The strange dominance of small single-family homes in San Francisco, with its roots in pre-Quake planning and post-Quake building, has come at last in this century to bite the city in its housing-supply backside. Density doesn’t match need now and it is difficult to see how it ever can. It is as though San Francisco, to personify for a moment, never expected to become a real city. So it allowed builders to fill the thousands of residential blocks with one-story-over-basement structures that cannot reasonably ever be transformed into multi-unit, multi-story buildings—unlike, say, a Mission-District Victorian or a Brooklyn brownstone. And should you be inclined to try, zoning and/or neighbors will prevent you from rebuilding one as a four-story wart on the smooth skin of row-upon-row of SFHs.
In their vast inertial numbers, the Little Boxes will always win. The march of those attached four- or five-room homes, on their narrow 25×100 foot lots, across hundreds of city blocks can only ever be disrupted here and there—a few corner developments, a few big structures on old gas station lots, a few scattered replacements, or the odd added story or ADU.
The die was cast—getting on for a hundred years ago now—and the pattern will persist.
Previously, pre-Quake development in the city made more urban sense; the Mission District, which filled out for working-class housing in the late nineteenth century, is awash in multi-flat Victorians—each one often boasting more square footage and rooms than a 1940s ‘Junior Five.’ Here is a nice visual of our low-rise zoning, where the Mission is shown as a green (higher density) rectangle surrounded by the red and orange of lower density areas.
The Ticky-Tacky Decades
Who decided this was the way midcentury San Francisco families should live? It was in part the expression of the dream of homeownership for the middle class and the aspiring working class. These houses were nothing if not affordable, because they were built with the economies of scale and scaled to be cheap–that is small. That might be all fine, if you could overlook the obvious problems of raising a family in a house built with only two bedrooms. But it was your very own–except that business of sharing a wall with your neighbors on either side. Perhaps that was seen as a cut above also sharing ceilings and floors, as in a flat.
Thus although these wee houses made ownership more widely available, they also likely fueled the exodus of families from the city in the post-War years, because if you wanted a bit of space around your house, or bedrooms for your kids, and could afford the car and the gas, there were a myriad of suburbs to lure you away from the endless attached rows of little city boxes.
Who built these little houses? The most prolific midcentury SF builder was Henry Doelger, who gave all his box variations cute names, like the Forty Finer, the Stylocrat, the Normandie, the Modernaire, and the Liberator. For an excellent piece of historical research about Doelger and other little-box builders of the Sunset District, you can’t do better than this document from SF Planning Dept, by the redoubtable Mary Brown, Preservation Planner: “Sunset District Residential Builders, 1925-1950”.
Plov the Builder
In the course of researching a Sunnyside house, I happened onto a minor player in this midcentury building boom, a man named Gilbert Plov.
He was a prolific builder in San Francisco, including Sunnyside, from the mid-1920s to the late 1940s. His working life coincides exactly with this period of economy housebuilding; he built houses identical to those of the bigger firms.
Like all builders keeping their costs down, he was not a trendsetter or innovator—although he professed to ‘build to order.’ Hundreds of houses he built can be found in traditionally working-class neighborhoods like Sunnyside, Excelsior, and the Mission. He made a good living, but he never found the ordinary domestic happiness his product implicitly touted–the home builder who wrecked his own home.
Several things characterize his work: he generally built on flat lots that presented no grade issues; he built the prevailing style of small house, whether barrel-front or the later Doelger-style; he built the same styles over and over with only small variations; almost all are one-story over basement; and most are two-bedroom single-family homes. There are a few exceptions; he built a few two-story houses and a few duplexes.
Son of a Farmer
Gilbert Lewis Plov (1900-1956) was born to a Danish-immigrant farmer in Soap Creek, Oregon, a tiny town about halfway between Eugene and Portland. His father George Plov came from Haderslev in southern Denmark in the 1880s, when it was part of the German Empire. Gilbert was a middle child of twelve. He left school after two years of high school. At eighteen he worked as a truck driver. By twenty he had moved away from the family home, living in a residence hotel at Marion, Oregon, where he worked in a logging camp on the rigging crew.
