WAVES, West Campus, and Waterless Basins: the History of the Balboa Reservoir 1945-1983

One of a series of articles on the history of the Balboa Reservoir.

From the end of WWII until the mid-1980s, there were several ill-fated attempts to fund the building of the Balboa Reservoir; it was dug and paved but not finished in the late 1950s. Its real life during these years was as an asset to City College, first as West Campus, then as parking for students, faculty, and staff.

But it also functioned as a place for a host of casual uses by local residents, some legal and some not: teen drivers, go-cart races, runners and walkers, Riordan football team training, underage drinking, motorcycle berm-jumping, police safety training, and more. No city agency seriously considered housing during these years; after WWII there were still plenty of empty lots in the city on which to build.

Making Wartime WAVES

In June 1944 the SPFUC discussed the matter of leasing the reservoir land to the US Government, in line with the US President’s edict that any unused public land be put to wartime use.[1] The Navy was given a lease which was to end six months after the “national emergency.” A large compound comprising many buildings was quickly built for the United States Naval Reserve Women’s Reserve, known under the acronym WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service). The facility opened in July 1945. It included housing for over a thousand enlisted and officer women, two-story buildings, and an auditorium, with all the needed water, sewer, electricity, and gas infrastructure.[2]

It was an impressive effort.

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1947c. Aerial looking over the Navy’s Women’s Reserve facility on the Balboa Reservoir land. SAN FRANCISCO HISTORY CENTER, SAN FRANCISCO PUBLIC LIBRARY.

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Greyhounds, Aeroplanes, and Wheelbarrows: the History of the Balboa Reservoir 1894-1944

One of a series of articles on the history of the Balboa Reservoir.

The large plot of land that was known as the Balboa Reservoir has had a remarkable history, despite never having been filled with water and once being declared “void of positive features” by the City.[1] Through most of the twentieth century it was owned by SF Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC), yet none of the uses the land has been put to have had any impact for good or ill on the city’s water supply. Now the last third of it still left in the hands of SFPUC is being developed as a housing project.

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The original dimensions of the Balboa Reservoir site, as purchased by the City in 1930. The lot now includes Riordan High School on the north, CCSF’s Multi-Use Building on the east, and housing and commercial buildings along Ocean Ave. View larger.

Spring Valley’s real estate wager

The reservoir site started as part of Adolph Sutro’s Rancho San Miguel holdings, most of which were acquired by him in 1881.[2] Sutro sold the 42-acre lot on the far southeast corner of his eucalyptus-covered kingdom to the Spring Valley Water Company in 1894.[3] The company’s stated purpose was to build a reservoir there. They didn’t.

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SF Call 14 Feb 1894, p9. Read whole article here.

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Farms in Sunnyside?

Here is a portion of the 1938 aerial photos of San Francisco that shows the extensive farming in the area of Balboa Park below Havelock Street. This land had been used for the purpose of growing food from the 1890s until I-280 freeway was built in the 1960s. Some part of it was cultivated by inmates from the Ingleside Jail, but there was also a nursery business which leased land here.

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1938 aerial photo of extensive vegetable gardens below Havelock Street in Balboa Park. Land here used for that purpose from 1890s through to construction of I-280 freeway in 1960s. CLICK FOR LARGER  Photo from DavidRumsey.com, altered with labels.

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First annual Sunnyside Holiday Quiz!

For Sunnyside locals. Answers are now posted here.


1. What was the original name of Monterey Boulevard?

2. When did Sunnyside Elementary School get its colorful tile mural?

3. Was Big Joe’s ever owned by a man named Joe?

4. What did the Interstate 280 Freeway replace when it was built in the 1960s?

a. A creek
b. A railroad
c. Several blocks of homes
d. Open space

5. What was the former name of Friends Bar?

a. Cheers Bar
b. Hells Angels Clubhouse
c. Joker Club Tavern
d. Andy’s Place      Read more

Some photos from ‘Raise Your Gladsome Voices’ at Sunnyside Conservatory

As part of the Special Holiday Meeting on Saturday 2 December 2017, Glen Park Neighborhoods History Project presented a short play ‘Raise Your Gladsome Voices’ about the Glen Park women involved in the the first suffrage march in the US, written by Amy O’Hair and performed by Valerie Fachman and Haley Roth-Brown. The meeting and social began with a talk by Evelyn Rose about the subject of the drama, Glen Park activist and suffragist, Johanna Pinther.

