©2014 by Jane Frances Cryan
On a whim one October 2004 afternoon I visited an estate sale on 22nd Avenue between Kirkham and Lawton Streets and when I reached the address, much to my surprise, there behind a picket fence was a post-1906 earthquake cottage nestled beside a smallish version of the detested Richmond Special in which the sale was being held. 1
I stood before the little dovecote silently lamenting its condition, imagining it wasn’t long for this world and wishing that someone who loved cottages would buy it and bring it back to life.
San Francisco, particularly the once “uninhabitable outside lands” of the Sunset District, abounded in cottages and if I’d had my way I would have rescued every one of them from demolition. From 1982 through 1999 I took a pretty good shot at doing just that after I leased a cottage on 24th Avenue near Lincoln Way and discovered it was a merger of four earthquake refugee shacks, but now my once ardent preservation activism for San Francisco’s cottages was a “did I really do that?!” page in my life and the fight had gone out of me.
Nothing at the sale piqued my interest but while I was there I decided to look out a rear window to see if a garden still existed or, as seemed to be the trend, the land had been covered with cement. My curiosity yielded not only proof of vegetation but a lone refugee shack at the back of the next door lot.
I stood at the window utterly spellbound with my unexpected discovery. Should I report the shack to the Western Neighborhoods Project so it could be placed on the list of shack survivors it kept on its website? No sense doing that, I thought. The once sturdy relic of “the greatest charity the world [at the time] had known” was in terrible shape, quite ethereal in appearance, and passersby couldn’t see it given its obscured position on the lot. Now that I knew the shack was there, I decided that I'd walk by once in a while and send it a silent hello.
When I returned to my apartment I made a note on my calendar – “found ghost shack.” To give the ailing, almost one hundred and one year old cabin a little glory I added it to my personal list of twenty-nine other shack survivors and telephoned a fellow preservationist, Inge Horton, whom I knew was working on a survey of historic Sunset District properties. I wasn’t sure if the Sunset Architectural & Historical Resources Committee, of which Inge was chair, would be including the Sunset’s old cottages on its survey, but I thought that I’d let the Committee know of its existence.
The site was but a few blocks from my apartment and I strolled by often to deliver my regards to the cottages. One spring day in 2005 I knew the cottage and shack were in trouble when I was greeted with a big San Francisco Planning Department notice posted on the property. I raced home and telephoned the planner of record who assured me that the cottage and what the planner described as a “garden shed” in the back yard were to be rehabilitated, not demolished.
Excitedly, I telephoned Inge with the good news. “Guess what! Someone has bought the cottage property I called you about last year and they’re not going to tear it down, they’re going to restore it!”
“I hope so, but it sounds like a serial demolition to me,” Inge replied.
A former City planner far more knowledgeable than I in such matters, I knew that Inge was probably right. My enthusiasm over the resurrection of the cottage, and perhaps the shack, decidedly dampened and I decided to avoid the block during my walks around the neighborhood.
Two years went by and one afternoon in January 2007 curiosity got the best of me. Steeling myself against the disappointment I was sure would come, I headed for 22nd Avenue where I beheld one of the great surprises of my life. The cottage looked exactly as it had for decades but it had been clothed in a fresh set of wood shingles, a new roof, glistening window panes, a rebuilt staircase and porch and the beginnings of a wonderful garden behind a white picket fence. The little house now brimmed with life and the labors of observably doting caretakers.
In April 2007, before I was priced out of San Francisco and returned to the Middle West, Inge Horton and I paid a call on the property, met with the owners and were given a tour inside and out.
We found both cottages exquisitely and sympathetically rehabilitated and, best of all, the shack at the back of the lot now looked like a tiny crown jewel, a ghost shack no more.
Fast forward to 2014 when one day, as I ploughed through my prose-in-progress files, I discovered this unfinished account. Reading what I'd written I was, momentarily and happily transported back to The City and I thought that WNP might like to add the story to the shack section on its website so I shot a copy through the air to Woody LaBounty who replied, sure, he'd put my ghost shack reminiscence on WNP's website.
I also contacted Inge Horton to find out if there were new developments concerning the site and she told me that “unfortunately her Committee could not include the earthquake-era cottages on its survey because the area being surveyed and documented was the former Oceanside neighborhood and the cottages were not within its boundaries.”
Inge further said, “I recently visited the property and was again stunned by the beautiful renovation of the front cottage and the rear shack and the lovingly maintained landscaping in the front and rear yards.”
Historic preservationists, and of course Inge Horton and I, send one thousand thanks to the owners of this formerly ghost shack property for demonstrating to us the possibilities of resurrecting old dwellings and greening the sand dunes on which they stand.
Jane Cryan was the original savior of earthquake refugee shacks. In the 1980s she founded The Society For The Preservation & Appreciation Of San Francisco’s 1906 Earthquake Refugee Shacks, which succeeded in getting 1227-24th Avenue designated a city landmark, having two earthquake cottages relocated from the Richmond District for preservation in the Presidio, and raising public consciousness on the story and existence of the 1906 earthquake refugee cottage plan.
1. The front cottage is specifically one built as part of the "Grant and Loan Plan" created by San Francisco to spur resettlement after the earthquake by providing applicants with money and floorplans.
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