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.
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.
You must visit the SFHC during photo-viewing hours, when they will pull the photo you need at that time. You can also order a scan for $20.
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. [Covid-19 update: all SF Public Libraries are shut.]
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). Behler included a brief letter of explanation.
1917. Bertha, Charles, and Arnold Behler. 663 Mangels Ave. Photo courtesy Geoff Follin.
1917. Lawrence Behler with his mother Bertha. 663 Mangels Ave. Photo courtesy Geoff Follin.
1917. 663 Mangels Ave. Lawrence’s brother Arnold Behler on steps. Photo courtesy Geoff Follin.
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.
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. Continue reading “Density on the Boulevard: The Apartment Buildings of Monterey”→
One hundred and ten years ago, the real estate firm of Rogers and Stone, who had recently invested heavily in Sunnyside lots, took out a huge four-page stand-alone color supplement in the San Francisco Call. It featured an artist’s fantastical renditions of life in the neighborhood. Unsurprising for the world of property sales, the copious text is full of imaginary claims about the future of the City and the prospects of the then-largely undeveloped district.
SF Call, 3 June 1909. Page 1 of four-page Sunnyside color supplement. Newspapers.com.
SF Call, 3 June 1909. Page 2 of four-page Sunnyside color supplement. Newspapers.com.
SF Call, 3 June 1909. Page 3 of four-page Sunnyside color supplement. Newspapers.com.
SF Call, 3 June 1909. Page 4 of four-page Sunnyside color supplement. Newspapers.com.
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.
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 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.