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New life for an old library

The library’s majestic former reading room is now available as an event space.

By CHRIS BARNETT

 One of the neighborhood’s enduring architectural treasures has been resurrected and a mystery is solved — almost. 

The 107-year-old Beaux Arts four-story Health Sciences Library on the corner of Webster and Sacramento — which gave refuge to the smart and studious for decades, but has stood empty collecting cobwebs in recent years — is being reborn as a venue for “mission based” organizations and groups looking for conference and symposium space.

A designated San Francisco landmark once known as the Lane Library, the building at 2395 Sacramento Street is now owned by entrepreneurial software executive-turned-humanitarian Kamal El-Wattar and his wife, Anya, a Michelin-starred chef, restaurateur and wellness advocate. The couple bought it more than two years ago for a reported $9.5 million, but have been silent on their plans for the property. Until now.

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Pacific Heights Health Club ends its 35-year run

A retractable roof in the weight room has been one of the club’s distinctions.

PACIFIC HEIGHTS HEALTH CLUB, with its lofty-sounding name and low-key vibe — where designer workout garb is not required — will close its doors for the last time on November 27, the day before Thanksgiving, at precisely 3 p.m. 

Amy Lang, who took ownership of the club 15 years ago and appointed herself chief motivating officer, announced the move in a letter to members on November 1.

“San Francisco has changed. Retail has changed. The fitness industry has changed,” Lang said in an interview. 

The club’s personal training program will continue in the fitness center of the nearby 2000 Post Street apartments, between Steiner and Pierce.

Lang intends to focus, mostly in online sessions, on coaching women from 45 to 55 interested in weight loss — especially those in tech, who share her work roots.

A longtime neighborhood institution, the urban gym at 2356 Pine, just west of Fillmore, has gone through a number of incarnations. It opened in 1984 — when the city had only six health clubs — as a men-only club that offered massages, a hot tub, and was staffed with locker room attendants. It was frequented by a number of celebrity clients, including, for a time, John F. Kennedy Jr.

David Kirk opened the front part of the club to women when he took ownership in 1990. A dozen years later he opened the entire club to all. 

Fleeing a worklife in finance and tech, Amy Lang took over as owner in 2004, adding a cheeky sense of marketing along with yoga, Zumba and Pilates classes. Later she discontinued the classes and focused on small group training for older people, a change that didn’t sit well with some of the regulars. 

“It created a bit of a kerfuffle,” Lang acknowledges, but also revealed a deeper truth. “It was then that I realized the club is a better place for a person who is a do-it-yourself type of exerciser,” Lang says. “I didn’t know you don’t morph a health club into what you want it to be. But what I’ve learned now allows me to do what I’ve always wanted to do.”

Farmers market loses a pioneer

Albert Terry’s son-in-law Ephriam Walters on his final day at the Fillmore market.

PRODUCE FROM Terry Farms, picked just the day before, made its final appearance at the Fillmore Farmers Market on November 2 after owner Albert Terry died earlier in the week.

He was one of the original vendors when the market started in 2003 in the parking lot at Fillmore and Eddy, later to become the site of the Fillmore Heritage Center.

“He was there from the beginning,” said his daughter Lisa Terry-Walters. He had learned about the new market as a board member of the sponsoring Pacific Coast Farmers Market Association. 

“After going himself for the first couple of years, he started sending employees,” she said, but they soon wanted to quit. “It wasn’t worth it because they weren’t making enough even to cover the cost of going.”

So Terry started coming to Fillmore again and established an easy rapport with customers and the other farmers.

“He always knew that Fillmore was a special deal, and it became a market that was very personal for him,” his daughter said. “This is the only market he attended regularly himself.”

Terry Farms specialized in peaches — especially white varietals and old-fashioned clings — and pluots. In the fall there were grapes, persimmons and pomegranates.

A decade ago, Terry asked his son-in-law, the tough ex-Marine Ephriam Walters, to come with him to Fillmore. “So I cancelled my fishing trip and came,” Walters said. For the past five years, Walters has been in charge, and has built a strong base of customers who return every week for his fresh fruit and no-nonsense approach.

“When I got out of the Marines, it was hard for me to transition,” Walters said on his final Saturday morning at the Fillmore market, as he bade farewell to his regulars. “This market has helped me. It has changed so much, but a lot of these people I’ve been dealing with for 10 years.”

