living: “Mild climate conditions allowed for the enjoyment of the outdoors year round.” Bulkley emphasized the available views with multiple balconies and decks, and employed novel outdoor bridges which connected decks to terraced levels on rear hillsides, essentially using air-space to create outdoor living space.
The barrel vault is an ancient architectural form (read more). It was used in stone by the Persians and Romans, and more recently in glass and iron for monumental public projects like Washington DC’s Union Station. In the Modern period it was part of the vocabulary of forms, and turns up in many large or public projects such as the shallow vaulted top of the Marina Safeway supermarket (1959), the first of many similar stores the company built.
Because of its classical roots, there was renewed interest in the form in the Postmodern era, when visual references to the past became fashionable. An example is Crocker Galleria’s massive glass vault (1982), which echoes the grand railway stations of the past, like Gare d’Orsay in Paris (1900), right down to the clock. That railway station in Paris was remade in the 1980s as a museum, Museé d’Orsay (1986).
For its capacity to inspire awe and make a strong visual statement about the majesty, solidity and an ‘overarching’ public purpose of the institution employing the form, the barrel vault is unrivaled. However, its use in small-scale residential architecture is uncommon.
The Monterey buildings, built in 1963, have these remarkable small-scale barrel-vaulted tops, shaping the ceilings within. It might not have been the most successful choice for living space; the resident of 420 Monterey Blvd who allowed me to look around commented that she felt the vaulting produces a darkening effect. The light doesn’t reflect off the ceiling in the expected way. The use of lightly-stained wood (original) on the ceilings, while beautiful in texture, also tends to decrease reflected light.
Bulkley employed vaulted tops on other structures designed from 1961-1963, but then abandoned this form. In his use of the form for residential projects, during these years, I venture to say he was unique in San Francisco.
The motif was picked up five years later and used in 1968-1970 for several sets of multi-unit buildings in the Diamond Heights Redevelopment Area. It you know of other barrel-vaulted residences in SF, please write me.
Bulkley made a specialty of working on narrow hillside sites, creating buildings that cling to the slope and often cascade down with multiple balconies. The state of available lots in San Francisco by the early 1960s meant that the forms of Midcentury Modernism had to be adapted to the constrictions of historically small parcels and often steep terrain. Lots that had remained empty until then had a great likelihood of being difficult to build on.
In this respect, Monterey Boulevard fits the pattern; in the late 1950s, an apartment-building boom began on the boulevard on the many still-vacant large lots on steep rocky slopes. Rezoning made multi-unit buildings possible, and the construction of 420-422 Monterey was part of an early-1960s building boom on the boulevard. [Read more about this in another post on this site.]
All Bulkley’s projects in the 1960s and 1970s had exterior exposed redwood or cedar shingles, or both. Although the structures on Monterey are now painted, as are others, they were originally exposed wood, making these buildings stand out on the boulevard when first built. Many of his residential projects in other areas of the city still sport the façades he designed for them.
A mark of a ‘Bulkley-built’ residence was the emphasis on the view; he created balconies and decks on all his 1960s projects to highlight views. From the buildings on Monterey there is a view toward the San Bruno Mountains, but other sites he worked on had more spectacular or familiar vistas. The real estate ads for his buildings always mention those views.
Bulkley About Town
Here are some of the other projects he designed in San Francisco, which illustrate the elements that made up his style, and show how the Monterey buildings are of a piece with his other work.
975 Carolina Street (1961)
This two-unit residence is the earliest project I can find to put Bulkley’s name to, but it is surely not his first. Constructed in 1961, it was featured in Progressive Architecture six years later, after his work had attracted more notice (below). The photos reveal its original appearance with exposed redwood. The vault shape is shallower that the full half-cylinder he would use for the next barrel-vault projects. The view was natural fabulous, and the magazine noted the unusual bridge-decks in the back, maximizing the private outdoor space, something that also features in the Monterey Blvd buildings.
A current photos (below) show what has been done to the façade, including painting, the application of decorative little circles (which were lights up until a few years ago), and glass inserts on the originally solid balconies.
3759 – 16th Street/54 States Street (1963)
This set of two double units is perched up on a very steep rocky cliff. It was featured in the SF Examiner one year after construction. For an exterior, I can only offer a satellite view of this building (below), but it reveals the triple-vaulted roof on each, like the Monterey buildings. The photos in the newspaper show some of the interior, which emphasizes natural materials and, of course, the view.
375-377 Diamond Street (1963)
This two-unit building, built the same year as 420-422 Monterey, also has a similar triple-vaulted top. It was featured in the SF Chronicle in 1965, and in House and Home in 1966. The original building was faced with shingles and exposed wood, though now, like the Monterey building, it is painted. In one of the photos below, the bridge-deck innovation can be seen.
