Here is a new map for understanding the historical path that Sunnyside’s tributary of Islais Creek once took through the neighborhood, a composite using color Sanborn maps from the Library of Congress and DavidRumsey.org from the early 1900s. Additional information for areas not covered by Sanborn from Joel Pomerantz’s Seep City project for mapping our city’s old waterways.
A culvert was installed from one side of Monterey to the other at about Edna Street in the 1910s. Part of the creek was contained in a box drain in the 100 block of Flood Ave (north side) about the same time. Other manipulations took place, until the City diverted the water that would have fed it into the sewer system, during the 1920s.
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. 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.)
It is perhaps the fate of some unusual structures to attract unusual people. The Sunnyside Conservatory was built in 1902 by one such man, the eccentric inventor William Augustus Merralls, whose interests extended to outré alternative medicine. In 1919, the property was bought from the bank that had repossessed it from Merralls’ destitute widow by another remarkable person, Ernest Van Beckh.
When he and his beautiful wife Angele Ricono Van Beckh moved to Monterey Boulevard, they left behind them a sensational tale—of years of criminal fraud under the guise of occult practices, of spending weeks as fugitives hiding out in the East Bay, of serious charges of grand larceny and a narrow escape from a prison sentence. Before the drama was over, Ernest had shot a man, gravely wounding him. It was a story that few people could live down, but they managed to, in style.
The Van Beckhs liked their luxury and were devoted to each other; Ernest’s crimes paid for his wife Angele’s social and cultural aspirations. When the scandal died down, that loot bought this unusual large property in a modest neighborhood. In Sunnyside, they lived quietly in the lush compound behind tall fences for another five decades, outside of the public view, their crimes safely locked in the past.
The price in 1919 was just thirty-five hundred dollars, and included the house at 258 Monterey Boulevard, the grounds, and the conservatory structure—seven city lots in total. It was a very small price for a man who reputedly had amassed half a million dollars as the ring-leader of a gang of self-proclaimed clairvoyants, fleecing hundreds of vulnerable, gullible victims between 1911 and 1916.
Stories of “The Big Five,” as both the reporters and the dogged Assistant District Attorney bent on their convictions insisted on calling the loose conspiracy, splashed across Bay Area newspapers during the first half of 1916. Then the criminal cases fell apart without convictions, and newer, more compelling events like the Preparedness Day Bombing occupied the attention of readers and local law enforcement.
Fake Silver Mines with a Real Silver Lining
It’s a story worthy of San Francisco, where many people over its short history have come to do the daring and the semi-legal, to make and remake themselves, to feed strange hopes and stranger beliefs, for a profit. Van Beckh used the power of the occult to sell worthless mining stocks and make piles of money. But the ironic twist now for all those in Sunnyside, and from further afield, who enjoy our landmarked local gem is that it was Van Beckh’s mix of ill-gotten wealth and the subsequent need to keep out of the limelight for decades afterwards that meant the Sunnyside Conservatory was mostly saved from destruction. Continue reading “The King of the Clairvoyants: The Man who bought the Sunnyside Conservatory”→
The presence of goats in Sunnyside is evident from the earliest photographs, such as this iconic shot that captured the witch’s hat tower of the Sunnyside Powerhouse in the background, with a munching goat in the foreground, taken on Monterey near Circular in 1911.
Then the same photographer turned to face the other direction, and caught a few more grazing goats on the railroad tracks.
One Sunnyside resident had his own goat dairy, located further up the street on Monterey in the 1910s. It probably wasn’t quite legal, given the City’s pound limits regulating what animals could be kept where. But no matter, because there were a lot of small dairy operations here, and in the Excelsior and elsewhere, well into the twentieth century. A cow in the backyard was far from uncommon.
After arriving in 1909, Sicilian immigrant Frank Maita opened a small dairy operation with goats, on the site of the present house at 535 Monterey Boulevard, in 1915. Most of the lot was open, with a little house set down the hill. Frank and Catherine Maita already had five children when they started their business; with four more to come, it was not a sustainable setup.
