OOne of a short series of house-based local history—five stories touching on the perennial San Francisco themes of immigration, families, city-building, and self-making. This story contains a description of a suicide.
By Amy O’Hair
During a recent renovation of this 1921 house on Joost Avenue, a fabulous treasure was discovered inside a wall, placed there by the builder and first resident, Carl Swanson. Before we see the prize, first the story of how Carl came to San Francisco and built the home where his broken family would finally be reunited.
From a Swedish Village to a Quake-Ravaged City
Born in Väne-Åsaka in Västergötland, Sweden, Carl Swanson immigrated to the US in 1907 with his younger brother Claus. He was in his late twenties.
On the ship over, he fell in love with a Swedish woman named Vendla. He would ask her to marry him no fewer than seven times over the coming years. Before ending up in San Francisco, Carl stopped off in Vermont to train with the famed Vermont Marble Works; after he moved to the city, he continued to work for the company’s site here, carving and polishing stone.
Soon his brother Claus went into house-building—the city needed a lot of building in the years after the Quake—and Carl followed suit. Vendla was working as a domestic servant—as did most every Swedish woman in San Francisco, being prized for their reputed standards of cleanliness and good cooking. Vendla finally said yes to Carl’s proposal of marriage and the two settled down in a house on Andover Street in Bernal Heights. They soon had two little daughters.
In 1918, the family suffered a terrible loss. Vendla was severely depressed, and on a Saturday morning in January she swallowed a solution of bichloride of mercury in an attempt to kill herself. Carl called in a doctor, who promptly had her placed at St Luke’s Hospital. She did not die until Monday evening.
Death by mercury poisoning is a slow and painful way to die, but this preparation of mercury was available widely at pharmacies. During those years there were several publicized self-poisonings using the substance, including a famous case in 1913 in the city when a thirteen year old girl died. Vendla cannot have missed this bit of news; who knows how long she thought about taking her own life. Perhaps with two very young children to care for, and lacking the support of her mother—or sisters, aunts, or cousins to help—she felt alienated and overwhelmed.
Carl, grieving and struggling to care for his two little girls on his own, asked his brother Claus to take the elder daughter, Vera, into their home. Carl and his younger daughter Ruth lived as boarders in the household of a single woman in her forties, with her own niece and nephew, on Chenery Street in Glen Park. This may be how Carl came to know the Sunnyside district, where he would later choose to build his own house.
Soon Claus’s wife was expecting their first child, and Carl put both Vera and Ruth into the care of a woman who fostered children, thinking this the best care for two motherless girls. But she was a cruel caretaker. Vera’s daughter said, “When Grandpa Carl realized how bad this situation was, he took the girls home. One condition was that they kept house [for him].”
A Home for a Reunited Family
In October 1921, Carl Swanson bought the lot where he would build his own house, where he and his daughters would finally live together two years later. In November, he posted a construction notice, saying the estimated cost of building was $1400.
It was 900 square feet, with four rooms and a bathroom; the exterior was later labeled ‘rustic’ by the city Assessor. As the photos show, there was little else around on Joost then.
Soon Carl began to work around the city as a builder. Here are a few of the many houses he built in the 1920s and 1930s.
The two girls were ages eleven and twelve when they moved in with Carl—and kept house for him. Vera Swanson was bright and ambitious, and graduated from Girls High School in 1929, and University of California at Berkeley with a BS in commerce and economics in 1933. She became a buyer for the Emporium store, in the woman’s sports department. Later in life she taught in the SF public schools for twenty-five years.
Of the two women, Carl’s younger daughter Ruth married first, in 1937. Her fiancé was Christian Olmo, the second son of Frank Olmo, a son of Italian immigrants, who had started out owning a sheet metal works and ended up as a prosperous real estate dealer in the Mission District during the bubble of the 1920s. The Olmos lived nearby in Westwood Highlands.
Carl became a supervisor on building sites during the Depression. While he was working during the General Strike of 1934, he took to carrying a gun while working, “for protection,” although whether it was a rifle or a revolver is not known. He prospered, owning up-to-date cars and having the leisure to putter around his house pursuing various projects, and going fishing when he had the chance.
Sometime in the 1930s, his employer honored him with a fancy gold Longines watch, with his name engraved on the back, probably in recognition of his years of service. Rather than wearing this pretty prize, he immured it in a wall in the lower level of the house, probably when he was making the room habitable for his daughter and son-in-law, who stayed in the house for a while before they had a place of their own.
A few years ago, the current owner discovered this buried treasure, in its plush box, when his workers were taking apart the basement in preparation for renovation.
The Death of a Beloved Father
On the night before the Fourth of July holiday in 1940, Carl Swanson came home from work with a high fever. His daughter Vera cared for him, but being the stoic he was, he refused to see a doctor.
After a few days, Vera went to find a doctor despite her father’s wishes, and he was subsequently admitted to St Francis Hospital in Polk Gulch, where pneumonia was diagnosed. He died on 14 July 1940, just two days shy of his 61st birthday. Vestkusten the city’s Swedish newspaper, honored him with an obituary [in Swedish]. (For a translation, see at the end of this post.)
Carl Swanson was one of thousands of Swedes who came to the city before and after the Quake and who made good lives for themselves and their families, many of whom were carpenters who worked building and rebuilding the city.
Later in this series, we’ll hear the story of another Swedish carpenter who had a house built in Sunnyside, but who employed a famous architect.
My thanks to members of the Swanson family for sharing their stories and photographs, and to Taylor Hughes for sharing his amazing discovery with me.
One of a short series of house-based local history—five stories touching on the perennial San Francisco themes of immigration, families, city-building, and self-making.
Vestkusten 1940 Jul 18
Carl Swanson död.
Byggmästare Carl Swanson, förman för firman Toreson och välkand för sitt lugna och gemytliga uppträdande, avled den 14 juli efter tio dagars sjukdom. Han hade kommit hem från sitt arbete den 3 juli och klagat över hög feber, och fördes genast till St. Francis lasarett, men livet kunde ej räddas. Han var född i Åsaka, Västergötland, den 16 juli 1879; han kom till Förenta Staterna för 33 år sedan och två år senare till San Francisco. Hans maka, Vendla, avled redan 1918. Swanson sörjes närmast av döttrarna miss Vera Swanson och mrs Ruth Olmo samt syskonen Claus Swanson i Burlingame, fru Hulda Torsten, Oscar, Gustav och Evald Svensson i Sverige. Begravningen hölls på den bortgånignes födelsedag, den 16 juli, från Andersons kapell, dar likpredikan hölls av pastor Gilbert Swenson och mr Thomas utförde sång. Kvarlevorna jordades i Cypress Lawn Memorial Park.
Carl Swanson dead.
Builder Carl Swanson, foreman of the firm Toreson and well-known for his calm and pleasant behavior, passed away on July 14 after ten days of illness. He had come home from work on July 3 and complained of high fever, and was immediately brought to St. Francis Hospital, but life could not be saved. He was born in Åsaka, Västergötland, July 16, 1879; he came to the United States 33 years ago and two years later to San Francisco. His wife, Vendla, died as early as 1918. Swanson is mourned most closely by the daughters Miss Vera Swanson and Mrs Ruth Olmo and siblings Claus Swanson in Burlingame, Mrs Hulda Torsten, Oscar, Gustav and Evald Svensson in Sweden. The funeral was held on the deceased’s birthday, July 16, from Anderson’s Chapel, where the pulpit was held by Pastor Gilbert Swenson and Mr. Thomas performed singing. The remains were buried in Cypress Lawn Memorial Park.