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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
Polly GIlmore. 1988c. Photo: Francisco Gutierrez. Courtesy Roger Heffner.
Read GIlmore. 1988c. Photo: Francisco Gutierrez. Courtesy Roger Heffner.
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,” she rented to a family named Tyrrel. They turned out to be the first African-American family in the Glen Park-Fairmount district. 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.
Finding out your house was once home to a notable figure from San Francisco’s past could certainly a pleasure; if someone showed up at the door to say the house was built by the keeper of a Barbary Coast brothel, anyone’s interest would be piqued. This is just what happened in the late 1970s to the owners of two houses on Chenery Street just north of Roanoke. The visitor, a previous owner in the 1960s, told the present residents that their grand Victorian house was built by “Madame Constance” who had a boyfriend named “Rotten Tommy,” who lived in the “carriage house” next door.
Like most neighborhood lore, there were bits of truth mixed with small confusions. Research revealed the real person behind the handed-down story. In 1906 a woman named Rosa Constant left behind the keeping of downtown lodging houses forever, and bought (but did not build) the two houses and the large lot they sat on.
Why did the visitor recall Rosa’s surname slightly wrong? The answer lies in popular culture. There were three fictional “Madame Constance” characters that happened to be current during the 1960s and 1970s: Madame Constance is a character in Jean Giraudoux’s play “The Madwoman of Chaillot,” first produced in the 1940s, and made into a film with Katherine Hepburn in 1969; Madame Constance Bonacieux is a character in book The Three Musketeers, portrayed in the 1973 film by the same name by a corset-busting Raquel Welch; and the 1971 film “McCabe and Mrs Miller” featured Julie Christie as Madame Constance Miller, brothel keeper, pictured below.(1) An easy enough muddling of names for anyone to make.