In 2007 this building underwent extensive renovation (below), with the placement of heavy steel I-beams in front, the addition of another level of habitable space above the garage, enclosure of the car-port, installation of windows on the originally solid portions of the front façade, and replacement of the wood on the balconies with glass.
1919 – 20th Street (1963)
This plain building apparently counts on a breathtaking view, rather than any architectural features (below). I only found one real estate ad that mentioned him as the architect.
875 Vermont Street (1965)
The eleven-unit residence at 875 Vermont Street in Potrero Hill appears to have been Bulkley’s last use of the barrel vaulting. It was also designed with narrow multi-pane windows that he would use in several buildings after this. The original rendering shows the design as it was built in 1965.
At some point the top was renovated, eliminating the barrel vaults, and adding an additional story. The shingles have been painted, the carport enclosed, and the balconies made into fire escapes.
300 Hill Street (1965)
In 1965 Bulkley designed a 7-unit building at 300 Hill Street which was featured in the SF Examiner and Progressive Architecture, and given an Award of Merit by House and Home in 1967. By this point, he had abandoned barrel vaults as a design element. The extremity of the slope was highlighted in one of the features—a 43% grade.
25-35 Castenada Avenue (1966)
This set of two residences was featured the year it was built in both the Examiner and the Chronicle, and was given a First Honor Award by House and Home in 1968. They featured deeply sloped roofs with 25’ high ceilings inside, and two balconies on the back where the hillside dropped steeply, to take advantage of the views. They were shingled, though it appears only one still has its original façade.
Connecticut Street (1967)
In 1967 Bulkley designed two sets of hillside buildings on Connecticut Street in Potrero, one of which (671-677) was featured in Progressive Architecture shortly after construction (below). By this point his star had risen, and his work was being publicized more quickly after completion.
The other set, 635-665 Connecticut Street, is notable for the precipitous slope on the back side. A satellite view from Google is the best I can do to capture the stack of balconies (below). The fronts are one-story flat boxes facing Connecticut Street with notable vertical slat windows. Two have an additional story added now at the front, and 641 has added front bays.
56-64 Museum Way (1967)
These two double units facing Corona Heights Park have the same set of triple balconies down the back slope seen on Bulkley’s other designs. The shingles have aged unevenly and unpredictably.
3406 Market Street (1968)
Bulkley designed these two residences on Market Street in 1968. There is a reference to the building in the Planning Dept’s historical context statement about Bay Area Modernism, which identifies “JD Buckley” as the architect, though there was no one with that name working in SF. Given the obvious similarity with Jonathan D. Bulkley’s name, it seems to be an oversight in what is otherwise exhaustive research executed for this invaluable document. That he designed this building was confirmed by the presence of a rendering belonging to his family.
This project looks like it was originally exposed redwood (below), though now it appears to be painted. The view and the steep hillside match the pattern for Bulkley’s work, and the mixture of oblique angles and squared-off projections matches the forms on Castenada Avenue and 671-677 Connecticut Street.
Friendship Village (1971)
For this Western Addition project, Bulkley partnered with an artist named Igor Sazevich, who was then working as an architect. They designed an affordable housing complex with 376 units called Friendship Village, for a site owned by First Friendship Institutional Baptist Church. The site covers much of the block bounded by Webster, Fulton, Fillmore, and McAllister. It was finished in 1971. It still stands much as it looked then. The shingles have been replaced at least once.
This project won four awards. In 1972, its merit was recognized by SPUR (San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association). That same year it won an award in a competition co-sponsored by AIA (American Institute of Architects), Nonprofit Housing Center, and the American Institute of Planners.
The SF Examiner quoted the AIA award judges: “The designer achieved an attractive, well-detailed and well-built housing development while preserving the streetscape of San Francisco’s older and denser area—the massing of the project as well as the selection of cedar shakes for siding, created an intimate, warm scale that is most appropriate for family living units. The site design provided an interesting arrangement in the distribution of parking areas, open space, and the controlled play areas, all in all, the development looks a nice place to live.”
Friendship Village was featured in the SF Redevelopment Agency’s 1971 publication “The New Western Addition is a Good Place to Live.”
In 1972, the project also won recognition from the US Dept of Housing and Urban Development. It won a design competition in 1974 co-sponsored by AIA and the Red Cedar Shingle and Handsplit Shake Bureau, a consortium of firms who were surely flourishing in Northern California during this period when shingled exteriors were in vogue.
Not So Friendly
Shortly after people began living in the project, there were other opinions about its virtues. Not everyone was thrilled with the results. In June 1972, organized by Mrs Willie Ponds, residents complained of numerous problems. In a Chronicle piece about the project, after rave reviews by Mayor Alioto and redevelopment czar Justin Herman, Chairman Ponds was quoted: “We have 52 legitimate complaints. We have no satisfaction in getting things right. Your design was beautiful but you should put the apartments up right when you built them.” 
