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.
Sunnyside Conservatory is this neighborhood’s only city landmark, and certainly our premier historical treasure. People who have never heard of Sunnyside come from all over the Bay Area to get married or celebrate other events in its beautifully restored building and grounds. But who was the man who built it? Some history has been written about him, but not all of it has been complete or accurate; the roles his two wives played in the story have also not been fully told.
William Augustus Merralls with his first wife Lizzie A. Merralls built the Sunnyside Conservatory about 1902. William was a prolific and creative inventor, turning his hand to everything from machinery for extracting gold to refrigerators to automobile starters, and registering over twenty patents in as many years. (Here is a full list.) The Conservatory was a special place to keep and display the many special plants he acquired on his travels.[i] He may have picked a modest neighborhood to settle down in, but his ideas and his ambitions knew few limits. Read more
The account below by Phyllis Jensen Marklin of being a child growing up in a little house on Congo Street, on the Sunnyside/Glen Park border, includes some fabulous details–the sort of domestic history that is all too often lost with the passage of time. She wrote it when she was in her sixties. Her daughter has graciously given me permission to reproduce it here, along with a photo that includes the family in front of their house at 511 Congo Street.
Her parents Axel and Olga Jensen came originally from Arhus, Denmark, but lived in Canada for years before coming to San Francisco. Although not all the children stayed in the neighborhood, Phyllis’s brother Gordon made his home as an adult just a few blocks down Congo. I’ll tell that story in a future post.
When Sunnyside was laid out in 1891, there was no provision for any public park or open space built into the plans—just rectangular blocks filled with edge-to-edge lots for building (see this early map). To put it in perspective, many more basic matters of infrastructure in the neighborhood were lacking for years: there were no streetlights or sewers, the roads were dirt, and the water supply spotty, even into the 1920s. It was not until the 1960s that Sunnyside got a park of its own.
The death of a dairy woman near Sunnyside, run down by a speeding Southern Pacific train as she took her cows across the tracks to better pasture, captured the attention and the hearts of San Franciscans in 1896. A reporter showed that to keep to their schedule, SP drivers were required to break the law daily by exceeding the City speed limit—often speeding to four times the limit on the downhill patch of pastoral land where Ellen Furey grazed her cows. One young girl witnessed the collision, and spoke bravely before the press and the coroner, revealing the hegemonic company’s lies.
We have lost a few bits of the original streets.The blocks laid out by the surveyor in 1891 were perfectly rectangular and the streets die-straight. All the better to milk maximum profits from the sale of lots–no extra wedge-shaped bits, or wasteful little parks to clutter up the profit landscape. But reality meant changes had to be made in that rigid map in the course of building out the neighborhood in the twentieth century.
In 1913 someone who was far from home, new to the City, and despairing of his future came to a lonely hilltop in Glen Park to do away with himself. But he didn’t count on the appearance of a local man, Hugo Ekenberg of 400 Joost Ave, who would save his life. The “knoll” where it probably happened is one of our hidden treasures, the rocky outcropping now called Dorothy Erskine Park, at the top of Baden Street.
Here is the news report in the San Francisco Call (19 April 1913):
The first dedicated schoolhouse to be built for the neighborhood was neither big enough nor safe enough to serve the needs of families in Sunnyside in the long term, but for 18 years it was a busy and productive place. During this time, Sunnyside emerged as a vital neighborhood, no longer ignored by City government and able to garner its share of public monies. Community and parental involvement was effective and intense, centered on a newly founded PTA. Then a group of mothers helped bring to the City’s attention the schoolhouse’s dangers and inadequacies. When it came time to build a replacement, rather than drag the process out for a decade, as the City had with the first provisional school in a cottage, that new building went up in just a few years.
Despite the profiteers who sold lots in Sunnyside in the early 1890s primarily as investments, families did move here, and they had children–often lots of them. But there was no school. Then they were given only a rented cottage for a one-class school. The story of how long it took before the district finally built a real schoolhouse here is a lesson in both City government corruption and the perseverance of the early residents. [This is the first in a series of posts about the school. Here is the second one.]