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.
Once the site of a landmark rock so large it merited its own mark on early maps, there was an area of rich farmland used for growing food and raising animals into the 1920s located just east of Sunnyside and south of the present Glen Park Bart Station. It is now lost under the kilotons of concrete that make up the I-280/San Jose Ave interchange.
The expansion of public transit meant everything to quality of life for most people in SF in the first half of the twentieth century: where you could work, live, or take your family for a Sunday outing. The streetcar system, running on tracks radiating from downtown, was the backbone of the system. Then in 1917 Municipal Railway initiated its first bus service, which went through Golden Gate Park and out Irving Street into the Avenues.
In 1929 this route was combined with another line then running in Westwood Park, which created Muni bus no.1, the first real cross-town line. It ran from Edna Street and Monterey Blvd, over Miraloma and Portola Drives, stopping at Forest Hill Station, going through Golden Gate Park, and ending at Fulton and 10th Avenue.
Who would site “the Largest and Most Important City Subdivision” next to an extensive and notorious jail compound? That’s what Behrend Joost did in 1890 when he bought a portion of the land Leland Stanford was selling off then to create the Sunnyside district. The choicer cuts went to other investors; this was no Stanford Heights (later Miraloma Park), perched on Mt Davidson. (Joost’s true aim was to be Baron of the Electric Rails, in any case.)
There had been a jail there in some form or another since the 1850s; the city originally bought the 100-acre House of Refuge lot in 1854, when it was far, far from the city. Read more
In February 1906 at the Wilson farmhouse on Gennessee Street in Sunnyside, a woman suffered a brutal attack by a robber on a Friday afternoon. The attacker got away by running into the thick grove of eucalyptus trees nearby. The whole neighborhood was involved in the hunt for the man. The news reports about the incident tell us a lot about Sunnyside in that year – including something of its largely untold dairy history, as well as the lay of the land. The house where it happened still stands today, at the SE corner of Gennessee St and Joost Ave (where it recently sold for almost $2m).
“Defenseless Woman is Beaten Brutally by Robber” SF Chronicle, 11 Feb 1906, p.21.
440 Gennessee Street, 2016. Photo: Amy O’Hair.
The house at 418 Gennessee (now 440 Gennessee), SF Chronicle, 11 Feb 1906, p21.
This is a family-friendly fun event for anyone with an interest in the amazing history of the city.Glen Park Neighborhoods History Projectwill be there, and Sunnyside will have its own table. There are projects covering so many neighborhoods and aspects of local history that it is hard to take it all in in one day. Fortunately, the event goes for two days, Saturday and Sunday, 4 & 5 March 2017. http://sfhistorydays.org/
In the course of researching a house in Sunnyside I happened onto a woman named Jean E. de Greayer, whose story turned out to lead me into some interesting corners of San Francisco history, including the establishment of the women’s court during the Progressive Era. Although she was only tangentially connected with this neighborhood, her photo in the newspaper in 1913 captured my imagination.
Although a sparsely populated neighborhood during the decades around the turn of the last century, Sunnyside had both a streetcar—San Francisco’s first electric car—and a Southern Pacific steam train running along its eastern border. The two lines crossed at an oblique angle, just south of Monterey blvd and Joost Ave—an area now disappeared by the excavations for I-280. It was referred to as the Sunnyside crossing, and was a notorious site of fatalities and injuries during these years.