Strothoff in Sunnyside, or How to Love the Utility Poles in the Street

One of a short series of house-based local history—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.

House in Sunnyside designed by Charles F Strothoff, 1928. Photo: Amy O'Hair, 2022.
House in Sunnyside designed by Charles F Strothoff, 1928. Photo: Amy O’Hair, 2022.

Designed by Charles F Strothoff in 1928, this anomalous house on Gennessee Street, with its distinctive cylinder turret entrance, is fun to contemplate aesthetically.[1] 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.
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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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7 Ladies and The Great Horned Spoon: More Sunnyside advertising

More example of advertising for the Sunnyside district in San Francisco newspapers in the first years, 1891-1892. (More wacky Sunnyside ads in the first post in this series.)

SF Examiner, 27 Aug 1891.
SF Examiner, 27 Aug 1891.

Note the frequent use of white space, clean-looking typefaces, and asymmetrically positioned text blocks, a bit ahead of their time–favorite features of midcentury advertisers decades later.

SF Examiner, 30 Aug 1891.

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87 Men and Golden Chances: The Sunnyside advertising campaign

After Sunnyside was laid out and lots went on sale in San Francisco in 1891, there were a lot of unusual newspaper advertisements pushing property sales in the new district during that first year. (More wacky Sunnyside ads in the second post in this series here.)

SF Call, 7 Jun 1891.
SF Call, 7 Jun 1891.

The initial splash took place on Sunday 26 April 1891, with half-page ads in at least three San Francisco newspapers: the Chronicle, the Call, and the Examiner.  Continue reading “87 Men and Golden Chances: The Sunnyside advertising campaign”

High on a hillside, the Sunnyside sign

1912. Sunnyside hillside.

By Amy O’Hair

Recently a marvelous panorama taken about 1912 came my way. Sparsely populated Sunnyside can be seen in the distance. The image also revealed a remarkable feature from the neighborhood’s past—a giant hillside sign in the style of the one in Hollywood, which was also placed as a real estate advertisement in its day. However, Sunnyside’s sign preceded the more famous one by at least ten years—though of course unlike the one in Hollywood, Sunnyside’s did not last.

1912. The Sunnyside sign, on hillside near Mangels and Detroit. Detail from panorama image below. Western Neighborhoods Project wnp15.1592.

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