Walters said the market paid Terry’s medical bills in recent years as he battled heart disease and had to stay close to the ranch he farmed for 51 years in Denair, in Stanislaus County.

Now the family is putting the farm on the market.

“Our family is very hopeful the farm will be purchased by another farmer who will continue to be as passionate about the products the farm produces as my dad was,” said Terry’s daughter, and Ephriam’s wife, Lisa. “With any luck, they will be able to attend the Fillmore market.”

OBITUARY: Albert Leroy Terry (1938-2019)

Buster Keaton on Divisadero

A still from the opening scene of The Navigator, filmed in the neighborhood.

FILM | CLASSICS SHOT LOCALLY

Atop the crest of the hill on Divisadero Street, looking north between Pacific and Broadway, a car slowly makes a U-turn, then stops on the opposite side of the street. Buster Keaton filmed almost exclusively on Hollywood lots, but traveled to San Francisco to get this one shot. 

The first five minutes of The Navigator, from 1924, are among the funniest in the entire film. The opening gag introduces Keaton’s character to us as the rich bachelor Rollo Treadway, who wakes up with the bright idea that he should get married — immediately. The caption card reads: “He had completed all the arrangements — except to notify the girl.”

Treadway instructs his chauffeur to take him at once to his girlfriend’s house. The car starts and does a U-turn and stops across the street. Treadway exits clutching a hopeful bouquet of flowers and marches up the brick-lined steps. His girlfriend, played by Kathryn McGuire, is caught off guard by Treadway’s epiphany and rejects his offer of “Will you marry me?” with a “Certainly not!”

Dejected, Treadway slinks back down the steps to the street below and quietly informs his chauffeur that he won’t be needing the car; instead what he chiefly needs is a nice long walk to clear his mind. He then walks back across the lonely street to his own mansion. 

The hilarity of this scene only works due to its extravagance. In seconds, we learn that Rollo Treadway is a young man with more dollars than sense, coupled with a keen inability to read a situation. The fact that the chauffeur is not surprised in the least to be instructed to drive his boss a mere 180-degree turn across the street paints a picture of the blissful wastefulness of the young millionaire. Keaton’s brilliance was his ability to create a character no one could relate to, but with whom everyone would instantly sympathize.

The casual viewer will laugh at the scene, but the extravagance goes past the joke. Keaton picked this spot on Divisadero Street purely because the northerly crest prevented other structures from cluttering the scope of the scene. His minimalist vision makes this scene that much more endearing. It’s as if these two giant mansions and a few others exist all by themselves. That makes the fairy tale of the two young lovers that much sweeter, even when she rejects him. 

The ivy-choked mansion on the right, which was meant to belong to Rollo Treadway, is now sadly long gone, demolished in the 1930s. But his girlfriend’s mansion is still in place at 2505 Divisadero. Built in 1899, it was more recently known as Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett’s residence. It sold for $10 million three years ago, a price at which Rollo Treadway might barely blink an eye.

There is something magical and unique about the top of Divisadero Street. Buster Keaton saw it in 1924, and we can see it still.

— Mark Fantino

VIDEO: Buster Keaton goes for a ride in The Navigator

Alfred Hitchcock on Buchanan

The entry at Sacramento and Buchanan appears in Hitchcock’s Family Plot.

FILM | CLASSICS SHOT LOCALLY

Walking north on Buchanan Street across Sacramento, you hardly notice the home on the corner. Built in 1900, this sheepish three-story house seems to endeavor not to draw attention to itself. But Alfred Hitchcock saw it differently. It was here that he filmed climactic scenes of his very last film, Family Plot, released in 1976. 

It may never be considered one of Hitchcock’s greats. While it does include many of his trademark suspenseful moments and thrilling intrigue, Hitchcock injected a level of zaniness in this film he had not mastered. Barbara Harris and Bruce Dern play the out-of-their-element young couple dead set on uncovering the truth about an unclaimed family fortune, as well as an enormous diamond. But instead they get caught up in the sinister skulduggery of the shiny-toothed villain William Devane’s murderous schemes.

The main entrance of the corner home at Sacramento and Buchanan is used a couple of times in the film. Around the corner on Buchanan is the garage door (below) where some deliciously dastardly scenes take place. 

