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.
Looking north from the Roanoke/Cuvier footbridge toward the Richland Bridge, in the Bernal Cut. San Jose Avenue below. Many changes over the course of a half-century: well-grown trees; better pedestrian lighting; concrete embankment (left side) replaced with planting; extension of the J-Church through the Cut to Balboa Park Station (1991); separated bike lanes (2017); crosswalk at St Marys (2014); Richland Bridge refurbished (in progress); and large freeway-style signage (1990s?).
Looking south from the Highland Bridge toward the Richland Bridge, in the Bernal Cut. San Jose Avenue below. Although bike lanes that were installed in late 1970s are visible, separated bike lanes did not happen until 2017.
To add to the recently revealed photo of the Sunnyside Powerhouse, here are five more images from the same album at the San Mateo County Historical Association, including unseen interior shots from the engine room. They were taken by a photographer from the company that supplied the engines, Risdon Iron Works, on the occasion of the opening of the powerhouse and the new electric streetcar line in April 1892.
These new photos are unmatched by any other known ones of Sunnyside’s lost landmark, all of which date to after the powerhouse ceased to operate in 1901. These show a car house and power plant just constructed, ready to revolutionize San Francisco’s urban railways with the introduction of electricity for propulsion. For the first time, the machinery of the powerhouse engine room can be seen.
Thanks to the sharp eye of David Gallagher of Western Neighborhoods Project, this early photo of the Sunnyside Powerhouse has been unearthed from an album at the San Mateo County Historical Association. The association had not identified it, but David recognized Sunnyside’s lost landmark and kindly alerted me.
The photo was taken, to the best of my estimation, shortly after construction of the powerhouse and car barn was finished in April 1892. That month saw the opening of the pioneering streetcar system, the San Francisco and San Mateo Electric Railway, the first one powered by electricity in the city.
The intersection of Foerster and Joost is not just a street corner in Sunnyside, it’s the stormy tale of a family torn apart by the relentless greed of one uncle, Behrend Joost, and the quiet loyalty of his nephew, Constantine Foerster, which finally gave way under the pressure of it. Joost went down in a long spiral of lawsuits, but Foerster survived and prospered, saved by taking the terrible decision to break his bond to his uncle, and stake his future in the company of men of better judgment and ethics.
Constantine E.A. Foerster was a successful and industrious corporate attorney in late nineteenth-century San Francisco. At the age of sixteen, he got his start in the city working for his uncle, a scrappy, ill-mannered hardware dealer named Behrend Joost. For many years his fortunes were deeply entwined with this uncouth entrepreneur, including as the attorney for Joost’s project to build San Francisco’s first electric streetcar system. The property speculation project called Sunnyside went along with the streetcar, and Foerster was one of several officers in the company whose names remain on the streets there.
Shot from the pedestrian overpass in 1980, this view of Ocean Avenue and Frida Kahlo Way (then Phelan Ave) shows the same transit-dense area as today, but with a few changes. Grand Auto Supply is gone, replaced with housing and retail at 1100-1250 Ocean (2011-2014). City College Station (aka Phelan Loop) was repositioned in 2013. Overhead utility lines were undergrounded in the late 1970s. The Ocean Ave Vet Hospital is still there, on left, 40 years on. The growth of a large tree next to the overpass made a precise match to the original impossible (therefore no slider). View more comparison photos here.
On 5 January 1911, a photographer named John Henry Mentz came out to Sunnyside to take some shots on a chilly, partly cloudy day. He was the skilled official photographer for United Railroads of San Francisco (URR, which became Muni later). His photos documented the streetcar tracks, but naturally other things were included. Thanks to the availability of high-definition scans of these three images from SFMTA, we can glimpse life on that day in Sunnyside history, complete with a family on the way to the shops and goats grazing on the railroad tracks. The photos were taken on the first block of Monterey Boulevard, near Circular Avenue. First the photos with details, then a comparison to today.
A Thursday Afternoon on Monterey
First Mentz took this image, with a large 8×10 camera and a glass-plate negative positioned squarely in the middle of the unpaved road, facing east (towards what is now Glen Park).
In 1917, map publisher Herman Anton Candrian (1862-1928) introduced a novel graphical representation of streetcar lines for San Francisco’s transit riders that he called Car-o-Grams. These little glyphs made streetcar data visual and succinct.
Candrian’s company had been publishing city maps with transit routes since at least 1906. Every map had an accompanying pocket-sized booklet that indexed all the streets and gave streetcar information for each.
The system aimed to make it easy for newcomers to get around the City. The 1907 booklet proclaimed:
“We give the Street Car for every Street and Number. With the assistance of this Guide a resident of one day can find any street as well as the one that lived here a lifetime.”
Imperfect English, sure, but Candrian was an immigrant like much of the city’s population. He came to the US from Switzerland in his teens and moved to SF in the 1890s. Perhaps he had a frustrating experience on the streetcars, and vowed to make it better for others. The streetcar diagrams fit onto ten small pages.
The 1917 booklet was the first to include the new little route maps for all the lines, both those cars run by United Railroads of SF and the burgeoning Municipal Railway. MUNI had only lines A to H then, but would soon add the J-Church. Then in 1918 it opened the Twin Peaks tunnel, used by the K, L, and M cars.
The graphics weren’t top-notch, but the information was right and included first and last cars. At thirty-five cents it was more in equivalent dollars than a MUNI map today, but probably lasted longer.
These squiggles (which might be called Tufte Lines) presaged the Market Street Railway diagrammatic guide to its cars, published January 1927, which may well have infringed on Candrian’s copyright.
The Market Street Railway effort was truer to cardinal directions, and a neater piece of work, but Candrian’s idea predates it by ten years.
Candrian’s company published the maps at least through the early 1930s.
The 1916 map that would have accompanied the 1917 Car-o-Gram booklet has just been digitized by the Sutro Library (link coming soon).
The Candrian maps are not stellar work. (Links below to other versions.) They abound with paper streets and bad data. Here is a portion of the 1916 map, where the new Glen Park streets are sketched in over the would-be parkland that the Crocker Estate was at that time.
The map printed in 1932 (link below) was rife with sloppy map-making, at least in my end of town. On this one, Mount Davidson’s curvy new lay-out is butchered, included an apparently last-minute addition of something called “San Martin” which never existed, on or off paper. Havelock is blithely and erroneously extended through Balboa Park, and a neighborhood called “Westgate Park” appears in the vicinity of the present Mt Davidson Manor. By then Candrian had passed away.
Still, for its time, the combination map and booklet put a lot of data in the pocket of the user.