City College Heads: Science and Inspiration

By Amy O’Hair

Public art was an intrinsic part of Timothy Pflueger’s vision for the Ocean Campus of City College of San Francisco. Two massive sculptures, installed over eighty years ago, continue to please and inspire me: Fred Olmsted’s “Leonard Da Vinci” and “Thomas Alva Edison.” Their creation is tied to founding of the campus in 1940.

The monumental faces themselves show smooth modernist planes and simplicity—and each reveals a secret on the reverse side, which I’ll get to.

Fred Olmsted was part of Pflueger’s stable of artists, one of many mural painters and sculptors whom he commissioned for works on the inside and outside of the many buildings he designed in San Francisco. Science Hall, the first classroom building on the campus, has murals inside the west entrance (which is also Olmsted’s work) as well at one each exterior end (by Herman Volz). Continue reading “City College Heads: Science and Inspiration”

Restoring a Fazekas Address Unit, Step-by-Step

Having documented the history behind the Fazekas-designed house-number units found all over San Francisco and the Bay Area, I am often asked for help by people wishing to restore their own. Such matters are not my forte. Fortunately, a reader named Sarah has offered a detailed description of the process of refurbishing a unit, and I present it here. (Have anything to add? Write me or post a comment below.)

After removing the unit from the house, this is what Sarah did:

Recently, a significant decision was made by my mom and stepdad to sell my grandmother’s house in the Sunset district. This decision started me off on my journey of restoring the address frame. I wanted to share my restoration process in case it helps others.

Before restoration. Sarah's unit had the the additional problem of rust and deterioration of the number tiles, and a mission spacer on the left.
Before restoration. Sarah’s unit had the the additional problem of rust and deterioration of the number tiles, and a missing spacer on the left.

Continue reading “Restoring a Fazekas Address Unit, Step-by-Step”

The Sunnyside History Project of 2006

By Amy O’Hair

This website, which I began in 2015, has not been the only effort to collect and rediscover the stories of this neighborhood; almost twenty years ago, Sunnyside Neighborhood Association initiated a wide-ranging project to rediscover historical materials and record oral histories of old-time residents. One result of the group’s work was to present a history fair in February 2006, where documents and photos were shared with the community. Another product of their efforts was a little booklet, “A Brief Look at Sunnyside”.

The members of Sunnyside Neighborhood Association (SNA) who worked on the project were led by Jennifer Heggie, and included Daphne Powell, Robert Danielson, David Becker, Karen Greenwood Henke, Bill Wilson, and Rick Lopez. They were aided in their work by Woody LaBounty and Lori Ungaretti at Western Neighborhoods Project (WNP). Other contributors included Julia Bergman, City College of San Francisco’s Chief Librarian and Archivist (now deceased), and local history author Jacqueline Proctor, as well as two workers at St Finn Barr Church, Denise McEvoy and Kathleen Ramsay.

The Oral Histories

The oral history interviews took place in 1995, 2005, and 2006, and were conducted with six people who grew up in Sunnyside, mostly before the Second World War. To preserve the interviews, the transcripts were later archived at the San Francisco History Center.[1] The subjects described what it was like in the neighborhood, where they played and went to school, what transit they took, the landscapes and animals that were a part of their childhoods, and so on. (I’ll quote extensively from the oral histories later in this post.)

The History Fair 

Continue reading “The Sunnyside History Project of 2006”

Fazekas Calling: Consideration of a Few Doorbell Plates

By Amy O’Hair
All things Fazekas are found linked on this page.

I have kindly been given a few unattached examples of Anton Fazekas’ work in the form of doorbell plates, most with their wonderfully finger-inviting Bakelite buttons still in place.

These little works of art were just some of the vast array of products created and sold by his company, American Art Metal Works, during the 40 years he ran the South-of-Market-based firm. Below, there are a few to be seen mounted on the display behind the master himself on this page from a 1940s-era catalogue. (Do you have a doorbell by Fazekas? Write me.)

First we have one touched with the Art Nouveau vibe, sporting two singing birds, a mottled background, and subtle but nonspecific plant references. It appears to have never been attached to a house, as a film of lacquer across one screw hole is unbroken. I believe many of Fazekas’s metal items shipped with a clear lacquer layer on them. It shows the sculptor’s hand in that there are clear but subtle asymmetries to the design. (About 11 cm tall.)

Continue reading “Fazekas Calling: Consideration of a Few Doorbell Plates”

Now on the Internet Archive: Sunnyside newsletters 1970s-1990s

By Amy O’Hair

Founded in 1974, Sunnyside Neighborhood Association is coming up for its fiftieth anniversary. The slim pile of paper newsletters that were entrusted to me from the pre-internet days of the organization have now been scanned, thanks to the volunteer work of LisaRuth Elliott.

