BOOKS | JOE PECORA
Very soon after I moved to the historic and architecturally rich Alamo Square neighborhood in 1979, the untold stories of its vintage housing stock piqued my curiosity. When I could discover very little photographic or written material, I began my own research and eventually composed old house profiles for the Alamo Square Neighborhood Association newsletter from the 1990s on. By personally contacting descendents of the early owners and occupants of these antique residences and institutional buildings, I was able to secure a wonderful trove of previously unpublished photos and family stories.
The sequence of the profiles was dictated by whichever homeowner in the neighborhood would agree to host an association meeting in their home. In exchange the owners would receive a house history by me and a drawing by former architect Jack Walsh.
Now I have gathered these profiles, drawings and photographs into a new book called The Storied Houses of Alamo Square.
Many of the homes in the Alamo Square Historic District were designed by some of the city’s most prominent architects and contractor-builders for a clientele that included a number of the downtown’s prosperous businessmen. Several families residing here were listed in the pages of Our Society Bluebook. Except for the handful of large 20th century apartment buildings, our housing inventory shows a similarity of scale and building materials that evokes a pedestrian-friendly, residential atmosphere.
With little effort, one can imagine the neighborhood as it was in earlier times: surfaced with cobblestone streets and plank sidewalks, illuminated at night by gaslights, traversed by cable or horse car and populated by a citizenry more formally dressed than today’s.
Of the vintage residences and institutional buildings featured in the book, the earliest, the Abner Phelps House, was built in the 1850s and the latest, the Harris House, in 1933. The majority are Victorians (dating from 1852 to 1901) predominantly in the Italianate, San Francisco Stick and Queen Anne styles, but also include examples of other types such as the Tudor, Chateauesque, Beaux Arts, and Second Empire. Next in chronology and number is an elegant Edwardian-era inventory (1901–1910) influenced by American Colonial Revival and Neo-Classical forms. A few of the more recent buildings, dating from the 1930s, incorporate Art Deco, Spanish and Mission Revival features. Together they form a diverting collection of structures that reflect the rapidly changing architectural fashions and tastes of the late 19th and early 20th century.
Although there is a good representation of dwellings from the 1870s, they are eclipsed in number by those erected during a building boom of the 1880s that coincided with the arrival of the cable and horse cars down Hayes and McAllister Streets. A majority of the last available vacant parcels were filled in during the 1890s and the early 1900s. Often this entailed developing the side gardens of large estates. Later, usually in the 1920s, multi-story apartment buildings such as the one on the northeast corner of Steiner and Hayes Streets replaced some of the area’s grander homes.
Several of the sites documented in the book, such as the Sans Souci Roadhouse, the Goodall Mansion and the Anchor Brewery, although demolished and largely forgotten, were prominent landmarks in their time and are noteworthy for their important role in the Alamo Square neighborhood’s past.
Alamo Square, a 12½-acre hilltop expanse of park at the heart of the neighborhood, dates from the 1850s. Among its attractions is its much admired iconic view of a nearly identical row of 19th century gabled Queen Anne style cottages set in artful contrast to the city skyline.
In the last 30 years or so, the Alamo Square neighborhood has undergone a slow but steady transformation. Today there is a growing population of middle class families with children, a handsome inventory of largely restored and well-kept historic homes, and a park that has become one of the city’s main attractions. This is a far cry from a time when, with much of its vintage residential stock in disrepair or condemned, it was unsafe to walk its largely deserted streets at night. Alamo Square did not then have adequate lighting, functioning restrooms, tennis courts or an updated play area.
Since its mid-19th century beginnings, the Alamo Square neighborhood has experienced many demographic transformations: once mainly the domain of German, English and Irish Catholic immigrants, it evolved, especially after the 1906 earthquake and fire, into a much more cosmopolitan district attracting not only a great influx of Jewish families, but people from throughout Europe. Significant numbers of Russians arrived in the 1920s, and on the northern borders there were a few Asian families, primarily Japanese. World War II brought a large migration of African-Americans from the South seeking work in the local shipyards.
The neighborhood reached its nadir in the 1960s when the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency, which had already bulldozed large tracts of the Western Addition’s vintage properties in the Fillmore District, readied plans to raze the deteriorating structures of the Alamo Square area.
By then, many of the original families had fled to the suburbs, and several of the grander homes they vacated were converted into boarding houses, rest homes, hippie “pads” or institutional uses. On the other hand, its large stock of inexpensive, spacious and ornately crafted fixer-uppers, many of which had splendid views, attracted preservation-minded gays and a few middle-class families to the area. The new pioneers, finding common cause with an older guard that had never left, banded together in 1963 to form the Alamo Square Neighborhood Association. Protecting and maintaining the park, securing safe streets, and thwarting the Redevelopment Agency’s goal of leveling the neighborhood were their prime objectives. Through their efforts, federal loans of 3 percent helped residents bring their dwellings up to city code requirements.
There are many other houses whose stories remain untold. They patiently await another researcher’s attention.
The Storied Houses of Alamo Square is available at Browser Books at 2195 Fillmore Street.