Foerster: Work Hard, Die Young, and Leave a Good Name

The intersection of Foerster and Joost is not just a street corner in Sunnyside, it’s the stormy tale of a family torn apart by the relentless greed of one uncle, Behrend Joost, and the industrious loyalty of his nephew, Constantine Foerster, that finally gave way under the pressure of it. Joost went down in a long spiral of lawsuits, but Foerster survived and prospered, saved by taking the terrible decision to break his bond to his uncle, and stake his future in the company of men of better judgment and ethics.

2020. Street signs at Joost Avenue and Foerster Street. Photo: Amy O'Hair SunnysideHistory.org
2020. Street signs at Joost Avenue and Foerster Street. Photo: Amy O’Hair SunnysideHistory.org

Constantine E.A. Foerster was a successful and industrious corporate attorney in late nineteenth-century San Francisco. At the age of sixteen, he got his start in the city working for his uncle, a scrappy, ill-mannered hardware dealer named Behrend Joost. For many years his fortunes were deeply entwined with this uncouth entrepreneur, including as the attorney for Joost’s project to build San Francisco’s first electric streetcar system. The property speculation project called Sunnyside went along with the streetcar, and Foerster was one of several officers in the company whose names remain on the streets there. Continue reading “Foerster: Work Hard, Die Young, and Leave a Good Name”

Acadia: The controversial history of a little street name

One of a series of posts about Sunnyside streets and street names.

One of Sunnyside’s shortest streets is Acadia–the ‘A’ in the brief set of alphabetized north-south streets. The name reaches deep into history, like many of the somewhat obscure choices made by the Sunnyside Land Company in 1891 when the district was laid out–such as Congo, Gennessee, and Detroit. Like those names, Acadia touches on the history of colonization and land appropriation.

Also like some of the neighborhood’s other streets, it suffered from misspelling over the years. ‘Arcadia’ was the name in directories and on maps for a time. It was a natural mistake; Arcadia, meaning a place of rural contentment, is the English version of the French word l’Acadie. The name originated in ancient Greece, referring to an isolated place there where the people lived in pastoral simplicity.

An International Atrocity 

To start with, the political history: L’Acadie (anglicized to Acadia) was the name of the place where French pioneers explored and later colonists settled in eastern Canada—areas that are now called New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Nova Scotia.

Acadians_2,_inset_of_painting_by_Samuel_Scott_of_Annapolis_Royal,_1751_wikimedia
Acadians at Annapolis Royal by Samuel Scott, 1751, earliest known image and only pre-deportation image of Acadians. Wikimedia.org

From 1755–1764, the British waged a concerted campaign to forcibly deport the French settlers, who were called Acadians–an event known as the Great Expulsion. Continue reading “Acadia: The controversial history of a little street name”

Bodies in the Well, Trapdoors in the Foyer: How the Poole-Bell House Became Mired in Myths

One of a series of articles about the Poole-Bell House in Fairmount Heights, San Francisco.

When interest in San Francisco’s unique Victorians houses revived in the 1960s and 1970s, Fairmount Heights’ local example of the glorious era, the Poole-Bell House on Laidley Street, became an object of interest of preservationists and aficionados.

The Poole-Bell house in 1957. Photo: Russell Leake. San Francisco History Center. San Francisco Public Library.
The Poole-Bell house in 1957. Photo: Russell Leake. San Francisco History Center. San Francisco Public Library.

Legends that had grown up around the house—local lore and neighborhood stories—finally saw print. In the way of things, once in print, the stories had a resilience, despite the lack of historical grounding. From then until the 2000s, the house was noted in various places, but almost every fact recorded about it was wrong. The stories took on a robust life of their own, and hung on for decades.

Much of the narrative centered on the legendary Mary Ellen Pleasant, although she never lived there—never even set foot in the house. But her own sensational history meant that when something of the building was published, Pleasant’s previous association with one important owner, Teresa Bell, cast a long heavy shadow over every account.

The ghost of these stories clung onto the house for decades, and it has taken some digging to find true stories about the house. Here is a brief synopsis before diving into the myth-making: Continue reading “Bodies in the Well, Trapdoors in the Foyer: How the Poole-Bell House Became Mired in Myths”

Chipped! The Poole-Bell House in the 1930s

One of a series of articles about the Poole-Bell House in Fairmount Heights, San Francisco.

The Poole-Bell House was never quite a mansion, but it was grander than most homes in Fairmount Heights in the early years of the district. It was built in the Italianate style in 1887 by attorney John P Poole; later a top story was added by Teresa Bell in about 1908. Such a fine home was in line with the original aspirations of the investors who laid out Fairmount Heights with generously sized lots—San Francisco’s first suburb, circa 1862. (Read more about the founding of Fairmount here.)

Poole-Bell House, January 1957. Photo: Russell Leake. San Francisco History Center. San Francisco Public Library.
Poole-Bell House, January 1957. Photo: Russell Leake. San Francisco History Center. San Francisco Public Library.

