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
After World War II, Gordon and Mary Jensen bought this house at the top of Congo Street on the 700 block. They were then in their thirties, and had two young daughters. Gordon had an adventurous working life in midcentury San Francisco, being part of the historic construction of the Golden Gate Bridge, and teaching Muni bus drivers for many decades.
But the story starts much earlier, in another house two blocks down the street; the couple had met while they were teenagers living across the street from each other.
A Lifetime on Congo Street
Gordon grew up in a house on the 500 block—a tiny shack that had been built after the 1906 Quake. The family had moved to San Francisco from Arhus, a small village in Denmark, by way of Canada, arriving in 1922. They bought this house from another family who were from the very same Danish village. (Read more about them in this piece by the late Murray Schneider here.)
With five kids, the cottage was quite a tight fit, with no bathroom, no electricity, and no refrigerator. Fortunately, Gordon’s father quickly met a man at church who helped them built on and get a bit more room. Still, the conditions were difficult; Gordon slept on a sofa in the living room, with his toddler brother Henry. His younger sister Phyllis slept on a couch in the kitchen, with fixed arms, and later recalled that as she grew, she just curled up more.
On the Edge of a Wild Mountain
Later, when Gordon’s sister Phyllis was in her sixties, she wrote an account of growing up in the little house.
“From the back of our houses all the way to Mount Davidson, where the cross is, there were open fields where we could roam at will. Each spring we could hardly wait for the wild flowers to bloom, and we got to know just where the first poppies would be, iris, baby blue eyes, buttercups, Indian paintbrush, etc. It was a game to have the first of any flower, so we would run from one hill to another to beat each other.
“Part of the hills were planted with vegetable gardens kept by Italian gardeners. Many times we helped ourselves by pulling up turnips or carrots. We washed them in the rain water, which was in small pools in the rocks, and we ate them raw. We didn’t have to go home for lunch.”
(Read the entire account here, very charming and full of details.)
With a mountain for their backyard, the family made do with this little house for eight years, before the Jensen parents could buy a new and bigger house nearby on Mangels Avenue.
Gordon’s father Axel Jensen was a blacksmith. As well as building wrought-iron fences for many of their neighbors on Congo, the family says he built most of ones that adorned the yards of the new houses in the 1940s and 50s along Sloat Blvd and Ocean Ave. At the Mangels house, he constructed his own forge down in the sub-basement. Unfortunately he could not find work for almost the entire decade, so Gordon’s mother did housework for a quarter an hour. During those years, the bank did not foreclose on their new mortgage, and allowed them to just pay the interest.
The family of Gordon’s wife-to-be, Mary Grammater, moved into the house across the street when she was about fifteen and he was sixteen. By age seventeen she had left school and was working as a typist for an insurance company. Three years later they were married. By then, Gordon was employed as an iron worker, and his parents had moved to the house on Mangels Ave. So the newlyweds were given the little cottage on Congo to live in during the first years of their marriage.
Bridge to the Middle Class
It was during these years that Gordon Jensen and his father Axel worked on the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge. Fifty years later, in 1987, Gordon was interviewed about his experiences building the bridge by the Contra Costa Times:
“There was a lot of scrambling up and down. There weren’t a lot of ladders. You had to climb going through the ‘X’ braces. It must have been 200 feet from the water level to the deck. We went up and down three or four times a day.
“Sometimes the fog was heavy, we had difficulty communicating to each other. The men used hand signals, but when the fog got thick they had to whistle. One whistle to go, one whistle to stop and two whistles to boom out.”
“You made good money when you were working. But there were periods of no work. No jobs, or it was raining. You got twice as much as other workers when you worked, but you probably ended up with less.”
Gordon perhaps did well working on this prominent project, because it was just as the bridge was being finished that he and Mary bought their first house, on Mizpah Street near Glen Canyon. Their first daughter, Diane, was age two then. When she started kindergarten at Glen Park School in 1940, her mother became quite involved with the Parent-Teacher Association there, and reports in the Chronicle show her over the years helping in several of its activities like a party for the sixth-grade grads and picnics for the summertime vacation. The family’s second daughter was born a few years later.
After being a bridge worker, Gordon joined SF Municipal Railway as a bus driver. In 1950, Gordon was the grinning face of the newly launched Muni “Man of the Month” program.
Over 70 years later, this program–the name of which was updated in the 1970s to Driver of the Month, and later to Operator of the Month–is still going today. Those receiving the recognition have their photos displayed on advertising placards in vehicles. Retired Muni operator and driving instructor (and Sunnysider), AJ told me, “It’s one of the few incentive programs that Muni gives its employees.”
When the War came, Gordon temporarily left Muni to join the Merchant Marines. After the war, he returned to Muni to work as a driving instructor, where he headed the training department for thirty years.
Back to Congo
In 1948, after eleven years living in the house on Mizpah, they bought a bigger house at the top of Congo, near the hairpin curve, perhaps after seeing this real estate ad. The “income home” in the ad referred to an apartment in the upper part of the house. It wasn’t a new house; in 1919, a Swedish couple, Eleanora and John Olson, had built the house on a double lot, and raised their child there; by 1948 they were ready to retire.
Here is the Jensen family shortly after they moved in, in the living room.
Mother Knows Best
During all these years, Mary Jensen was a homemaker deeply involved in her daughters’ schools as a vocal PTA member. On the occasion of a controversial community meeting, she and her older daughter Diane made the news when they attended a debate about giving young people ages 18 to 20 the right to vote. The event was part of a series of related meetings that were televised and heavily attended by the press. At one of the meetings, Mary Jensen spoke up, coming down soundly in the “no” faction.
“I don’t think 18-year-olds are capable of voting intelligently. I don’t think youngsters are educated well enough to vote for what we need.”
Yes, it’s possible if you give teens the right to vote, they won’t vote the way you want.
There were a few adults among the “snapping gum and clinking Coke bottles” teen contingent on the opposite side of the room. One working mother said 18-year-olds should have the vote, citing the fact that American revolutionaries had risen up against taxation without representation.
The debate would go on for another twenty years before the franchise was extended to 18-year-olds, something that only happened in 1971, after many years of young men too young to vote being sent to fight and die in Vietnam.
Also included in the article was a photo of Diane with a fellow student from Balboa, sitting on the other side of the room from her mother. Brave girl. Recall, it was hardly the rebellious 1960s yet. Read the whole article here.
The Jensens moved away from Congo Street in the mid-1970s, to retire in Rossmoor, in the East Bay.
Perhaps it seems like these Congo Street houses are not in Sunnyside. Google Maps and the SFFIND site at SF Planning show otherwise. Visit the Maps of Sunnyside page for more about our neighborhood bounds.
My thanks to Judy Simpson, for generously sharing her family’s stories and photographs.
- Much of the material in this post comes from email conversations between with Phyllis Jensen Marklin’s daughter Judy Simpson, who very generously shared stories and photographs with me in 2016. ↑
- These passages are re-quoted Gordon Jensen’s obituary, Contra Costa Times, 11 July 1989. ↑
2 thoughts on “Midcentury Stories Out of Sunnyside Houses: A Bridge-Builder and Muni Driver Raises a Family on Congo”
Thanks, Amy. Love these stories.