— Mark Fantino

From Alfred Hitchcock’s Family Plot.

Browser Books begins a new era

Longtime employee Fred Martin at the front desk at Browser Books on Fillmore.

THESE STORIES  almost always turn out wrong: the beloved neighborhood small business — especially if it’s an independent bookstore — shuts down.

But not this time. Browser Books, at 2195 Fillmore, got a new lease on life October 1 when the owners of Green Apple Books took the keys.

Green Apple — the new and used bookseller on Clement Street, which added a second store five years ago on 9th Avenue — promises the Browser name and staff will stay the same and the changes will be gentle.

“We’re proud to help shepherd the beloved Browser Books into the future,” said Green Apple co-owner Pete Mulvihill. “We’re coming in confidently but humbly.”

Green Apple will bring an infusion of operating capital and bookselling backbone, but most of the initial changes will be behind the scenes.

“We do plan some gradual improvements,” Mulvihill said. “I hope that six months from now people will walk in and say, ‘I always loved this store, and it’s even better now.’ ”

Browser Books was rescued by its fans last spring when a GoFundMe campaign almost immediately raised $76,241 to pay the debts of longtime owner Stephen Damon, who has been battling a terminal illness.

That kept the books coming and provided time to work out a longer-term solution. Manager Jordan Pearson led the effort, aided by local entrepreneurs Richard and Ben Springwater.

Green Apple takes over the remaining seven years of Browser’s lease. Owners Kevin Ryan and Mulvihill will be in the store on Saturday, October 19, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. for a “Meet the New Owners” celebration and an unveiling of Browser’s new T-shirts and tote bags.

The ’89 quake in the Fillmore

St. Rose Academy, at Pine and Pierce, was torn down after the 1989 earthquake.

ON OCTOBER 17, 1989, the Loma Prieta earthquake shook the Fillmore and the rest of the Bay Area. The neighborhood was spared major damage, but felt the effects of the quake in ways large and small. The most visible local damage was at St. Dominic’s Church, where the top of the tower was lost and the historic home of St. Rose Academy was razed.  

St. Rose Academy, a Catholic high school for girls, was completed only a few months before the 1906 earthquake, but survived — only to be torn down after the 1989 earthquake when seismic concerns were raised.

Katherine Petrin, an architectural historian, San Francisco native and St. Rose graduate, class of ’81, observes: “The feeling at the start of the 1989-90 school year was that St. Rose was experiencing some uncertainty. This was spurred in part by St. Ignatius College Prep becoming coeducational a few years earlier and the desire of the Dominican order to focus its educational mission at other facilities in Marin. After the October ’89 earthquake, many St. Rose alumnae were none too pleased when the Dominican Sisters claimed the building could not be seismically retrofitted.”

Soon several alumnae formed Save St. Rose!, a group advocating not necessarily for continued educational use, but that a compatible new use could be found for the building, generating income to pay for the project. Partnering with San Francisco Architectural Heritage, the Save St. Rose! group put forward a study, confirmed that federal and state funds were available and presented preservation alternatives to the city Planning Commission and the community.  However, on June 26, 1991, the San Francisco Board of Permit Appeals upheld the Planning Commission’s approval of a permit to demolish St. Rose. 

An earlier St. Dominic’s Church building was heavily damaged by the 1906 earthquake and later torn down and replaced by a new Gothic building in 1928. The highly decorative lantern that extended for decades from the top of its tower was damaged and removed after the ’89 quake. Flying buttresses were later added to strengthen the walls of the church and support its stained glass windows.

— Bridget Maley

The top of the tower at St. Dominic’s Church was damaged and removed.

READ MORE: Locals drew together after the quake at the Pacific Heights Bar & Grill, then a key community gathering place, which never recovered from the earthquake.

PacBag was the local gathering place

The PacBag reigned as the neighborhood’s living room for a decade.

By THOMAS REYNOLDS

Behind the crowds queueing up outside the hot new restaurant Noosh, on the corner of Fillmore and Pine, is a small brass plaque recalling an earlier incarnation of the space when it was home to the late and much-lamented Pacific Heights Bar & Grill.

The PacBag, as it was known, was a pioneering restaurant that reigned as the neighborhood’s living room for a decade.