They are now available on the Internet Archive, part of the online collection of San Francisco Neighborhood Newspapers that LisaRuth and the San Francisco Department of Memory spearheaded. I’m immensely pleased that Sunnyside has now joined this collection, and I extend my sincere thanks to her for this work, delayed as it was by covid. Being in the Internet Archive means they will always be available to future historians, and any interested person, indexed for search. My historian’s heart is aflutter.

The issue above, Winter 1979, features a piece by Greg Gaar writing about saving the Sunnyside Conservatory. Editor Ken Hoegger rhapsodizes about the eucalyptus trees of Martha Hill, which was soon to be a new public open space–Dorothy Erskine Park as it is now known. Read the issue in full size here.  I feel a strong personal gratitude to the people who worked on these projects over forty years ago, saving vital open spaces and the historic Conservatory; it was a critical moment in the development of livability in the city. Continue reading “Now on the Internet Archive: Sunnyside newsletters 1970s-1990s”

A phalanx of Fazekas

By Amy O’Hair
All things Fazekas can be found linked on this page.

A few more novel sightings of the work of Anton Fazekas, San Francisco’s midcentury sculptor-entrepreneur of illuminated house numbers. Read the background in the original post.

As if the classy copper metallic paint wasn't enough, this one has had its numbers replaced with real copper digits, complete with a touch of verdigris patina. Raymond Avenue.
As if the classy copper metallic paint wasn’t enough, this one has had its numbers replaced with real copper digits, complete with a touch of verdigris patina. Raymond Avenue.


A bit of fancy paintwork on this Slimline number. Dolores.
A bit of fancy paintwork on this Slimline number. Dolores. 

Continue reading “A phalanx of Fazekas”

A House with Character(s): The Stolen Down-Payment, the Bigamist Builder, and Some Old Soldiers

Read other tales of Sunnyside houses here.

By Amy O’Hair

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.

One of the eight cottages built by Rudolph Mohr's company in 1913 on Staples Avenue. Photo: Amy O'Hair
One of the eight cottages built by Rudolph Mohr’s company in 1913 on Staples Avenue. Photo: Amy O’Hair

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.

Elegant Cottages, Strictly Modern

When in the summer of 1913 the last cottage in a trim set of eight on Staples Avenue was completed, it sold as quickly as the others; the construction company, Rudolph Mohr and Sons, was as competent as Mohr’s firm that handled the sales, Moneta Investments. Continue reading “A House with Character(s): The Stolen Down-Payment, the Bigamist Builder, and Some Old Soldiers”

Sunnyside’s Missing Mini-Park

By Amy O’Hair

If not for the hapless mistakes made by the Sunnyside Land Company in 1891, our district would have no parks at all. An ill-advised street layout meant that some lots were too steep and rocky to build on, leaving them vacant for decades. This resulted in enough conjoined lots that the City, two generations later, could buy up and create the Sunnyside Playground and Dorothy Erskine Park.

Planned streets that were in fact too steep to be built have also been transformed into open space, as in the Detroit Steps Project, the Melrose Detroit Botanical Garden. A portion of unbuilt Edna Street was incorporated into the Playground as well.

Additionally, by laying out streets without regard to slopes, the City had to later buy up several residential lots in Sunnyside, in order to lay the sewer pipes—which must of course go where gravity dictates. This happenstance has given Sunnyside several small open spaces for public enjoyment, such as the Joost-Baden Mini-Park and the steps behind the Sunnyside Conservatory.

Yet still today there remains a City-owned piece of land—500 square feet in size—that is undeveloped as a public open space. It is fenced off and inaccessible. One half is used as a private side yard by an adjacent homeowner. The other half is currently leased to Friends of the Urban Forest, but that organization has never used it. These non-public uses of public land represent a loss to the community, and it is time the situation was rectified.

First, a short history of Sunnyside’s land and its parks. Continue reading “Sunnyside’s Missing Mini-Park”

The Sunnyside Cemetery: A Plea to Lift the Pall of Gray Paint

By Amy O’Hair

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.[1]

The world grown gray[2]

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.

A Walk Among the Tombstones[3]

A house is the public face of private life, a communal contribution to the visual streetscape. One house after another has drunk the sullen, colorless Kool-Aid, increasingly depriving local walkers everywhere of that most basic of human visual delights—color. Continue reading “The Sunnyside Cemetery: A Plea to Lift the Pall of Gray Paint”

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.
Continue reading “Strothoff in Sunnyside, or How to Love the Utility Poles in the Street”