Gilbert Plov, Little-Box Builder

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.

Portion of the 1948 aerial survey, Garfield Street from Vernon to Head, in Ingleside. Soon all the gaps would be filled.
Portion of the 1948 aerial survey, Garfield Street from Vernon to Head, in Ingleside. Soon all the gaps would be filled.

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One block in Sunnyside: 50 years ago and today

1969c. 679 Mangels. San Francisco Office of Assessor-Recorder Photographs Collection, San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library

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.

On a bright overcast day in 1968 or 1969*, an unnamed photographer from the Assessor’s office appears to have shot every house on the 600 block of Mangels Avenue, leaving an unusually complete record of houses there at that time. Read more

A glimpse into the past: San Francisco historical house photos now available

Just released for public viewing by the San Francisco Assessor-Recorder Carmen Chu: 94,000 photos of houses, shops, and other structures in San Francisco, dating from the 1940s to the 2000s. Visit this webpage for a map showing properties with available photographs, including instructions on requesting an image to view.

Not every house in the city is included, but many are. On the map, once you have located your property lot, mouse over, and a pop-up text block will give the needed information to access the image — the block and lot number, the box number, and the bundle number. Alternately, enter your address on this page.

Once you have those numbers (block/lot, box and bundle), visit this page to fill out a request to have the image pulled.

The new policy from SF History Center: You must visit the SFHC during photo-viewing hours, when they will pull the photo you need at that time. (no order-ahead form anymore [11 May 2019].)

Plan a visit to the SF History Center, on the top floor of the Main Library, Grove and Larkin. Hours for the photo desk at Tuesday and Thursdays 1 to 5pm, and Saturday 10am-12pm and 1-5pm.

You can also order a scan for $20.

Families on the edge of the forest: Mangels Avenue in the 1910s and 1920s

1917. Photo courtesy Geoff Follin.

At the edge of Sutro’s forest of eucalyptus trees, in the northwest corner of Sunnyside, the 600 block of Mangels Avenue was home to several families who enjoyed a truly rural existence in the early years. Recently some photos were graciously loaned to me to scan, so there is some visual record of life there. The photos are from the personal archive of resident Geoff Follin, sent to him in 1987 by a man who grew up on the block during these years—Lawrence Behler (1908-1999).[1] Behler included a brief letter of explanation.

12 Jan 1987. Letter from Lawrence Behler to resident of 663 Mangels Ave. Courtesy Geoff Follin.
12 Jan 1987. Letter from Lawrence Behler to resident of 663 Mangels Ave. Courtesy Geoff Follin.

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Density on the Boulevard: The Apartment Buildings of Monterey

2019. 160 Monterey Blvd. Photo: Amy O'Hair.

Monterey Blvd in Sunnyside features a good many midcentury to late-twentieth-century apartment buildings, giving the neighborhood’s main street a characteristic look. This type of construction required some minor code changes for the district, which had previously been zoned for single-family and duplex buildings. The new larger structures filled up the numerous lots along the boulevard that had remained unbuilt since the founding of the neighborhood in 1891, which was the result in part of the difficult topography; the land on either side of the street is quite steep and rocky in places. Here are some 1940s photos.

Starting in the 1950s, developers consolidated lots to build large complexes, or constructed multi-unit structures on a single lot. The building could be said to have gone in three waves.

Chart showing construction of apartment and condo units on Monterey Blvd, 1958-1997. Data from SF Planning Dept.
Chart showing construction of apartment and condo units on Monterey Blvd, 1958-1997. Data from SF Planning Dept.

Although this seven-block stretch of Monterey hardly comes close to the density of the Mission District or other more urban areas in the city, Sunnyside differs from nearby neighborhoods such as Westwood Park, Miraloma Park, or Glen Park, where due to their zoning constraints or development history there are no sizable apartment buildings.   Read more

George R Reilly and the first LGBT legal victory in US history

The Black Cat. Photo:

George R Reilly (1903–1985) was a powerful player in midcentury San Francisco politics who was born and grew up in Sunnyside, a member of one of the first families there. He was on the State Board of Equalization (BOE) for 44 years, the agency that regulated taxes and liquor licenses.

Image of George R Reilly from obituary in BoE Annual Report, June 1985. SF Public Library.

Under his chairmanship, the BOE targeted bars where gay people gathered, in order to revoke their liquor licenses. It was in this capacity that Reilly’s name remains on an important 1951 California Supreme Court case, involving the famous Black Cat bar in North Beach.

The Black Cat (n.d.). San Francisco History Center. San Francisco Public Library.

The owner, Sol Stoumen, took the BOE to court and fought for the right of his patrons to gather at his bar. The case, Stoumen v Reilly, weighed the basic human right to free association, regardless of sexual preference.  Read more

Growing Up on Congo Street in the 1920s

Indian paintbrush, California native wildflower.

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.

The Jensens in front of their house at 511 Congo Street, late 1920s. Photo courtesy Judith Simpson.
The Jensens in front of their house at 511 Congo Street, late 1920s. Photo courtesy Judith Simpson.

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Good Deeds and Bad: the House at 503 Edna Street

SF Chronicle, 11 Mar 1899

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.

The houses at 400 Hearst (L) and 503 Edna.
The houses at 400 Hearst (L) and 503 Edna. Photo: Amy O’Hair 2015.

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