The stoves were not properly vented, the toilets overflowed, the walls were only lightly painted, and the cedar shingles were already changing colors. The children’s play areas were only rudimentary, something borne out by photos taken at the time, showing a tree of six old tires nailed to a post, and a Lincoln-log-like pile of wood, both intended to provide playstructures. Ponds complained the structures were “made for monkeys, not kids. My kids are people, not animals.”
The other architect, Igor Sazevich, was present at the meeting, and claimed the absence of proper stove vents was “because people bump their heads on them,” and, regarding the play structure deficiencies, he stated that there seemed “to be a bit of paranoia around here.”
Divisadero Heights (1983)
In 1983, Bulkley’s last major project, with Antonio Descamps, was a set of 34 condos at Eddy and Divisadero, notable for the many self-conscious Victorian quotations—even veering off into what the English call ‘twee,’ like a street in Disneyland’s World Of Dickens. By this point Modernism was a moribund language.
Planner in the ‘Hood
In 1970, Bulkley became a founding member of the Planning Association of the Richmond (PAR) in the neighborhood he then made his home. The group worked to influence development during the contentious decades of the 1970s and 1980s. He obviously cared about conscious and intentional growth and development in the city where he had lived and worked since he arrived as a young adult.
In 1983 he called for the Embarcadero Freeway to be pulled down.
That year, he and his group PAR went down-to-door sniffing out illegal ‘bootleg’ apartments in the Richmond that were prohibited by zoning. In 1985 he backed a proposed high-rise ban, Proposition F, which failed. In 1987 he and his group fought the demolition of single-family homes in the Richmond to make way for multi-unit apartment buildings, something he admitted they failed to do. In this last battle, the group was accused of being anti-Asian, because the new apartment buildings were largely serving the Asian community in the Richmond.
Bulkley countered that the concerns of his group were not density per se, but enforcing zoning restrictions and fire code violations, mitigating the effects on availability of parking, preventing the loss of neighborhood character, the depreciation of property values for existing residents, and irresponsible development in general. Use of this list of rationales for slowing or preventing increased density has since come to be called NIMBYism. For an architect who started twenty-five years before designing buildings that doubled or tripled density in the narrow in-fill lots where they were built in SF, Bulkley ended up defending a low-density status quo in his own neighborhood, the Richmond. He was also a long-time member and supporter of SPUR, although his agenda then isn’t one that organization would embrace now.
In 1984, he was a candidate for the Board of Supervisors, raising $242,000 to run, close to the top of the range of election coffers. He particularly touted his aim “to make City Hall more sensitive to the needs of residents in the neighborhoods….We have to keep our neighborhoods nice to live in….As an architect I can make sure proposed development is in character with existing buildings in neighborhoods.” He stated he was endorsed by neighborhood organizers throughout the city. He came in among the top losers, second only to Kevin Starr—the winners being Molinari, Renne, Kopp, Kennedy, Britt, and Silver.
He had extensive real estate holdings and formed the property company Round Hill Pacific, in the 1970s. The litigation that condominium owners engaged in against builders in the 1980s led Bulkley to cease designing buildings at about that time.
Saving the Cottages
In 1993, Bulkley and Philip Ishimaru, co-owners of the 1906 Craftsman cottages at South Van Ness and 26th Street, worked successfully to have the structures named San Francisco landmark no.206.
Called the Howard/26th Street Cottages, they are remarkable structures, and many who live or work in the Mission appreciate their quirky charm. Read the Planning Commission document here, which gives a history of the building, as well as some background on Bulkley. Notably, the building is half shingled, an aesthetic Bulkley clearly enjoyed. View a photo of the cottages here [Flickr].
All his life, Bulkley was a prolific collector of ephemera – paper memorabilia related to business, as well as stamps. The Bulkley Collection of Commercial Stationery was donated to the Huntington Library in San Marino CA after he died.
Here is a remembrance of Bulkley by a friend and fellow collector George Fox in The Ephemera Journal (PDF; see pages 19-21).