“I was not altogether convinced … about women and the vote.”
“What is the women’s vote if you haven’t got but a dribble coming out of the taps?!”

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Gloomy Gus Goes to War: Stan Staub, Cub Reporter and WWII Soldier

In the course of doing a house history for local residents in Sunnyside I unearthed the story of a young man whose star shown briefly and brightly. Stan Staub was a junior reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle in the late 1930s, who then felt called to join the military in anticipation of World War II. He left an account of his training as a soldier before he was shipped out to the Pacific Front, as well as nearly a hundred bylines at the Chronicle.[1]

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Stan Staub, age 21, in front of the family home on Flood Avenue, c.1939. Photo courtesy the Staub family.

Stan’s family lived on Flood Avenue for many years—it was his home as a teen and young adult. The house was originally built about 1900, and underwent several renovations over the years.       Read more

A Bridge between Neighborhoods: the Santa Rosa Underpass

A now-lost bit of infrastructure connected two neighborhoods for six decades, an underpass below the Southern Pacific railroad tracks that extended Santa Rosa Avenue to meet Circular Avenue and Congo Street.

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1927, Santa Rosa Bridge. Circular Ave at Congo Street. Southern Pacific railroad tracks running at crest of embankment. Houses on left located on Flood Ave. OpenSFHistory.org wnp36.03489

In the usual way of things then, Sunnysiders asked for this relatively minor, yet vital link for many years before the city built it. From the neighborhood’s beginning in 1891 and for decades to come, Sunnyside was hemmed in.[1]  Sutro Forest blocked the west, Phelan Ave was not yet built through on the south, there was no road over the railroad tracks on the east, and no passage over Mt Davidson on the north. You came in via Chenery or San Jose Road, and left the same way, usually on the electric streetcar.    Read more

“Rosie, the Girl from Paris”: How a Barbary Coast Madam retired to Chenery Street

Finding out your house was once home to a notable figure from San Francisco’s past could certainly a pleasure; if someone showed up at the door to say the house was built by the keeper of a Barbary Coast brothel, anyone’s interest would be piqued. This is just what happened in the late 1970s to the owners of two houses on Chenery Street just north of Roanoke. The visitor, a previous owner in the 1960s, told the present residents that their grand Victorian house was built by “Madame Constance” who had a boyfriend named “Rotten Tommy,” who lived in the “carriage house” next door.

Like most neighborhood lore, there were bits of truth mixed with small confusions. Research revealed the real person behind the handed-down story. In 1906 a woman named Rosa Constant left behind the keeping of downtown lodging houses forever, and bought (but did not build) the two houses and the large lot they sat on.

Why did the visitor recall Rosa’s surname slightly wrong? The answer lies in popular culture. There were three fictional “Madame Constance” characters that happened to be current during the 1960s and 1970s: Madame Constance is a character in Jean Giraudoux’s play “The Madwoman of Chaillot,” first produced in the 1940s, and made into a film with Katherine Hepburn in 1969; Madame Constance Bonacieux is a character in book The Three Musketeers, portrayed in the 1973 film by the same name by a corset-busting Raquel Welch; and the 1971 film “McCabe and Mrs Miller” featured Julie Christie as Madame Constance Miller, brothel keeper, pictured below.(1) An easy enough muddling of names for anyone to make.

https://www.moma.org/explore/inside_out/2014/05/20/robert-altmans-mccabe-mrs-miller/
Julie Christie as Madame Constance Miller in ‘McCabe and Mrs Miller’ 1971.

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