Midcentury Stories Out of Sunnyside Houses: The Italian Craftsman Who Signed His Cabinets

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.

By Amy O’Hair

Although he wasn’t among the first wave of Italian immigrants who moved into Sunnyside after the Quake of 1906, Giuseppe Scorsonelli bought this house on Staples Avenue for himself and his wife Enza in 1963.

Their five children were mostly grown up by then, although the youngest daughter lived with them for a while. It was a big move up from the rented flat where the family lived on Dolores Street. Giuseppe was a cabinet maker, trained in Sicily, and he made the most of finally owning his own home; fitting out the rooms with custom cabinetry of his own design and craftsmanship—and proudly signing the work on the back, invisible to the eye, but revealed decades later when the present owner removed them for renovations.

Giuseppe's signature on the backside of the telephone kiosk. Photo: Jim McCormick.
Giuseppe’s signature on the backside of the telephone kiosk. Photo: Jim McCormick.

In his professional life, Scorsonelli worked for the premier San Francisco cabinet-making firm, Fink & Schindler Company, and helped to craft many fine wooden interiors in churches, bars, and stores that are still a part of the city’s legacy of Italian craftsmanship.

Sicilian Craftsman

Marrying in 1930, Giuseppe and his first wife Maddalena raised their family in Sicily, living in a village in the south side of the island, called Pachino. There he trained and worked as a cabinet maker. Before long, the rise of Mussolini and Italian fascism brought the threat of war closer, and the family fled to Libya in the mid-1930s, returning at least by 1944. Famously, Sicily was the site of a 1943 battle where the Allied forces recaptured the island from Axis Powers.

A photo of Giuseppe Scorsonelli before immigrating to the US. Ancestry.com
A photo of Giuseppe Scorsonelli before immigrating to the US. About 1945. Ancestry.com

Giuseppe, shown here in an photo taken before he immigrated, was just four-foot-ten, according to the form he submitted when he applied to become an American citizen in 1949.

California-Bound

The Scorsonellis’ last daughter was born in Sicily in 1946. Sadly, Maddalena passed away in 1949; soon Giuseppe immigrated to San Francisco, with his children joining him shortly afterwards. His older brother Concetta had moved to the city in the 1920s, and it was a natural destination for the family. To my reckoning, all the Scorsonellis in Northern California (who are numerous) are descendants of the two men.[1]

Giuseppe returned briefly to Sicily in the mid-fifties, and married his second wife, Vincenza (Enza), who was seven years younger than him. Back in San Francisco, the family lived in a flat at 911 Dolores Street.

A City Full of Fine Cabinetry

The firm of Fink & Schindler was one of the longest-lived companies of its type in San Francisco; the company was founded in the 1880s by Adam Schindler, son of Swiss immigrants, and Conrad Kink, a German immigrant. Long before modular cabinetry, nearly every bank, store, office, church, library and bar required the work of skilled artisans to fit cabinets, altars, tables, display cases, and so on—all done in place, on site.

For over a century, fine wood and fine finishing brought the Fink & Schindler Company an excellent reputation and frequent recognition. The firm also did work inside the homes of the rich; the last award (and the last newspaper mention) that I found was from the Central Valley Chapter of the American Institute of Architects for work on the interior of a Bay Area home in 1987.[2]

A Family Firm

In the 1890s, Adam Schindler’s nephew Charles Stauffacher joined the firm at age fifteen; he rose to the office of president where he remained until his eighties.

Charles F Stauffacher, head of Fink & Schindler for most of the 20th century. About 1920. Ancestry.com
Charles F Stauffacher, head of Fink & Schindler for most of the 20th century. About 1920. Ancestry.com

Interviewed by the Examiner in the same year that Scorsonelli was buying his house on Staples, Stauffacher said of the company:

“What could I find more interesting than directing a picked lot of craftsman, producing beautiful objects in the old tradition, for Bay Area patrons that understand and love fine wood?”[3]

Association with the company is mentioned in many obituaries. Even as late as 2011, I found an obituary of a woodworker of Italian descent that mentions his thirty years as a Fink & Schindler craftsman.[4]

Here are four examples from a series of advertisements in the monthly trade periodical Architects and Engineers in 1953, showing off various projects of the firm then. This gives us some idea what Scorsonelli worked on during his years with the company.