- Residences, 975 Carolina Street, four units, 1961
- Residences, 3759 – 16th Street and 54 States Street, four units, 1963
- Residences, 375-377 Diamond Street, two units, 1963
- Residences, 1919 – 20th Street, two units, 1963
- Residences, 121-123 Manchester Street, two units, 1963 (for Howell Homes) [tentative]
- Residences, 420-422 Monterey Boulevard, six units, 1963 (for Howell Homes)
- Residences, 300 Hill Street, seven units, 1965
- Residences, 875 Vermont Street, 11 units, 1965
- Residences, 25-35 Castenada Avenue, two units, 1966 (with Robert Bogley and Takeshi Yamamoto)
- Residences, 635-665 Connecticut Street, six units, 1967
- Residences, 671-679 Connecticut Street, four units, 1967 (with Takeshi Yamamoto)
- Residences, 56-58 and 62-64 Museum Way, four units, 1967
- Residences, 3406 Market Street, two units, 1968 [tentative]
- Residences (affordable housing), Friendship Village, 376 units, 1971 (with Igor Sazevich)
- Residences, Divisadero Heights (Eddy and Divisadero), 34 units, 1983 (with Antonio Descamps)
- Residence, renovation, 290 Liberty Street, date unknown
My thanks to Honor Bulkley, for sharing her father’s drawings and other information with me; to Amber Lameson, for graciously allowing me to view the interior of her apartment; and to Hannah Simonson, architectural historian and Member-at-Large for Glen Park Neighborhoods History Project Advisory Council, for her invaluable advice and useful references.
All architectural journals photographed at San Francisco Public Library. All Chronicle articles assessed via SFPL’s San Francisco Chronicle archive. All Examiner articles on Newspapers.com. SF Redevelopment Agency documents via Archive.org.
- “Two SF Triplexes for Sale,” SF Examiner, 3 Nov 1963, p89. ↑
- San Francisco Modern Architecture and Landscape Design 1935-1970 Historic Context Statement, San Francisco Planning Dept, 2010, p133. View here [PDF]: http://ohp.parks.ca.gov/pages/1054/files/sfmod.pdf ↑
- San Francisco Modern Architecture and Landscape Design 1935-1970 Historic Context Statement, San Francisco Planning Dept, 2010, pp90-91. All quotes that follow in the list about themes are from this document. ↑
- In 1968, in the set of residences between 38 and 58 Addison Street. In 1970, vaults feature on all the units at 405-435 Beacon Street, 1927-1931 Diamond St, and 5401-5411 Diamond Heights Blvd—this last set the work of architect Jeno Lorincz. Thanks to Hannah Simonson for helping me find these. ↑
- “Looking Westward,” Progressive Architecture, July 1967, p116-118. ↑
- “Narrow, Hilly, New and in San Francisco,” SF Examiner, 12 April, 1964, p138-139. ↑
- “Rural Peace Behind a Façade,” SF Chronicle, 11 Jul 1965, p115. House and Home, November 1966, p62. ↑
- SF Examiner, 26 Dec 1965, p69; House and Home, June 1967, p54-55; Progressive Architecture, May 1966, p158-159. ↑
- “Forest Hill Elegance,” SF Examiner, 14 Aug 1966, p25; “What’s New in the City?” SF Chronicle, 11 Dec 1966, p17-18. ↑
- Architectural Record, January 1968, p160. ↑
- “SPUR’s Top Awards,” SF Chronicle, 26 Jan 1972, p13; “Top Architectural Awards for San Francisco” and “How Do You Design Homes for the Poor?” SF Chronicle, 17 Sep 1972, p88; AIA Journal, Nov 1972, p38-39; Architectural Record, Mid-May 1972, p96-98. ↑
- “How Do You Design Homes for the Poor?” SF Examiner, 17 Sep 1972, p88. ↑
- https://archive.org/details/newwesternadditi1971sanf ↑
- “Award for Four San Francisco Architects,” SF Examiner, 13 Jan 1974, p72; “Gateway Project Honored,” SF Examiner, 22 Dec 1974, p54. ↑
- “New Friendship Village Tenants Spell It Out,” SF Chronicle, 30 June 1971, p2, for all quotes in this section about Friendship Village. ↑
- SF Chronicle, 29 Jun 1971, p21, for photo of tire structure. ↑
- SF Chronicle, Dec 25, p34. ↑
- SF Examiner, 27 Jul 1983, p98. ↑
- SF Chronicle, 4 Nov 1985, p18. ↑
- SF Chronicle, 8 Jul 1987, p14-15. ↑
- SF Examiner, 22 Aug 1983, p12. ↑
- SF Chronicle, 2 Feb 1985, p2. ↑
- SF Examiner, 31 Oct 1984, p69-70. ↑
- San Francisco Planning Commission Resolution No. 13559, 19 Aug 1993.http://ec2-50-17-237-182.compute-1.amazonaws.com/docs/landmarks_and_districts/LM206.pdf ↑
- This attribution is my surmise. Bulkley designed 420-422 Monterey for Howell Homes the same year that this redwood-faced set of residences was also designed for Howell Homes, and the appearance of the view-centered hillside homes in Bernal Heights is highly consistent with Bulkley’s work. ↑
- San Francisco Modern Architecture and Landscape Design 1935-1970 Historic Context Statement, San Francisco Planning Dept, 2010, p133; based on the probably misspelled name “JD Buckley” and the style of the identified building. ↑