Until 1890, the land where Sunnyside would be laid out was part of the Rancho San Miguel, and used for dairy farming. That year the Sunnyside Land Company was formed, and streets and lots mapped out for the tract, with Behrend Joost as its president. There was no concerted development during those early years. Instead Joost pursued his real money-making project of establishing the first electric streetcar line in San Francisco, which involved building the Sunnyside Powerhouse on Sunnyside Avenue (later Monterey Blvd) in 1892.
A few brave families and individual carpenters did build houses in Sunnyside, but most sales were made to investors looking for profits. Basics like paved streets, sewers, streetlights, gas and water service, and fire protection were lacking for many years.
People lived with wells to provide water with windmills to pump it up, outhouses on the back of their lots, and many kept their own cows and horses. This is part of the reason lots are so deep (100 or 112 feet) to accommodate these necessities.
Right: Typical 30-foot windmill used to pump up water from a well. Note person at bottom for scale. These dotted the areas of the city where wells provided water, like Sunnyside in the early years.
One early resident of Sunnyside was the inventor William Augustus Merralls, who moved to Monterey Blvd in 1897 and built the landmark structure that is now called the Sunnyside Conservatory. His second wife, Temperance Laura Merralls, was photographed with her beloved pitbull terriers in 1914 in front of the remarkable structure (below).
City government changed after the 1906 Quake and Fire, when efforts were made to address the notorious corruption that had plagued it before. Outlying districts like Sunnyside got more funds and attention as people moved further from the city center. The streetcar line was extended down Monterey Boulevard in 1909, finally fulfilling a promise made by the company in 1892. This critical transit link made living in this district more accessible, and development picked up. Sewers were installed in 1913–at the expense of Sunnyside property owners. Activism by residents drove improvements.
There were plenty of large families making their home in the district by this time. The Sunnyside school had been housed in a cottage, but after a long campaign by local parents, a proper schoolhouse was built in 1909.
House construction and shopping venues increased through the 1920s. Many of the neighborhood’s houses date to this time. The dirt streets were finally paved and sidewalks laid then.
In 1916, Sunnyside Avenue, once dead-ending at Ridgewood Ave, was finally extended through what had been Adolph Sutro’s eucalyptus forest, and it was renamed Monterey Boulevard in 1920. More on street names here.
By the mid-1920s, Monterey Boulevard had dozens of local businesses, as well as the numerous little shops throughout the neighborhood on residential corners. In 1926, Saint Finn Barr Catholic Church was built at Hearst and Edna, and it was a center of neighborhood life for this working-class community for much of the twentieth century.
The old schoolhouse was outdated and unsafe by then, so a new building was completed in 1927, which is the current school on Foerster Street.
After World War Two, the undeveloped blocks on the hills above Joost Avenue filled out with new houses. A long-needed public park for this growing neighborhood, Sunnyside Playground, was finally built in the mid-1960s.
Sunnyside Conservatory remained in private hands until it was made a City Landmark in 1976.
The 1950s-1980s saw many of the steep and rocky lots on Monterey Blvd finally developed with large apartment buildings. Safeway, which had been a mid-sized store on the site of the present Safeway parking lot since 1942, became the current larger store in 1972; the presence of a big supermarket permanently changed the nature of shopping on Monterey, driving out a number of mom-and-pop groceries and butcher shops.
Historically Sunnyside has had a lower rate of turnover in house ownership than other San Francisco neighborhoods; today there are still many residents whose grandparents and great-grandparents originally moved here early in the twentieth century.
To hear some great stories about Sunnyside in the places where they happened, consider taking one of the several different Sunnyside history walks I offer.