In the course of doing a house history for local residents in Sunnyside I unearthed the story of a young man whose star shown briefly and brightly. Stan Staub was a junior reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle in the late 1930s, who then felt called to join the military in anticipation of World War II. He left an account of his training as a soldier before he was shipped out to the Pacific Front, as well as nearly a hundred bylines at the Chronicle.
Stan’s family lived on Flood Avenue for many years—it was his home as a teen and young adult. The house was originally built about 1900, and underwent several renovations over the years. Read more
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.
Who would site “the Largest and Most Important City Subdivision” next to an extensive and notorious jail compound? That’s what Behrend Joost did in 1890 when he bought a portion of the land Leland Stanford was selling off then to create the Sunnyside district. The choicer cuts went to other investors; this was no Stanford Heights (later Miraloma Park), perched on Mt Davidson. (Joost’s true aim was to be Baron of the Electric Rails, in any case.)
There had been a jail there in some form or another since the 1850s; the city originally bought the 100-acre House of Refuge lot in 1854, when it was far, far from the city. Read more
The account below by Phyllis Jensen Marklin of being a child growing up in a little house on Congo Street, on the Sunnyside/Glen Park border, includes some fabulous details–the sort of domestic history that is all too often lost with the passage of time. She wrote it when she was in her sixties. Her daughter has graciously given me permission to reproduce it here, along with a photo that includes the family in front of their house at 511 Congo Street.
Her parents Axel and Olga Jensen came originally from Arhus, Denmark, but lived in Canada for years before coming to San Francisco. Although not all the children stayed in the neighborhood, Phyllis’s brother Gordon made his home as an adult just a few blocks down Congo. I’ll tell that story in a future post.
In 1913 someone who was far from home, new to the City, and despairing of his future came to a lonely hilltop in Glen Park to do away with himself. But he didn’t count on the appearance of a local man, Hugo Ekenberg of 400 Joost Ave, who would save his life. The “knoll” where it probably happened is one of our hidden treasures, the rocky outcropping now called Dorothy Erskine Park, at the top of Baden Street.
Here is the news report in the San Francisco Call (19 April 1913):
Despite the profiteers who sold lots in Sunnyside in the early 1890s primarily as investments, families did move here, and they had children–often lots of them. But there was no school. Then they were given only a rented cottage for a one-class school. The story of how long it took before the district finally built a real schoolhouse here is a lesson in both City government corruption and the perseverance of the early residents. [This is the first in a series of posts about the school. Here is the second one.]
In 1898 one family, plagued by alcoholism and headed by a notoriously violent man, came to disrupt the lives of a block of Spreckels Avenue (now Staples). The neighbors fought back the threat with both rifles and the law.
This is the story of two brothers, both newly married, who came to Sunnyside to find houses in the 1920s. One stayed for a lifetime. Both belonged to a remarkable family based up north. The houses they settled in were 400 and 412 Joost Avenue, San Francisco.
One of the earliest houses built in Sunnyside, San Francisco, and certainly the first on its block, has some interesting stories that go with its long history. The man who built it, John Albert Johnson, was a prime moving force in getting a school established for the neighborhood in its early days—when the City was prone to neglecting public services there. But he also conspired to have his wife illegally incarcerated in the County Jail, something that made the newspapers on account of its flagrant violation of the law, that a person cannot be imprisoned without a trial.