(Originally published in the Sunset Beacon, September 2002)
By Woody LaBounty
When Joan Laurino received notice from the Planning Department that the two cottages across the street may be demolished, she had no objection. "I've lived here since 1963 and they've always been rented out. The back one didn't even have heat and they're pretty beat up."
After hearing that the humble edifices are actually refugee shacks that sheltered homeless San Franciscans after the 1906 Earthquake and Fire, she's changed her mind: "If that's what they are, then they're historical, and shouldn't be torn down."
The Planning Department may agree. On August 13, they sent a letter to the owners that the shacks may be a historic resource and subject to California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) review.
Until her death last September, Ann F. Reich rented out 4229 and 4331 Kirkham Street for over 35 years. Her sons, Ronald and Jeffrey Reich, put the property on the market soon after, and in June applied to demolish the 96-year-old cottages.
After the 1906 Earthquake and Fire left thousands displaced and living in tent cities, the San Francisco Relief Corporation began building rows of small shacks at refugee camps. Union carpenters erected 5,610 homes of California redwood with fir floors and cedar-shingled roofs---all painted a park-bench green.
Residents paid $2 a month rent for the simple dwellings which cost $100-$135 to build. By August of 1907, the Relief Corporation had started selling the shacks to residents who carted them to empty lots as "starter" homes. Thousands of shacks dotted the city, and some were hauled as far as the Central Valley. Many owners connected two or three shacks together on lots to form larger residences.
That is the case on Kirkham Street, says Jane Cryan, founder of the Society for the Preservation and Appreciation of San Francisco's Refugee Shacks. "The two cottages are actually four refugee shacks cobbled together: three 10' by 14' 'Type A' shacks---and only 500 of those little guys were built---and one bigger 'Type B.'"
In the 1980s, Cryan, fought well-publicized battles to save the earthquake shacks that remained in the city. In 1984 she succeeded in getting the Sunset District's other remaining refugee shack site at 1227 24th Avenue designated an official San Francisco landmark. In a 1997 survey, she reported that of the 5,343 shacks moved from camps, only 19 remained standing on 10 sites.
"If these go down it would be a terrible loss. That leaves just 15 shacks grand total in the whole wide world."
Despite their romantic history, the Kirkham Street homes look to be in terrible condition. Stephen Bosserman, who accepted "a very fair settlement" from the Reichs to vacate the back cottage in June, says the buildings have been in disrepair for years. "They're both very dilapidated, dry-rotted. It's sad to see them go, but they just weren't livable by the time Ron and Jerry inherited them."
Preservation and historical groups have gotten wind of the demolition proposal. Representatives from both the Foundation for San Francisco's Architectural Heritage and the Western Neighborhoods Project have visited the site, but neither has taken a position on the possible tear down.
Jane Cryan, the savior of other refugee shacks, isn't optimistic: "I don't think there's any hope of preventing demolition because of the condition, but I hope the owners allow some salvage work to save the windows and doors. There's still a lot of history in those guys."
Rick Crawford of the Planning Department says he's still waiting to hear what sort of replacement structure the owners may propose, and hasn't received a response to his letter about the shacks' possible historic significance.
"We're in a holding pattern right now."
Images: 1) 4329 Kirkham Street, September 2002 (WNP photo); 2) 4331 Kirkham Street (WNP photo).
Sources: 1) Hope Chest: The True Story of San Francisco's 1906 Earthquake Refugee Shacks Jane Cryan, privately published 1998.
Contribute your own stories about western neighborhoods places!
Page launched 9/01/02