But it was a start on a new life in a new country.
Although Bruno Cappa’s soda fountain restaurant was a top neighborhood spot for curly fries or an ice cream float for nearly four decades, the proprietor was far from self-promoting. But if he had engaged a graphic artist for a logo or some merch, he could not do better than what designer Doug da Silva has recently created to celebrate this slice of local history.
Doug grew up in Sunnyside, and although he no longer lives in the city, he has created a line of t-shirts celebrating many iconic aspects of San Francisco past, including Bruno’s Creamery.
Traffic calming – planting and saving trees – safe places for children to play – newly revealed local history: the issues on the minds of Sunnysiders fifty years ago were not so different from things that interest residents now. The newsletters of Sunnyside’s local organization from those years have recently been archived and made available online at the Internet Archive, and tell some inspiring stories about actions that still impact our lives today.
Although Sunnyside has seen organized advocacy by residents since the 1890s (more here), the current organization, Sunnyside Neighborhood Association (SNA), dates to late 1974. The 1970s saw a surge of local activism in the many neighborhoods in San Francisco. Five decades later, we still enjoy some of the fruits of that upwelling, for instance in open spaces that were established as parks. There was also a downside to the activism then that still affects the city; in some areas, such as the Richmond district, residents fought density with downzoning measures, working to exclude multi-unit buildings and “retain local character,” resulting in a dearth of housing units in subsequent decades, and de facto residential segregation.
But SNA was, according to the record of these early newsletters, more intent on trees, parks, and calming traffic. Monterey Boulevard had already undergone big changes in the 1950s and 1960s, with an extensive apartment-building boom. The 1970s saw even more upzoning on the boulevard. SNA didn’t oppose more housing, but as we’ll see, it did try to rescue trees that were eventually to fall victim to a particularly determined developer of multi-unit buildings, among many other projects, such as tree-planting and boosting local businesses.
The rain is pelting down today, prompting me to revisit a moment in early Sunnyside history when the cumulative effects of an El Niño winter melted the hillside above Monterey Boulevard (then Sunnyside Avenue) between Acadia and Detroit Streets, sending several houses sliding down. No one was injured, but two of the houses were never rebuilt. Besides the copious rains that winter, a major contributing cause was a massive street grading project on Monterey, wherein earth was removed in large quantities by an unscrupulous private contractor named Kelso, leaving several houses on the north side hovering at the top of sheer cliffs. It was not a time of robust and well-planned public works in the City. Residents felt naturally wronged, and threatened to sue (although without much success it later turned out).
Sunnyside then was very sparsely populated, with only a few houses on each block, largely in the eastern end. It was a bit of a company town; many residents worked at the Sunnyside Powerhouse,the coal-fired power plant for the pioneering electric railway. Notes on people mentioned in the accounts below: Patrick Amrock, lived at the current address 134 Monterey (rebuilt in 1960). The Lufsky/Kuestermann houses were never rebuilt, but were located around 126 Monterey. Percy C Cole, a carpenter, lived in a house at the current location of the 370 Monterey apartments. Andrew Dahlberg (“P Doylberg”), a contractor, lived at what is now 137 Joost (which may be the original 1890s house). Charles Lufsky departed Sunnyside later in the year, but here’s a good story about the saloon he left behind.
Fortunately, 20th century building techniques and City codes have prevented many such disasters since. (Although one happened here in 21st century Sunnyside.)
Read the account below from the San Francisco Examiner published the next morning, followed by another account from the San Francisco Call. Read the related story about Sunnyside’s some-time creek here.
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.”
The Sunnyside Crossing is visible on the left in the 1926 photo, where the electric streetcar tracks crossed the Southern Pacific train tracks. The excavations for Interstate 280 removed much of the land on the left side of the 1926 photo.
Looking east on Monterey Boulevard midway between Foerster and Gennessee. Strip of shops on right side all removed in early 1970s to build Safeway supermarket. Move slider to compare photographs. View larger here. Look at other comparison photographs here.