“It was the neighborhood Cheers,” the bar on the television show where everybody knows your name, says Marilyn Fisher, a lawyer who lived nearby and was a regular.

“It was like Cheers,” agrees co-owner Susie Bashel. “People came in almost every day.”

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The lure of Fillmore Street

The home at 2561 Washington is between Fillmore Street and Alta Plaza Park.

REAL ESTATE | PATRICK BARBER

A PAIR OF recent home sales, both on Washington Street, highlight the fact that buyers are willing to sacrifice extra square footage for a highly walkable location.

The single-family homes at 2561 Washington Street and 3990 Washington Street each sold for $9.1 million during the second week of September. Though the two commanded an identical price, they differ greatly in size, with 3990 Washington boasting 10,000 square feet of living space — nearly double that of 2561 Washington, which clocks in at about 5,500 square feet. The smaller home changed hands in a brisk three days, while the larger took more than six months to sell.

A few facts explain why a substantially smaller home sold for the same price as a much larger one — and did it so much faster. First, 2561 Washington Street, which had been in the same family for decades, features beautifully proportioned rooms and a desirable open floor plan. Also, the home needs work, which offers the new owners the opportunity to re-envision it to their tastes and specifications.

Finally, there is the classic real estate mantra of location, location, location. While 3990 Washington Street sits on the far edge of Presidio Heights, which would make it necessary for owners to drive frequently, 2561 Washington is barely half a block from Fillmore Street, an easy stroll to dozens of local restaurants, boutiques and services.

Reminders of a local pharmacy empire

The tiles from Shumate’s Pharmacy remain at Blue Bottle Coffee on Fillmore.

LOCAL HISTORY | Story & Photographs by JOAN HOCKADAY

On the southwest corner of Fillmore and Jackson, the modern new home of Blue Bottle Coffee serves long lines of coffee lovers from early morning through late afternoon. 

Customers enter by stepping over vintage black and white tiles that spell out Shumate’s — a reminder that this was once a Shumate’s Pharmacy, one of 30 that for a time were spread throughout the city.

Each of the Shumate family pharmacies was located on a visible corner site in the city beginning in 1900, when the state issued a business license to Dr. Thomas Shumate.

The first pharmacy was at the corner of Divisadero and Sutter, only three blocks from the Shumate family home on a large corner lot at Pine and Scott Streets. The restored Shumate home and garden still remain at 1901 Scott Street. Thomas Shumate’s son, Dr. Albert Shumate, lived there until his death in 1998 at age 94.

The firm grew quickly after the 1906 earthquake and fire.

“Father was only a struggling doctor, so to speak, a physician, and owned one drugstore,” Dr. Albert Shumate said in an oral history recorded in 1978 for the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley. “The fire and earthquake in a way aided him. His store was not touched. Some of the drugstores downtown that were well established were destroyed. Some of them didn’t rebuild. Father said the earthquake really helped him financially because Divisadero Street, like Fillmore, became quite a center of the city after the earthquake.”

By 1933, the city directory listed 30 Shumate pharmacies on corners throughout the city, with a general office at 1640 Divisadero. All have since closed.

Recently two more new businesses have opened with vintage Shumate’s tiles intact.

Owner Claudio Villani at AltoVino at Mason and Pacific.

At the southeast corner of Mason and Pacific, along the cable car line, Italian wine connoisseur Claudio Villani recently purchased the corner site and christened his restaurant AltoVino. He soon connected the Shumate legacy in the tiles on his doorstep to his own mission. “We give you medicine and pleasure, too,” Villani said while watching cable cars grinding uphill outside his shop. “Food — that is medicine, and good and healthy, too.”

On the southwest corner of California Street and 23rd Avenue, another new eatery also retained the Shumate tiles on its doorstep.  

The entry tiles at Pearl 6101 at 6101 California Street.

Inside Pearl 6101 — the name a convenient reminder of the address at 6101 California Street — the decor is a throwback to the 1930s and 1940s. A wooden balcony remains from the original pharmacy.

“We designed it that way,” co-owner John Heffron said. As for saving the Shumate tiles, he says: “We liked it as a reminder of the history of San Francisco.”

Shumate’s Pharmacies listed in a 1933 city directory.