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”

The Widows Do Business: How the Poole-Bell House Got Its Name

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

By Amy O’Hair

On the first day of October 1906, Annie Poole, widow of a disgraced public official, and Teresa Bell, widow of the city’s once-richest financier, met to discuss the sale of the small mansion that now bears both their names, the Poole-Bell House.

Bell was moving out to this remote enclave, the sparsely settled Fairmount district, where the house sat perched on a hill with a fine view of the city in the distance. She wanted to put a bit of space between her and the nattering classes of society. It was a prickly conference; Bell wanted to move in a day earlier than the transfer of the funds between the two women, a presumptuous request that Poole resisted. Bell recorded their conversation, with commentary, in her diary.

“Mrs Poole said she could not personally let me move in until Wednesday. I said I only cared because of the family, her and their discomfort. ‘Oh,’ she said, ‘tell them I am an old cross crank.’ I said, ‘No. I told them the facts that you had no right to let me in your house until you had your money, and that you would not let me in.’

“She stopped laughing quickly and her eyes popped out with surprise. She saw she was not fooling me. With all the lies she had told about ‘the people not removing their things yet,’ her stare of astonishment showed I was right in my surmise as to her not letting me in.

“Of course I do not blame her a bit, but she could have accommodated me one day, considering my paying her in cash down for her furniture, and I paid enough for it too. But it’s all right, she knows nothing about me nor I of her, and she didn’t do business on trust evidently. She is one breed and I another, that is evident.”[1]

Bell thought herself a cut above, as if more money granted more nobility. The irony is that the Bell family scandals far outpaced the minor frisson of shame that the Poole family endured. The Bells provided sensational fodder for newspapers for decades, whereas Poole’s husband had made a mistake and in the way of the times taken the ‘honorable’ way out through suicide.

Continue reading “The Widows Do Business: How the Poole-Bell House Got Its 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.

By Amy O’Hair

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—she 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. (Pleasant did however have a ranch in nearby Ingleside for many decades. That story is here.)

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”

The First Black Family in Glen Park

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

By Amy O’Hair

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”

Diamond at Bosworth: 1912 and Today

SFMTA sfmta.photoshelter.com

Move slider to compare photographs. The dangerous trestle bridge was for the electric streetcar, over Islais Creek until the gulch was filled in in 1920s. Note square bay windows under large tree at center-right of image, now Glen Park Cleaners (corner of Diamond and Chenery), which was Haack’s saloon at the turn of the century. View larger here. Look at other comparison photographs here.