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Brown Bag broke all the rules

Michael May took the owner’s ideas and turned them into windows.

FLASHBACK | JO MANCUSO

The windows at the Brown Bag, the quirky office supply store long on the corner at 2000 Fillmore Street, were the topic of an item in Image magazine in 1991:

This is the store that breaks all the rules. Its Fillmore Street windows are really shadow boxes, maybe 4 feet square but only about 6 inches deep, so the displays look more like collages. The employees, all collectors of various kinds, bring their own stuff in to use as props. The store itself, which is supposed to be a stationery shop, sells dishes and tiny plastic eyeballs.

“We don’t want to be commercial,” says owner Dawn Christensen. “There’s nothing I won’t buy.” She is considering a “national mammogram week” window this spring using greeting cards with voluptuous Victorian women.

Employee Michael May takes Christensen’s ideas and turns them into windows. A scissors window. A cowboy window. A magnet window. A recent gold window included crowns, swans, pencils, dice, stamp holders and doilies. “It’s a far cry from forming men’s suits,” says May, a former men’s retail display worker.

“We don’t just pull merchandise from the store — we buy things for the windows and then sell them,” says Christensen.

A window sometimes has a hidden message, she says, but “the people who would be offended don’t get it.”

EARLIER: “Practical supplies and wildly impractical baubles

From the ashes of St. Paul’s

Grand Central Market at 2435 California Street shortly after it opened in June 1941.

ARCHITECTURE | BRIDGET MALEY

Since it opened in June 1941, touted as the city’s “newest drive-in market,” the Grand Central Market, now Mollie Stone’s, at 2435 California Street, has been a bustling neighborhood grocery.

The News Call Bulletin declared that “a program of entertainment would signalize its opening.” A photograph appearing with the article showed a gleaming white building with a black tile base and a Streamline Moderne blade sign. There were two entrances on California Street and one facing west toward the parking lot, for customers who took advantage of the readily available parking. This modern grocery was inserted into a block that had once housed a stately Episcopal church.

The south side of the 2400 block of California Street looked drastically different in 1915 when it was mapped by the Sanborn Fire Insurance Company. At the southwest corner of California and Fillmore Streets was a drugstore with apartments above it. Several other businesses, including a Japanese laundry, were west of the drug store along California Street. Mid-block there were several small single family dwellings and the imposing St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. At the southeast corner of California and Steiner were two additional small-scale store buildings.

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church

St. Paul’s, designed by the architect Samuel Newsom, was a small ecclesiastical building with a steeply pitched main gable and a red stone facade. The church, which was completed in 1896, burned in 1933, and several adjacent residences, also owned by the Episcopal Church, were damaged by the fire. The church was not rebuilt and the land then became available for commercial development.

The architect of the Grand Central Market was Albert W. Burgren, who was at the twilight of his career when he designed this modern grocery. Burgren, who was born in San Francisco in 1876 to Swedish parents, began a prolific partnership with T. Paterson Ross in 1900 that lasted until 1913. Their projects included a number of hotels and apartment buildings built after the 1906 earthquake, as well as the iconic Sing Fat Building in Chinatown. After his split with Ross, Burgren opened his own office, but continued some collaborative work until Ross was severely injured in 1922 at a construction site. Burgren served in Europe during World War I, returning to San Francisco and working mostly in commercial architecture until his death in 1951 after a long and prolific career.

The Grand Central Market included a meat counter run by the Petrini family, which also had counters at the Lick Super, Sunset Market and Manor Market. Petrini’s was established in 1935 by Frank Petrini, who immigrated from Lucca, Italy, at the age of 12, and was known to have the best meats in Northern California. Petrini’s advertisements are remembered for their inspiring quotes, which also appeared on walls and signs throughout the stores. The quotes were published in a collection in 1992 titled The Proverbs of Frank Petrini: Food for Thought.

The Grand Central Market became Mollie Stone’s in 1998, one of nine stores across the Bay Area. When the new owners remodeled the building, Mollie Stone’s kept the Grand Central blade sign, with some modifications.

