Over a hundred years ago, a young woman in Sunnyside led a group of local kids and teens in a fight against animal experimentation on shelter dogs. It was just one part of the nature education and activities of the “Log Cabineers,” a band of young outdoor adventurers led by the remarkable Elfreda Svenberg of 751 Foerster Street. Faced with the dire prospects of a pro-vivisection bill then pending in the California legislature, the group made public its objections, and brought bunches of Mount Davidson wildflowers to the Financial District, hoping to move the hearts and minds of ordinary San Franciscans.
The Prendergast Bill of 1917 allowed for the forced transportation of dogs and cats from animal shelters for the purpose of medical or scientific experimentation. Many people all over California objected to the notion that companion animals could be taken—for only a small payment—from the “havens of mercy” that shelters provided, and given to those who would perform experiments on them before killing them. The Sunnyside kids had spent hours watching the wild rabbits and birds in the scrub of local hills and elsewhere; they loved their own pets at home; and the idea of such cruelties urged them to take action.
Wild Flowers, Wild Life
Setting up stands on Market Street and at two luxury hotels downtown, the kids offered little wildflower boutonnieres of made up of johnny-jump-ups, buttercups, and other offerings picked from from Mount Davidson, where native wildflowers famously grew before housing came to the slopes. (Read an account from the 1920s here.)
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”→
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.