By Amy O’Hair More photos and history about the Balboa Reservoir here.
The Balboa Reservoir is due for big changes, if all goes to plan—perhaps the last of its many transformations since Adolph Sutro’s eucalyptus trees were cleared from this corner of his massive forest in 1894. From these recent images I hope to someday create then-and-now photo sliders, showing dramatic changes after housing and a park go up on this land. These are places that automated street-mapping cameras never went, but later will go, when there are new streets and houses.
On the Lower Reservoir, the planned housing project has yet to break ground, but I have included some images from the developers’ projections. See plans here (under ‘Meetings’ > PDFs labeled ‘Boards for Community Feedback’; the most recent one has been removed unfortunately). More about the planned housing project on the developers website.
Meanwhile, on the Upper Reservoir, City College is presently in the process of building the STEAM Center, for science, technology, engineering, arts, and math; a tall crane rises over the construction area, an unusual but increasingly more common sight in these neighborhoods. More about the new construction at City College here. Rendering and floorplans here.
In related news, the Board of Supervisors has approved naming the extension of Lee Avenue through the housing project after the mayor who set the ball rolling for the housing project in 2014: “Mayor Edwin M. Lee 李孟賢市長街”. The other planned new streets have been given generic plant names–read more at the Ingleside Light.
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.
Looking north from Summit Street near Thrift in Ingleside. Note changes in the Balboa Reservoir and along Ocean Avenue (center), while residential streets are little altered (except perhaps bigger trees) in 50 years. Science Hill at City College Ocean Campus visible on the far right.
Future changes planned for the Balboa Reservoir will alter the view once again in coming years—both the housing development on the western portion, and City College’s plans for the eastern portion. A new house on the lower left muddles the 2022 view a bit.
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.
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.
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.
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”→
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.