Ad for Fink & Schindler, Architects & Engineers, Aug 1953. Archive.org
Ad for Fink & Schindler, Architects & Engineers, Aug 1953. Archive.org
Ad for Fink & Schindler, Architects & Engineers, Jun 1953. Archive.org
Ad for Fink & Schindler, Architects & Engineers, Jun 1953. Archive.org
Ad for Fink & Schindler, Architects & Engineers, May 1953. Archive.org
Ad for Fink & Schindler, Architects & Engineers, May 1953. Archive.org
Ad for Fink & Schindler, Architects & Engineers, Sept 1953. Archive.org
Ad for Fink & Schindler, Architects & Engineers, Sept 1953. Archive.org

One major project that the company was justly proud of was the 1956 renovation of the interior of the famed Shreve & Company at Grant and Post (the store moved out in the 1990s). Scorsonelli was very likely to have worked this remodel.

Shreve & Company kept their famous look for sixty years—before financial pressures forced them to move to a smaller store in 2016.

A New Home

A decade of hard work had earned the Scorsonelli family enough money by the early 1960s to buy a home. They chose a house in Sunnyside, which was built in 1927 by Gilbert Plov, a contractor who also built many similar houses in Sunnyside and elsewhere. (Read his story here.) 

By then three of the children had moved out and started their own families. The oldest son Salvatore had returned to Sicily to marry his bride, settling down just a block away from his parents, in a house on Flood Ave.

The Craftsman at Home

As the current owner Jim McCormick has told me, Giuseppe Scorsonelli filled his own house with his handiwork, using the low-ceilinged basement as his workroom. Being less than five feet tall, it suited him fine. When the McCormicks bought the house, there were cabinets in many rooms, all attributable to Giuseppe, all of which were ‘stick-built,’ that is, on location, one piece of wood at a time. He signed the backs of his pieces, being justly proud.

Giuseppe remodeled the kitchen in 1970s, installing Formica countertops in a lovely marbled pink—which even at that date was a thoroughly dated look, but evidently suited Enza’s taste.

Even the basement cabinetry, while not beautiful enough for the living space, was thoughtful work. In the upstairs hall, the McCormicks took out the elaborate 1960s telephone kiosk, revealing another signature.

The back extension, an extra bedroom, was built by Giuseppe Scorsonelli sometime soon after they bought the house in 1963, without proper permitting.[5] While he was good with the fine woodwork, his house carpentry was not as excellent—the room was not well executed and needed improvement.

Last Years

The Scorsonellis had fifteen or so years to themselves in the house after their last child, Clara, left. Then Giuseppe passed away in 1982. He suffered a heart attack, and was taken to St Luke’s Hospital, dying shortly after. His funeral was held at St Finn Barr Church. Enza lived in the house by herself for another twelve years—although Giuseppe’s son Sal and his family was always a block away on Flood Avenue. Then in 1994, she died in the house on her eightieth birthday.

Giuseppe and Enza Scorsonelli. Ancestry.com.
Giuseppe and Enza Scorsonelli later in life. Ancestry.com.

A Sunnyside Now Past

The Scorsonellis, as immigrants buying a house in midcentury Sunnyside for the last half of their lives, embodied a particular moment in the city’s history. While other families were then moving out to the suburbs and down the peninsula, they found a home inside the city limits that offered a great deal that was valuable to them: an affordable home close to work, in a neighborhood where their son could also buy a house for his own family and live nearby, where they could attend the local Catholic church, and where their grandson Joseph could attend Riordan Catholic School for Boys—and where they could find the peace and stability that had been lacking during their family’s early history in Sicily.


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.


ENDNOTES

  1. These early details of the Scorsonellis’ lives were part of the research I did while assembling a house history for the present owners, the McCormicks, using well-sourced family trees on Ancestry.com and other sources, including directories, ship manifests, census data, naturalization, marriage, and birth records, and so on. For the purposes of this account, I am not footnoting these details.
  2. “Architects Recognize the Best in Building Crafts,” Sacramento Bee, 29 Nov 1987, p139.
  3. Anita Day Hubbard, “Still on a 65-Year Schedule,” SF Examiner, 20 Jan 1963, p25.
  4. “Angostino Speranzini,” SF Chronicle, 4 Sep 2011; also “Bruno Paolinelli,” SF Chronicle, 21 Jan 1989. Giuseppe Scorsonelli’s own obituary in 1982 did not mention Fink& Schindler, but then there were a lot of children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren to be mentioned.
  5. There is no permit on file at the San Francisco Dept of Building Inspection between the original building permit of 1927, and the next one in 2003.

 

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