In 1921, he married local girl Elma Carter in his home county of Benton, Oregon. They moved to San Francisco a couple of years later and Gilbert worked as a carpenter. By 1926 he was buying lots to build houses on. He was at the right place at the right time.
Plov’s work was no exception to the march of little boxes across the city; he built single-family homes even on blocks in the Mission District that were zoned for much taller buildings. He had a plan, and he stuck to it.
Despite his lack of innovation, he had a few phases. From 1926 through the early 1930s he invariably built the barrel-front ‘Mediterranean Revival’ style. Here are a few examples of his work then, found in several neighborhoods and in different states of upkeep. Two have been massively enlarged. (Sources: Construction notices in Building and Engineering News and advertisements in the newspapers. All photos of houses except where noted are Google streetview.)
50 and 44 Ridgewood Ave (then Hamburg Street), in Sunnyside. Plov built, 1928 and 1927.
In September 1927, Plov advertised in the program for the grand opening of the Saint Finn Barr Church Auditorium (on Edna Street), including a photo of the above two houses on Flood Ave.
285 Mississippi Street, Potrero Hill. Plov built 1929.
An exception is this 1929 duplex building at 2644 21st Street.
At Home with Gilbert
Who was the man making his fortune on the box-building boom? In early 1927, when Gilbert Plov’s career was taking off, he seems to have needed a new wife for the venture. He divorced hometown girl Elma and married Irene Mohring on 1 April 1927 in Stockton, California. Elma was the first of three wives he divorced.
He was surely feeling flush with success that year. Two weeks after the marriage, the Plov household at 391 Munich Street was featured in the social page of the Examiner. Gilbert’s sister, Frances, a stenographer who lived with them for a couple of years, held a birthday celebration she felt worthy of public notice.
Gilbert and Irene Plov lived at the Munich Street house until about 1929, when they moved to a much bigger house–one quite unlike the little boxes he was building–in an upscale neighborhood. Things were going well, after all. He paid $20,000 for this 1907 house in Jordan Park.
The timing was unfortunate, being at the point of stock market crash. The Great Depression began to tell on his business. There are many fewer notices for construction by him in the building journals during the early Depression years.
In 1930-1931 he joined up with a realtor, Vincent Laguens of Mission Realty, to build some houses near York and 25th—two stories over basement, but with the signature Plov look. His ads said he built to order—any style you like, as long as it was Mediterranean Revival.
The Fallow Years
In about 1934, Irene and Gilbert went to Portland, giving up the big Jordan Park house. By August 1936, they had returned to the city, when their first daughter, Diane, was born. The San Francisco Directory in 1938 shows them living in a flat in the Lower Haight, with Gilbert’s occupation listed as carpenter. Soon he had got his business going again and built a new house for his family at 395 Monterey Boulevard in the Doelger style, at the top of the Detroit Steps. It was finished in 1938. It has two flats in the lower levels, cleverly accessible off the Detroit Steps; renting these out would have provided income. Here is the house shortly after it was built, with original details, and looking like a typical Plov house:
A photographer from the Dept of Public Works just happened to catch Plov’s backyard in this shot of the Detroit Steps in 1941:
Here is a photo of the house 1963, with fake rock, aluminum windows and siding, a bit worse for the wear. Soon the balcony would be replaced by a fire escape, and the house divided into several units.
Perhaps he fondly recalled his time building in Sunnyside in the 1920s, and decided this was the place he wanted to live with his family. That year, the couple had another daughter, Sandra.
The US Census data for the family in 1940 reveals that the Monterey Blvd house was worth $9250, a figure far more exacting than most people’s estimates for the census, as you’d expect from the man who built it himself. In addition, the family had a live-in maid, Lucy Wilder, a girl of nineteen from Petaluma. A live-in maid in a Sunnyside home is something that I have not seen in my research before.