Elite no more

Photograph of the Elite Cafe on Fillmore Street by Daniel Bahmani

FILLMORE BEAT | CHRIS BARNETT

Long a Fillmore Street landmark, the historic Art Deco building housing the Elite Cafe has been bought by the two saloon and restaurant investors who own Harry’s Bar across the street, and the Elite will close on Easter Sunday, April 21, after a 38-year run.

Rick Howard, who’s already an investor in the Elite, and his business partner, George Karas, say they pounced on the property when a 100-year-old family trust expired.

Originally it was called the Lincoln Grill. Later it was renamed the Asia Cafe and was a popular chop suey parlor until the SFPD vice squad busted the place for running a gambling operation in the basement. The tipoff: PacBell told the cops the Asia had 40 phone lines but no takeout service.

Originally it was called the Lincoln Grill, but until its final years it looked much the same.

After being boarded up for a while, it was rescued in 1981 by Bay Area restaurant impresario Sam DuVal — who beat out Jeremiah Tower, later to open Stars — and reinvented the space as a New Orleans Cajun-style eatery, saloon and oyster bar that would be called the Elite Cafe. DuVal’s instincts were perfect. With a well-traveled, free-spending Pacific Heights crowd just north of him, the Elite took off like a shot — and, with the opening of Fillamento a block north, spurred the transformation of upper Fillmore into an increasingly upscale shopping and dining district.

There have been three proprietors since Sam, including current owner Andy Chun, who made the place modern when he took over three years ago by ripping out many of the traditional furnishings and fixtures and painting the woodwork black and battleship gray. “They ruined it,” DuVal groused.

The restaurant is on the market and two competing suitors, one a prominent Italian restaurateur, are said to be vying to take over. Chun said his lease required him to continue operating as the Elite Cafe, but there will be no such requirement this time.

EARLIER: “There’s a reason they call it the Elite

The Elite Cafe quickly became a hotspot after it opened in 1981.

Celebrating the neighborhood

WE ARE DELIGHTED to announce the publication of a lavish new book of stories and photographs celebrating one of the world’s great neighborhoods: our own.

This collector’s edition pulls together favorite articles and images from our pages of some of the people and places that make the neighborhood special. We hoped to create a book worthy of the neighborhood, but may have gotten a little carried away: This is a 268-page oversize extravaganza published by a meticulous local publisher, Norfolk Press.

It is available at Browser Books at 2195 Fillmore Street, or order by mail here.

PREVIEW THE BOOK

Three temples on Geary

At rear, tops of the Fillmore Auditorium, Beth Israel temple and Masonic temple in 1946.

LANDMARKS | BRIDGET MALEY

Since 1904, the south side of Geary between Fillmore and Steiner has been graced with a series of temples: a fraternal temple, a temple of worship and a majestic temple of entertainment. It’s a tale of three buildings, two earthquakes and one dangerously zealous religious leader, along with many other characters and stories. Only one of the temples remains today.

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Jonestown started here

The Peoples Temple was located in a former Scottish Rite temple on Geary Boulevard where the post office now stands.

FORTY YEARS AGO this month, on November 18, 1978, 909 men, women and children — many of them members of the Peoples Temple from the Fillmore neighborhood — died in the jungle of South America after ingesting a mix of cynanide, sedatives and Flavor Aid fruit drink at the urging of their leader, Rev. Jim Jones.

It was set in motion here, and two programs this month commemorate the tragedy with local roots:

• On Wednesday, November 7, the California Historical Society will present a program featuring historians, academics and survivors at its headquarters at 678 Mission Street. “Discussing Peoples Temple: Understanding the Social, Cultural and Political Influences on the Peoples Temple Movement” starts at 6 p.m.

• On Sunday, November 18, a “Day of Atonement in the Fillmore” is planned, beginning at 1:45 in front of the U.S. Post Office on Geary near Fillmore, where the Peoples Temple once stood. It includes a march down Fillmore to the mini park between Turk and Golden Gate and numerous guest speakers.

A LAUDED RECENT BOOK by journalist Jeff Guinn, The Road to Jonestown, aims to tell the definitive story of Jim Jones and Jonestown. Guinn reports that Jones and his followers first came to the Fillmore in 1968 from their compound in Redwood Valley, up in Mendocino County, where they had earlier relocated from Indiana.

