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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Designed by Charles F Strothoff in 1928, this anomalous house on Gennessee Street, with its distinctive cylinder turret entrance, is fun to contemplate aesthetically. 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”→
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.)
House on Congo Street where Gordon Jensen grew up in the 1920s. It used to have wrought-iron fences in front, made by his father. Google Streetview, 2014.
Gordon Jensen’s childhood home, the family’s tiny first house on Congo Street. Mid-1920s. Courtesy Judy Simpson.
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.
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.
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.
1965. House where Jane Wardy lived on Baden Street, at the time she lived there. San Francisco Office of Assessor-Recorder Photographs Collection, San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library sfpl.org/sfphotos/asr
The house on Baden Street where Jane Wardy lived. Photo: Amy O’Hair, 2019.
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.
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.
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.
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.
2006 photo of the same church in Väne-Åsaka in Sweden. Wikimedia.org
1895 rendering of the church at the center of life in Väne-Åsaka in Sweden, where Carl was from. Wikimedia.org
Don’t miss the follow-up postto this article, including more photos and renovation information. New additional photos found here.
By Amy O’Hair
Most houses in the city have numbers on their fronts; there are a small part of the house’s exterior decor and often escape notice. On my recent socially distanced neighborhood walks I’ve been looking at them. Many houses in Sunnyside, as well as neighborhoods all over the city, have numbers encased in little frames like these.
There turns out to be an interesting history behind these numbers that begins with an artist named Anton Fazekas (1878-1966).
The Sculptor and the Designs
Fazekas was the designer and manufacturer of these ornamental house numbers, each with a little bulb to light up the digits. He patented three models in the early 1930s. They were solidly fabricated of die-cast iron, and held space for four or five numerals depending on the model, with large, plain, readable numerals made of enameled metal. Later he added italic numerals. The digits slotted into the back and were secured with a little bar that screwed down. The hood protecting the bulb could be removed, allowing the bulb to be easily changed. Continue reading “The little sculpture affixed to your house: Anton Fazekas and the making of a midcentury San Francisco sensation”→
The strange dominance of small single-family homes in San Francisco, with its roots in pre-Quake planning and post-Quake building, has come at last in this century to bite the city in its housing-supply backside. Density doesn’t match need now and it is difficult to see how it ever can. It is as though San Francisco, to personify for a moment, never expected to become a real city. So it allowed builders to fill the thousands of residential blocks with one-story-over-basement structures that cannot reasonably ever be transformed into multi-unit, multi-story buildings—unlike, say, a Mission-District Victorian or a Brooklyn brownstone. And should you be inclined to try, zoning and/or neighbors will prevent you from rebuilding one as a four-story wart on the smooth skin of row-upon-row of SFHs.
In their vast inertial numbers, the Little Boxes will always win. The march of those attached four- or five-room homes, on their narrow 25×100 foot lots, across hundreds of city blocks can only ever be disrupted here and there—a few corner developments, a few big structures on old gas station lots, a few scattered replacements, or the odd added story or ADU.
The die was cast—getting on for a hundred years ago now—and the pattern will persist.
Fresh from the new collection of building photographs that were recently transferred from the San Francisco Office of the Assessor-Recorder to the History Center–here is one residential block in Sunnyside. More about the collection here.