Back in the News
There are lots of ads for Plov’s business in the late 1930s and 1940s. He signs onto ads encouraging war-bond purchases and offering holiday greetings. By then he was “An Old Time Master.”
In 1940, he built four big duplexes in the Castro neighborhood—‘view homes’—something that hadn’t previously featured in his houses, given his predilection for flat lots.
He was featured in the real estate section, ironically placed next to an ad for the Doelger ‘Econo-Manor,’ a house type that Plov would build himself numerous times over the next ten or so years.
In the 1940s he built houses similar to the well-known Doelger styles. Here are some example of this phase of Plov’s work, including sets of five or six from Bernal Heights and Little Hollywood.
211-219 Porter Street. Plov built, 1946.
Unfortunately, yet again, success seems to have gone to Gilbert’s head. By 1942, he was separated from Irene. In 1943 he divorced her in Nevada, with the notice being posted in the Reno Gazette Journal on 6 August. The following day he married Valerie McGovern, a woman in her mid-thirties. Irene and the two daughters had moved to a house on Portola Drive.
The Office on Monterey
Although Plov had bought the double lot adjacent to the Monterey Blvd house in 1939, it wasn’t until 1946 that he constructed a duplex with office space there. He had his business premises there until the end of his working career, about 1951.
387/391 Monterey Blvd (left) and 395 Monterey Blvd. Both Plov built, 1946 and 1938. 395 was his home for several years, and the first-floor shop-front at 391 was his business premises. Google streetview.
Owner of a Lonely Tombstone
In August 1950, Valerie filed for divorce from Gilbert, which was finalized a year later.
By 1953, Plov had left Sunnyside and his two buildings on Monterey Boulevard, and lived in West Portal on Claremont Drive. He passed away of a heart attack at the age of 56 in 1956. His obituary lists a fourth wife, Helen, but I could not find further information about her. In any case, she subsequently must have formed another attachment. There was a spot on his headstone left for her to join him later, but she did not. It is a sad site.
My thanks to Stacey Irvine, who lives in a Plov house and added some tidbits to the story.
- For a visual picture of the hegemony of SFHs in San Francisco, check out this map: https://sfzoning.deapthoughts.com/
- For a discussion of encouraging community buy-in for denser development by using impact fees for local benefits, here is an interesting proposal. https://medium.com/cicero-news/how-to-make-san-francisco-neighborhoods-stop-worrying-and-love-housing-11930da744ce
- The identification of houses built by Plov I garnered from searching building trades journals such as the Building and Engineering News in the 1920s and 1930s and Daily Pacific Builder in the 1940s. There are gaps in the availability of these searchable journals online, so there are gaps in my knowledge about Plov. But his patterns are pretty consistent. ↑
- On the 1900 Census, George Plov says he is from Germany and on the 1910 census he says Denmark, even though the Wikipedia article says that the cession of the town back to Denmark didn’t happen until 1920 (I think). The exact town of George’s birth, as well as other details about Gilbert Plov’s birth family, comes from a family tree on Ancestry.com https://www.ancestry.com/family-tree/person/tree/26457907/person/26210941295/facts [Trial membership available.] ↑
- US Census data from 1910 when Plov was ten years old; US Census data from 1940, with education levels; World War I draft card from 1918; US Census data from 1920. ↑
- As per the Voters register, 1924, for Gilbert Plov ↑
- They state on the 1940 US Census that they were living in Portland, Oregon, in 1935. I found no directory listing or other information that would indicate when ↑
- Diane Plov is in the California Birth Index for August 1936; when answering the question about residence in 1935, on the 1940 US Census, the Plovs said they were in Portland. There is no directory listings for them there. ↑
- As his family contact on his WWII draft card, Gilbert puts his sister’s name, Frances [Plov] Hart. ↑