A House with Character(s): The Stolen Down-Payment, the Bigamist Builder, and Some Old Soldiers

By Amy O’Hair

Read other tales of Sunnyside houses here.

This cottage on Staples Avenue has a juicy set of stories in its past, revealed by some recent research. It was the first in Sunnyside I’ve found whose first buyer ended his short residence there as a wanted felon, on the lam for ten years after stealing the money to buy it, and then fled to Portland where he continued his life of crime.

One of the eight cottages built by Rudolph Mohr's company in 1913 on Staples Avenue. Photo: Amy O'Hair
One of the eight cottages built by Rudolph Mohr’s company in 1913 on Staples Avenue. Photo: Amy O’Hair

The carpenter who built this house for developer Rudolph Mohr—and its seven sister houses in that row—also had his own disreputable tale, involving serial bigamy. The residents that followed the escaped embezzler have more ordinary tales to tell, as we’ll see, but which hold interest as they touch on San Francisco’s perennial themes of immigration, labor history, and military service. In all this 110-year-old house was home to some characters of note.

Elegant Cottages, Strictly Modern

When in the summer of 1913 the last cottage in a trim set of eight on Staples Avenue was completed, it sold as quickly as the others; the construction company, Rudolph Mohr and Sons, was as competent as Mohr’s firm that handled the sales, Moneta Investments. Continue reading “A House with Character(s): The Stolen Down-Payment, the Bigamist Builder, and Some Old Soldiers”

Sunnyside’s Missing Mini-Park

By Amy O’Hair

If not for the hapless mistakes made by the Sunnyside Land Company in 1891, our district would have no parks at all. An ill-advised street layout meant that some lots were too steep and rocky to build on, leaving them vacant for decades. This resulted in enough conjoined lots that the City, two generations later, could buy up and create the Sunnyside Playground and Dorothy Erskine Park.

Planned streets that were in fact too steep to be built have also been transformed into open space, as in the Detroit Steps Project, the Melrose Detroit Botanical Garden. A portion of unbuilt Edna Street was incorporated into the Playground as well.

Additionally, by laying out streets without regard to slopes, the City had to later buy up several residential lots in Sunnyside, in order to lay the sewer pipes—which must of course go where gravity dictates. This happenstance has given Sunnyside several small open spaces for public enjoyment, such as the Joost-Baden Mini-Park and the steps behind the Sunnyside Conservatory.

Yet still today there remains a City-owned piece of land—500 square feet in size—that is undeveloped as a public open space. It is fenced off and inaccessible. One half is used as a private side yard by an adjacent homeowner. The other half is currently leased to Friends of the Urban Forest, but that organization has never used it. These non-public uses of public land represent a loss to the community, and it is time the situation was rectified.

First, a short history of Sunnyside’s land and its parks. Continue reading “Sunnyside’s Missing Mini-Park”

News on Bruno’s Creamery

Although Bruno Cappa’s soda fountain restaurant was a top neighborhood spot for curly fries or an ice cream float for nearly four decades, the proprietor was far from self-promoting. But if he had engaged a graphic artist for a logo or some merch, he could not do better than what designer Doug da Silva has recently created to celebrate this slice of local history.

Bruno in about 1960, at his restaurant (with an imaginary t-shirt!). Original photo courtesy Marilyn Cappa.
Bruno in about 1960, at his restaurant (with an imaginary t-shirt!). Original photo courtesy Marilyn Cappa Kennedy.

Doug grew up in Sunnyside, and although he no longer lives in the city, he has created a line of t-shirts celebrating many iconic aspects of San Francisco past, including Bruno’s Creamery.

View all Doug da Silva’s designs on his website, including the Bruno’s Creamery t-shirt.

I also admire his atmospheric photographs of old cars in all their decaying glory.  Read the full story about the restaurant here.

Doug’s family lived on the 600 block of Joost Avenue, and he was a loyal customer at the soda fountain from early on. “It was a place we grew up with. I remember the comic books when I was a young boy. Bruno also had girly magazines. When we were in high school we’d casually order a milkshake and a Playboy, and he’d sell it to us.” Continue reading “News on Bruno’s Creamery”

The Sunnyside Cemetery: A Plea to Lift the Pall of Gray Paint

By Amy O’Hair

Although this is a history blog, I offer this polemic to address a current and ongoing phenomenon; I only hope it will be history soon. The blocks of this neighborhood (and every other one in the city) are awash in the grim shades of lead, asphalt, mildew, and petro-chemical smudge, and I don’t mean the streets and sidewalks. Two-plus years of covid-era walks has made the problem impossible to ignore.

Houses are turning gray, and it’s a dreary sight. Sure, these last years have been somber, but the gray trend mushroomed well before that.[1]

The world grown gray[2]

I photographed every gray house in Sunnyside*; more fell to the menace even as I thought I’d got them all. There were too many to include in this post–hundreds. I walk everywhere in the city, and it is the same in other districts. I am hardly the first to comment on this pervasive and apparently infectious color-phobia, but as it still marches on unabated, I make the case here for breaking this dull, dull spell of grimly hued houses. After several galleries of grayness, I’ll show examples of houses that buck the trend—from old-school pastels to natty new bold tones.

You may argue with my choices, but it is the agglomeration on every block of all those gray and near-gray houses that I am underlining here. It mounts up, visually—over the course of a stroll, or over the months of getting outdoors for some fresh air and a new view, only to find it is grimmer than before.

A Walk Among the Tombstones[3]

A house is the public face of private life, a communal contribution to the visual streetscape. One house after another has drunk the sullen, colorless Kool-Aid, increasingly depriving local walkers everywhere of that most basic of human visual delights—color. Continue reading “The Sunnyside Cemetery: A Plea to Lift the Pall of Gray Paint”

Strothoff in Sunnyside, or How to Love the Utility Poles in the Street

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, although this post, the last, has ventured pretty far beyond the original remit.

