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
Anton Fazekas, sculptor, metal-worker, and San Francisco entrepreneur, created unique lighted house number units that can be found on a great many Bay Area houses.
Read the background on this midcentury sculptor and entrepreneur here. Since the follow-up post, I’ve happened upon these are other examples around San Francisco. If you have an image to share, write me.
This fairly well preserved unit on Alemany sports the very rare black-on-gold number tiles, which looked brilliant in the morning sun, despite missing its hood.
Another example of the very rare black-on-gold number tiles. The surrounding unit has either been painted to match, or was done in the factory, I do not know. Capp Street.
A lovely renovation on Vernon Street, with ceramic tiles inserted into the unit, along with matching tile spacers.
Although not in top condition, this colorway is striking. Original number tiles may have been the rarely seen black-on-white, with the numbers later repainted red. Cayuga Avenue.
Detailed paint work. Although the hood is missing, this owner on Harrison Street has made the best of it, covering and painting the hope to match.
A cheery bit of paint work on Revere Avenue.
A Deco model in fine condition. A piece of glass has been inserted in front of the number tiles, though how there is sufficient room I don’t know. Alemany Blvd.
A Deco model in good condition. Theresa Street.
Mix-and-Match! This one-half tile is not painted, for reasons I cannot fathom. A Deco unit in very good condition, although the white-on-black number tiles have weathered badly. Quality control seems to have been an issue at various points over the years. Potrero Avenue.
A one-half tile in a well-cared-for unlighted Fazekas unit on Manchester Street.
This Fazekas unit sports glass number-tiles, but they aren’t likely to be original. Even the side spacers are glass. Orizaba Street.
This unlighted ‘Deco’ unit is a bit of a mystery. It was installed sometime after 2008, and yet looks like an original. Could it be a clever latter-day imitation? Portola Drive.
Rare and original black-on-white number tiles, in great condition. The vast majority of Fazekas units have white-on-black tiles. Cayuga Avenue
This type of hood usually only appears on the multiple-address units, so it may have been cobbled together from parts. Dublin Street.
This story contains accounts of violence and racism.
This week marks fifty years since the night a nationwide network of clandestine violence touched down in the quiet center of Balboa Park, across the freeway from Sunnyside. The ambush on the Ingleside Police Station left one officer dead, Sergeant John V Young, and a civilian clerk wounded. It was one of a great number of armed actions taken in cities during the 1970s by self-proclaimed revolutionaries identifying with different causes.
While much has been written and dramatized about more sensational actions by radical groups then, such as the kidnapping of Patty Hearst, the campaign of the Black Liberation Army against the police in San Francisco has not seen nearly as much print. The 1970s was a time of intense political violence, resulting in considerably more deaths by terrorism than the post-9/11 period. The passage of fifty years is a chance to reflect on what has changed—and what has not changed—in policing, anti-Black racism, and domestic terrorism.
The legal proceedings related to the attack played out over almost the entire intervening five decades—a messy and incomplete case. The last man implicated in the ambush who was still incarcerated was only released on parole this last October, after 49 years in prison; for some his sentence was too short.
On the evening of Sunday 29 August 1971, two men entered the Ingleside Police Station at 9:40 p.m. armed with a 12-gauge shotgun and a 9mm pistol. The station had only three people working there at the time; just an hour before a bomb had gone off at a bank branch in Stonestown, planted as a diversion by the attackers, and most officers were elsewhere in response. The attackers had been given an all-clear signal by a woman who entered the station in disguise to make a false report and scope out the situation a half-hour beforehand.
Once inside, one of the attackers pushed the shotgun into the speaking hole in the barrier at the front counter, and fired multiple shots, killing Sergeant Young and wounding a clerk, Ellen Nina Lipney. A third officer was not hit; he crawled over and dragged the wounded Young out of the line of fire. The attackers continued to fire shots, at the window and an armored door. Accounts vary, but as many as 18 shots were fired from the shotgun, and more from the pistol.
Some reports state that the gunmen intended to set a bomb to detonate after they left, to destroy the station, but it failed to go off. Outside perhaps three accomplices were on look-out duty. After the attack, which took only moments, all those involved escaped from the station grounds through an opening that had been previously cut in the chain-link fence that separated the station from the adjacent Interstate 280 freeway. On the verge of the freeway waited two cars, which left both live shells and skid marks on the road when they sped off northbound.
1971. The hole in the bulletproof window at Ingleside station through which the gunman shot Sgt Young, pocked with gunshot. Larry Tiscornia, SF Chronicle.
The armored door that was shot several times by the gunmen during the attack. Courtesy Ingleside Police Station.
30 Aug 1971. Ingleside station, the day after the attack. AP.
View of Ingleside station from the freeway side, showing the location of the opening cut in the fence whereby the attackers escaped to waiting getaway cars. SF Chronicle, 31 Aug 1971.
A view of Ingleside station today from the freeway side,
Before I give an account of the Black Liberation Army and the legal cases that resulted in the 1970s and 2000s, here is a recollection of the life of the officer who died that night.
‘A Very Good Man’
Sergeant John Victor Young had served twenty-two years with the force, and when he died he left behind a beloved wife, Geraldine; they’d been married for twenty-four years. He also left behind a great deal of good will and the respect of seemingly everyone who knew him. Those who worked with him widely acknowledged his compassion, even temper, fairness, and religious devotion. “He treated cranks and superior officers alike, with the same kindness and understanding.” Another officer who worked with him said: “He was careful with his language and a good listener.” Young had a commitment to helping people, no matter what their history or circumstances. Among his desk duties before he was assigned to Ingleside was helping ex-convicts who sought legal rehabilitation that could lead to having their records expunged; sometimes he went further, even digging into his own pocket to help one who needed a bit of cash. 
For thirty-five years, Sunnyside had a well-loved and well-patronized restaurant at the corner of Monterey Boulevard and Foerster Street, famous for its opinionated but kind-hearted owner, Bruno Cappa (1911-1984). Bruno’s Creamery Fountain Restaurant counted among its many customers a few of the city’s minor luminaries, but mostly it was a favorite of locals and kids. The place was famous for serving curly fries, forty years before they were on the menus of fast-food chains. Although he was a bit gruff, Bruno is fondly remembered to this day by many people who ate there or just hung out.
The restaurant was an unpretentious place, a narrow space with a counter on the right and pinball machines in the back. Along the left wall were news racks that also held the comic books that were prized as free reading material by local kids. As the years passed, the shop acquired a grill and a donut fryer, along with the special machine for producing his famed curly fries. Behind the counter there were racks with small items like bromo-seltzer and sweets, and on the walls (depending on the décor that year) there were small posters for soda or ice cream.
Bruno and his wife Eva stood behind the long counter—he took your order for a burger, and she cooked it up. They both worked hard, putting in 16- or 17-hour days, serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Eva was always quiet, but Bruno often gave unasked-for, if well-intended, advice—like telling an unemployed customer to get a job and feed his family. But then Bruno would send him on his way after a meal with a bag of groceries—under that rude exterior he had a big heart.
Kids came in to play the pinball machines in back, and read the comic books Bruno had for sale. Longtime Sunnyside Frank Koehler recalls that Bruno would say ” ‘Hey, you guys, if you want to read them, you gotta buy ’em’—but since we were regulars, Bruno never enforced the ‘you gotta buy ’em’ rule….But he’d always mention the rule before he ignored it.”
Bruno kept tabs on regulars. One person told me about how if Bruno hadn’t seen you for a while, he would send someone around to your house to make sure you were okay.
“Bruno was truly a unique individual and quite a character.”