The district was planned to coincide with the building of the San Francisco-San Jose steam railroad in the early 1860s. It was a kind of commuter district; if you could afford the property, you could also spring for the steeper fare for the steam train—more than the nickel for the streetcar. There was a railway depot located nearby to deposit passengers from downtown. Streetcar service did not come this far south until a line was laid on Mission Street to Valencia in 1883.

Fairmount homestead map, 1864. North is on right side, Poole-Bell property in red. Railroad ran along curved lower border. San Francisco History Center. San Francisco Public Library.
Fairmount homestead map, 1864. North is on right side, Poole-Bell property marked in red. Railroad ran along curved lower border. San Francisco History Center. San Francisco Public Library.

Later the original large Fairmount lots were subdivided, and smaller, more modest houses went up all over the district, especially after the construction of the electric streetcar line along Chenery Street in 1892. (Read more about that here.)

Still, even as late as 1930, the large Poole-Bell property was basically intact, sitting in an expansive lot on the hillside, with a good view of the growing city. It took a man with a dark past as a notorious Alaska gold-mining claims jumper, to change forever its stately elegance. Robert Nixon Chipps bought the property in 1929. He promptly sold off numerous lots from the large estate to developers for smaller houses, and divided the large aging house into three flats.

Robert Chipps, about 1900. Ancestry.com.
Robert Chipps, about 1900. Ancestry.com.

Continue reading “Chipped! The Poole-Bell House in the 1930s”

The Gilmores and the Poole-Bell House

One of a series of articles about the Poole-Bell House in Fairmount Heights, San Francisco.

The Poole-Bell House once sat alone on a massive lot on the hillside above Laidley Street, overlooking the city—a large elegant home built in 1887 by attorney John P Poole. It was subsequently owned by Teresa Bell, the widow of nineteenth-century financier Thomas Bell. But many other people have lived there since she left in 1918. In the 1930s, it was subdivided into three flats, and later into four units.

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The sensational and now rather tired legends about the house are due for retirement; there are better stories to tell about this local landmark. In 1967, it was acquired by another widow, Polly Gilmore. She and her adult son Read Gilmore lived there for twenty years; they had a big impact on the life of this historic house, and on the life of the city.

Continue reading “The Gilmores and the Poole-Bell House”

In the picture again: more Sunnyside Elementary School class photos

More class photos from Sunnyside. See first group here.  My thanks to Sunnyside resident and one-time Sunnyside ES student Greg Adams. Read more about Sunnyside School here.

First grade, Sunnyside Elementary School, 1958. Courtesy Greg Adams. View larger. 
First grade, Sunnyside Elementary School, 1958. Courtesy Greg Adams. View larger.  

Continue reading “In the picture again: more Sunnyside Elementary School class photos”

San Jose at Havelock (1): 1910 and Today

Move slider to compare photographs. Looking north on San Jose Ave just south of Havelock St. The route of the San Francisco and San Mateo Electric Railway.

View larger here. Look at other comparison photographs here.

1910 photo: Courtesy SFMTA sfmta.photoshelter.com

The First Black Family in Glen Park

One of a series of articles about the Poole-Bell House in Fairmount Heights, San Francisco.

In researching the real history of the Poole-Bell house in Fairmount, I discovered an untold chapter in its story. In 1918, after Teresa Bell moved out of her “gloomy old house,”[1] she rented to a family named Tyrrel. They turned out to be the first African-American family in the Glen Park-Fairmount district.[2] They stayed for three decades, finally settling in a house on Chenery.

Their lives tell us something of what it was to be Black in San Francisco in the decades before WWII. Fortunately, the family archivist has shared with me many photos of the Tyrrels, some of which were taken at the Poole-Bell house, as well as family stories. The Tyrrels were in the public record for their church and fraternal group activities. These fortunate gifts have made it possible to tell a story of the family.

Bertram and Frances Tyrrel moved to the big house at the corner of Laidley and Fairmount Streets during the last years of Teresa Bell’s ownership. They had two children still living with them, Irma, then 22, and Wendell, 21. Frances also had two older children from a previous marriage who had both since started their own families: Pearl Hinds, who had three small daughters and kept a farm in Tulare County with her husband; and James Barber, who had a wife and young daughter in San Mateo County.

The family was very close, including Frances’ sister’s and brother’s families. Photographs during these years bear out the family’s sense of belonging and their pleasure and pride in their shared lives.

1920c. Group photo in front of the Laidley Street house. From left: Bertram Tyrrel, Irma Tyrrel, Marjorie Lake with Eleanor Hinds, Harriet Cady Lake in back, and next to her Frances Tyrrel, and Wendell Tyrrel with Marian and Frances Hinds in front.
1920c. Group photo in front of the Laidley Street house. From left to right: Bertram Tyrrel, Irma Tyrrel, Marjorie Lake with Eleanor Hinds in front, Harriet Cady Lake in back, and next to her Frances Tyrrel, and Wendell Tyrrel with Marian and Frances Hinds in front. Courtesy Charles Reid/Ivy Reid Collection.

Continue reading “The First Black Family in Glen Park”