“Stories about an upcoming event in San Francisco caught Jones’s eye,” Guinn writes. “Macedonia Baptist, one of the city’s major black churches, announced a memorial service honoring Martin Luther King Jr.”

About 150 of Jones’s followers came with him to San Francisco to attend the service, all entering the church on Sutter Street near Steiner together, a sea of white faces in a black church. Friendships were formed and visits exchanged. Jones was later invited to offer guest sermons at the church, which were widely advertised.

“Beginning in 1970,” Guinn writes, “Jones conducted San Francisco services that were no longer directly affiliated with Macedonia Baptist. His preferred venue was the auditorium at Franklin Junior High on Geary Boulevard and Scott Street.”

Then, Peoples Temple “acquired an old multistory building at 1859 Geary Boulevard in San Francisco, a yellow-brick structure in the Fillmore District. The building had a large auditorium with a seating capacity of about 1,800. . . . The Temple paid $122,500, and renovation cost an additional $50,000 to $60,000.”

“It was in the right location,” Guinn writes. “Jones set up for business there.”

A business from the Old Fillmore

The Neuhaus Brothers clothing store at 1806 Fillmore Street.

By HOWARD FREEDMAN

At age 95, neighborhood resident Jerry Neuhaus is one of the last surviving business owners who operated in the Fillmore District before it was demolished by the Redevelopment Agency in the 1960s. And he’s still nearby — only four blocks from the clothing store he and his family ran for decades at Fillmore and Sutter.

Neuhaus was born in 1922 in Spangenberg, a small town in central Germany, where his father ran a department store. As conditions deteriorated rapidly for Jews in Hitler’s Germany, an aunt and uncle who had earlier come to San Francisco urged his family to join them here.

Neuhaus managed to leave Germany with his mother, father and sister in 1937, bringing along a sacred Torah scroll. Jews who were able to escape could bring little money with them. But some people in the know suggested they bring Leica cameras, which were in high demand in the United States.

Once in San Francisco, they were able to sell the cameras and use the proceeds to get established. His uncle helped Jerry’s father start a clothing store, Neuhaus Brothers, at 1806 Fillmore, just north of the corner of Sutter Street.

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A test of faith

Rev. Debra Low-Skinner is vicar of Christ Church Sei Ko Kai on Alta Plaza Park.

By FRAN MORELAND JOHNS

“Our congregation reflects San Francisco,” says Senior Warden Gordon Park-Li of historic Christ Episcopal Church Sei Ko Kai, which graces the corner of Pierce and Clay Streets across from Alta Plaza Park’s grand staircase.

On any given Sunday, its small, warm sanctuary welcomes Japanese Americans, Chinese Americans and Americans of assorted other heritages. In a neighborhood where houses sell in the multiple millions, the stately Victorian home of Christ Church offers a unique link to the good and the bad of San Francisco’s past, as well as its constantly changing future.

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The Brown Bag served up an eclectic mix

Treasures from the Brown Bag, the emporium and office supply store at 2000 Fillmore.

FLASHBACK | BARBARA WYETH

Every time I walk past the corner of Fillmore and Pine, I am transported back to the Brown Bag, the stationery store that was a mainstay on the northeast corner for many years.

Back in the day, I owned a small business in North Beach, but was struggling. I met Dawn, one of Brown Bag’s owners, when I was helping out on weekends at the nearby California Street Creamery. We had become friendly, and when I decided to quit my store, Dawn offered me a job at the Brown Bag.

I’d had ongoing connections with the Fillmore neighborhood since moving to San Francisco, so working at the Brown Bag seemed like a good fit. I loved its eclectic mix of practical supplies and wildly impractical baubles. It reminded me of the old-fashioned 5 & Dime in my Midwestern hometown. The place even included the smell of bacon wafting in from the Chestnut Cafe next door.

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The mystery of the three lamp posts

Three old-style lamp posts on Fillmore are dedicated to Katie Flavel. But who was she?

LOCAL HISTORY | JOE BEYER

For nearly a century, three lamp posts on the sidewalk in front of Calvary Presbyterian Church have added enlightenment on the busy corner of Fillmore and Jackson.

The two on either side have plaques attached dedicating them to the memory of Katie Flavel, who apparently died on August 19, 1910. But there is no record she was ever a member of Calvary.

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