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Moving the Victorians

The Redevelopment Agency engineered the move of Victorians to new locations.

By CARLO MIDDIONE

In the late 1960s and early ’70s, I worked at San Francisco’s Redevelopment Agency in my desire to conquer the world’s ills and to help make people safer, happier and more comfortable.

Long before my wife Lisa and I opened our restaurant Vivande on Fillmore Street, which we operated for three decades, I was the supervisor of community relations for the A-2 project in the Western Addition. My primary job was to make friends with the community and garner support for Redevelopment Agency programs — and to make sure residents knew what the programs were for and what they were supposed to do for them, even though this proved to generate plenty of conflict at times. 

Some programs were good, like homemaking, which included learning to sew so that new curtains could be made at a fraction of the cost of buying them; learning furniture refinishing; learning nutritious cooking methods and selecting food to reflect the highest yield of nutrition for the money spent, with easier and more cheerful ways to cook that removed the drudge factor. 

Child care was always at the fore. There were so many children, and parents at risk of being too tired and frustrated raising them that they had no time or energy for anything else. Then there were programs to encourage folks to attend classes day or night at local schools to improve their job prospects or simply to study subjects that might interest them.

As time wore on and my interplay with many families and agencies and entities increased, along came The Move. 

Apparently I had then a certain amount of charm, with a kind of persuasiveness and a dogged determination to get things done. This made me anathema to some agency staff, who for the most part liked me, but not too much. What they did like, though, was that I was never at a loss for words and that I had little trouble letting my views be heard and read. Sometimes I was the messenger boy, delivering often unpopular demands or ideas of what the agency should or could do to make life easier for the inhabitants of our
project.

You would think moving a gigantic, antique, rickety but baroquely fancy Victorian building would be daunting and scary. But when you worked so closely with the urban cowboys — also known as house movers — who did the actual moving, you quickly got the hang of it. 

I never actually pulled a house along, or cut it off its foundation, or mounted it on cribs and beams, or attached a truck or tractor. But I got to coordinate every single facet of the move from letting the contracts to cajoling the police and fire departments — and of course the Department of Public Works — into walking along the street the night of the actual move with a hard hat and a flashlight, like a cheerleader urging the team to victory. Then there were the other players on the field I had to coordinate with, such as PG&E and the telephone company. 

I’m not talking about moving one building, but 29 of them over a two-and-a-half year span.

Carlo Middione later opened his restaurant, Vivande, on Fillmore Street.

The agency head who hired me, Justin Herman, was a man of many words and even more action. We got along like buddies in a Western movie, but he was always The Boss, no doubt about that. His vision was a flat buildable space after the ravaging of the bulldozers tore down and chewed up every single piece of physical history so that new developers could come in with tinkertoy, erector set spaces that humans would somehow occupy. I liked my end of the work — helping folks get to a better place spiritually, intellectually and even physically when the time was right — rather than Justin’s work, which was essentially land brokering.

In time, with the dedicated help of many people inside the agency, including Enid Sales and Susan Bragstad — and even more outside such as G.G. Plat and Charles Page of San Francisco Heritage — a certain number of important Victorian buildings were chosen to be saved and go on the National Register of Historic Places as examples of the era. 

And not all Victorians were torn down. Many areas had, and still have, non-historic status Victorians that were rehabilitated and are magnificent examples of architecture and layout still highly useable in the 21st century. We simply should have more.

When the Victorians to be moved were selected, we had to find appropriate lots to contain them. Sometimes that meant tearing down one to make room for another. 

Before a move, the urban cowboys would first remove the boards covering the mudsill and part of the foundation of the buildings. Beams of steel or heavy wood were inserted under the building to support it. The studs were cut to detach the structure from the mudsill. Jacks were set under the beams, and the structure was lifted a little bit at a time, usually a few inches on one side and then a few inches on the opposite side, until the structure was clear of the foundation. Then some earth was removed from under the building to allow cribs to be built while the details of the move were arranged. The beams would be lowered onto the cribs, which were boxes made of heavy wood that could be stacked until more preparation was done. Without this system, jacks must remain under the beams. Sometimes the houses stayed in mid-air, frozen in time for months — in some cases for years.

When moving a house, the path had to be clear of all obstacles. Routes needed to be chosen so that overhead trolley and bus lines did not have to be removed; otherwise the cost could be horrendous. In the late 1970s, there were still plenty of telephone lines and electric power lines running across streets. These had to be cut and decommissioned to let the house roll down the road, then reinstalled. It was back-breaking, time-consuming work. With some homes moving from Turk and Gough to Sutter and Fillmore, many blocks of travel were involved.

I was particularly proud when we moved a four-unit Victorian from the corner of Eddy Street kitty-corner to another lot on Steiner. All the arrangements had been made: police, fire, telephone company, DPW and PG&E were informed and all miraculously cooperated. 

The house on dollies was attached to the tractor. The wheezing and groaning and squeaking and creaking meant that movement had begun. It is really dramatic and exhilarating to see such a sight. 

The one thing no one could have possibly thought of was the deficient space between two wooden power poles on opposite sides of the street. The building swung out over the curb and onto the street at such an angle that it immediately jammed between the two poles. Forcing the building to move forward would have toppled at least one pole; backing up was not an option. 

But here is where my intuitive engineering skills flowed forth. I asked PG&E to send two of the heaviest-duty trucks they had, along with long lengths of steel strand cables. I had them strap the cables high up on one of the poles and then attach them to the two trucks. Then in tandem, the trucks slowly and gently pulled the pole back enough that the house squeaked through. This whole thing took up the better part of a day. I walked around with a puffy chest.

Several times we moved anywhere from four to six houses in a night. With the streets cleared and the work lights on the houses, it was eerie and otherworldly. Most people were silhouettes; it was as quiet as a graveyard. The only disruptions were drivers unaware of the house move who would come barreling down the street to be stared down by a grand old lady with wooden lace not giving way. 

One night, when the houses from Franklin and Golden Gate were lined up and moving like an elephant train, an obviously drunk man crossed the barriers, drove through our security guards sporting bright yellow jackets and hardhats and somehow got himself caught between two massive Victorians. He was unable to get out in any direction, front, back or sideways. I whistled for the caravan to stop mid-block and called in the police. As we moved to another cross street, they got him out of the caravan and off to jail. He simply could not believe what was happening.

After the project was finished, many beautiful and important Victorian buildings had been saved. Some scattered here and there in the A2 project are breathing life and projecting the past with dignity, acknowledging bygone craftsmanship and setting a tone of the city in its heyday. 

A group of these charming old girls make up what is now called Victorian Village on Fillmore Street between Sutter and Post. Sometimes, modern-thinking folks wonder why one would want to retain and even embellish museum quality art works in the form of buildings. But no other works of art are alive with community life while also preserving a historical picture of important and beautiful times past.

VIDEO: “On moving Victorians
VIDEO: “On working for Justin Herman
MORE PHOTOS: Victorian house moves