By Amy O’Hair

In all the histories of individual houses I have researched in Sunnyside, only one revealed itself have been designed by an architect. This led me deep into the career of a massively prolific designer, and also into the history of restricted neighborhoods in San Francisco.

House in Sunnyside designed by Charles F Strothoff, 1928. Photo: Amy O'Hair, 2022.
House in Sunnyside designed by Charles F Strothoff, 1928. Photo: Amy O’Hair, 2022.

Designed by Charles F Strothoff in 1928, this anomalous house on Gennessee Street, with its distinctive cylinder turret entrance, is fun to contemplate aesthetically.[1] But it also gives me opportunity to look at the ethics and consequences of the exclusionary policies that were historically built into the houses of the 1920s ‘residence parks’ that are adjacent to Sunnyside, most of which were designed by this architect. That legacy of restricted housing—which has morphed into low-density zoning later in the twentieth century—continues to have a powerful impact on housing affordability and socio-economic segregation in the city.

The presence of an expensive midcentury architect-designed house in Sunnyside is unusual, but it is an exception that proves a rule: there is more of a mixture of land use in the neighborhood. Having never been a residence park, Sunnyside has a variety of housing, built over a longer period, with greater density, commercial activity, and multi-unit buildings; this difference has shaped the nature of the neighborhood, and is worth looking at.

Curved Streets and Straight-up Racism

Sunnyside was laid out in the 1890s, before San Francisco latched onto the ‘City Beautiful’-style planned neighborhoods that dominated house-building in the years between the wars. These ‘residence parks’ went up all over the city between Quake and the Great Depression; to the west of Sunnyside, several were developed where Adolph Sutro’s Forest once stood, such as Westwood Park and Monterey Heights. On a map it is easy to see where Sunnyside’s die-straight rectangular blocks end and the curvy streets of these districts begin.
Continue reading “Strothoff in Sunnyside, or How to Love the Utility Poles in the Street”

Midcentury Stories Out of Sunnyside Houses: A Bridge-Builder and Muni Driver Raises a Family on Congo

House on Congo Street where the Jensens lived in the 1950s and 1960s. Google Streetview.
House on Congo Street where the Jensens lived in the 1950s and 1960s. Google Streetview 2019.

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. Continue reading “Midcentury Stories Out of Sunnyside Houses: A Bridge-Builder and Muni Driver Raises a Family on Congo”

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. Continue reading “Midcentury Stories Out of Sunnyside Houses: The Italian Craftsman Who Signed His Cabinets”

Midcentury Stories Out of Sunnyside Houses: A Companion to Hollywood Starlets Settles Down on Baden Street

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

As a star-struck teen in Los Angeles during the Golden Age of Hollywood, Jane Wardy did more than just swoon over beautiful film stars from afar—she got herself into the intimate lives of three glamorous actresses, one after the other, devoting herself to being their constant companion. Two of those relationships ended with the death of her beloved.

Later in life, after the excitement was over, Wardy settled down in this house on Baden Street, and lived a more sedate existence—although she would then marry three men in succession before she died in her eighties.

Midwest Girl turned Model

Born in Ohio in 1909, her family moved to California in the 1920s. Jane completed two years of high school before launching into work—as a shop clerk and a store model. All her life, despite the capricious lives of her famous companions, Wardy always had steady work.

Glamour photo of Jane Alice Wardy, taken in the 1920s. Philadelphia Inquirer, 5 Jan 1930.
Glamour photo of Jane Alice Wardy, taken in the 1920s. Philadelphia Inquirer, 5 Jan 1930.

At the age of eighteen or nineteen she met and befriended the aspiring starlet and horsewoman Vonceil Viking, who had made a name for herself with a splashy stunt, riding her horse Broadway from New York to Los Angeles on a bet with an English aristocrat, the Marquess of Donegall—for an astonishing $25,000 (something shy of a half a million dollars now).  More about this stunt here.

Vonceil Viking in Washington DC, during her famous ride. 1927. Library of Congress. View whole image here. https://sunnysidehistory.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/04/1927-Voncneil-Viking_WashingtonDC_LoC.jpg
Vonceil Viking and her horse Broadway in Washington DC, during her famous ride. 1927. Library of Congress. View whole image here.  

Continue reading “Midcentury Stories Out of Sunnyside Houses: A Companion to Hollywood Starlets Settles Down on Baden Street”

Midcentury Stories Out of Sunnyside Houses: A Swedish Builder Rebuilds a Family

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.

House on Joost Avenue built by Carl Swanson in 1921. Photo: Amy O'Hair
House on Joost Avenue built by Carl Swanson in 1921. Photo: Amy O’Hair 2022

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. Continue reading “Midcentury Stories Out of Sunnyside Houses: A Swedish Builder Rebuilds a Family”

A New Video on the Life of Mary Ellen Pleasant

I am pleased to introduce a new video created by a YouTube videographer, Cato Jones. It’s carefully researched, strikes a balanced tone, and captures all the salient points in this remarkable figure’s life. That is not an easy accomplishment, as Pleasant is in many ways a ‘difficult’ historical subject, having lived her life by her own rules.

The Sensational Life of America’s First Black Woman Millionaire – Mary Ellen Pleasant


Watch on YouTube here.

Having done some research on Pleasant, I was happy to contribute some images and background to support Jones’ work.

Here is my own piece about Mary Ellen Pleasant’s Ingleside ranch, Geneva Cottage, which revealed some previously undocumented aspects of Pleasant’s life in the city. In another piece I touch on Pleasant’s tumultuous relationship with Teresa Bell, owner of the Poole-Bell House, a local landmark.