Streetwise - Richmond Ramble


More by Frank Dunnigan

Frank Dunnigan, WNP member and columnist. -

Streetwise - Richmond Ramble

by Frank Dunnigan
October 2010

Readers should take note that I've followed author Lorri Ungaretti's bold lead in placing the eastern boundary of the Richmond District at Presidio Avenue rather than Arguello Boulevard or the Stanyan Street line that marks the eastern boundary of Golden Gate Park. By doing so, I can legitimately reminisce about St. Ignatius (Church and High School), Presentation High School, the long-gone cemeteries, and the old Sears store at Geary & Masonic, to name just a few.

Also worthy of mention is the fact that this Sunset kid didn't frequent the Richmond District until St. Ignatius and University of San Francisco days (1966 until the mid-1970s) and beyond, hence the greater emphasis on food and beverage establishments than in some of my prior neighborhood jaunts.

Here we go, from east to west, with everything in between.

St. Edward's Church (north side of California Street, just west of Presidio Avenue)—Relatively modern Catholic church from the late 1950s that was likely one of the last designed and built prior to the ecclesiastical changes introduced in the mid-1960s. It was known for years throughout the community as having the latest scheduled Sunday Mass in the Outside Lands—4:00 p.m.—but it was closed in the 1990s, due to declining attendance, with the building demolished and the land sold off for condos.

Sears Roebuck (Geary & Masonic)—The "modern" post-World War II structure with the classic San Francisco history murals painted onto the upper walls all around the first floor. I wonder what became of them? Who can ever forget the smell of popcorn that permeated the entire place and the shifty-eyed appliance salesmen clad in their polyester plaid sport coats? It was once said that more than 90% of all Americans visited a Sears store at least once a year. Changing times brought about the end of this last local Sears store in the early 1990s (another, located at Mission & Army, was closed several years earlier).


Sears building at Geary Boulevard and Masonic in 1990. Opened 1951, closed September 1990. - Richmond Review photo

Presentation High School (Turk & Masonic)—Catholic girls' high school that was in business from the 1800s (Grandma Dunnigan graduated in 1898 from the school's pre-1906-fire location on Powell Street) until the 1980s. There was a certain affinity between Pres girls and S.I. boys for many decades, since so many of us rode the 28-Nineteenth Avenue bus together to and from school. The building now houses USF's School of Education. The old convent right on the corner, which became Lincoln University in the 1970s, is now USF's School of Professional Studies.

Carew & English (northeast corner of Golden Gate Avenue & Masonic)—Popular undertaker, especially in the Irish-Catholic community, from the early 1890s when they opened for business at Market & Van Ness—they were burying my relatives for more than 90 years. In this location for decades, they had an arrangement with the Shell service station once located on the southwest corner of Turk & Masonic (now housing units) to handle valet parking. Competitive business pressures brought about a merger with two even older firms, N. Gray and Halsted & Company, in 1985. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the lack of on-site parking was a big issue, and many long-time clients switched their allegiance to Arthur J. Sullivan on upper Market Street. This building was then extensively remodeled into the present San Francisco Day School.

Petrini Plaza (northeast corner of Fulton & Masonic)—Opened in the 1950s as one of the most modern supermarkets in San Francisco. Had an enormous meat, fish, and poultry department, along with picture-perfect fruits and vegetables. Ample parking made it a big hit for decades. Originally the site was a MUNI maintenance yard, with a diagonal right-of-way from McAllister & Central to Fulton & Masonic, where the #5 streetcar (later, trolley bus) ran all the way to Playland. Petrini's closed in the 1990s, and the site was redeveloped into a ground-floor retail complex with upper-floor residential units and subterranean parking. Albertson's was the replacement grocery store, followed by the present-day Lucky.

Little Fiesta Restaurant (south side of Geary near Cook)—It only operated for a few years in the early 1970s, and I used to think that it was there to handle the overflow from El Sombrero, some 20-plus blocks to the west. Small and intimate, the food was good, the prices modest, and the parking easy. Sad to say, it is long gone.

Nippon Goldfish Company (north side of Geary near Cook)—Relocated from its original pre-1906 home in Japantown, where in-ground marble tanks held every type of fresh-water and salt-water fish imaginable. Among teenagers in the early 1970s, the new place was alleged to have been selling piranha as "silver dollar fish." This place had incredible variety, though it lacked the old-world allure of the original site.

Krieger Oldsmobile (northeast corner of Geary & Blake)—Another relic of days gone by when auto dealers did business in the San Francisco neighborhoods before they all ran off to "Auto Row" in Colma. The site has housed a number of different mattress retailers for several decades now.

Mel's Drive-In (south side of Geary between Parker & Beaumont)—My friends on the yearbook staff and I had a favorite spot there (window seat, three to the left of the entrance) when we were at S.I. on Stanyan in the late 1960s. The original Mel's closed up in the 1970s and became a Pacific Stereo store for years, but then re-emerged two decades later as a trendy, spiffed-up version of the original. I still sit at my favorite spot whenever I'm there and let myself drift back in time to the Fall of 1968.


Intersection of Geary Boulevard and Masonic Avenue looking southwest to Lone Mountain and St. Ignatius Church to the left in the 1930s. - Courtesy of a private collector.

St. Ignatius Church (northeast corner of Fulton & Parker)—Herb Caen called them "the timeless twin towers of St. Ignatius," and indeed they are. For nearly 100 years (built in 1914), they have punctuated the skyline and served as a place-marker in the ever-more-crowded urban landscape. In a nice sense of continuity, the Sunset campus of S.I. continues to hold its graduation ceremonies here, though today's students no longer have the physical and sentimental attachment to the place that is still held by all those who trekked up the hill to attend Mass here on the first Friday of each month. Once considered to be the "chapel" for USF, a bit of ecclesiastical gerrymandering in the 1990s, the Archdiocese of San Francisco took some snippets of adjacent areas to establish a formal parish around the Church.

University of San Francisco/USF (north side of Fulton Street, east of Parker Avenue)—Jesuit stronghold since they purchased the land just after the 1906 Fire, and began a long campaign to "move the cemeteries out" of the entire neighborhood. Dad's old S.I. classmate, who became Father Ray Pallas, S.J., remembered wandering through the site in the late 1920s, as an S.I. student, playing impromptu football games with disinterred skulls that were strewn about as the area was being cleared for development. Those of us who attended classes there in the 1970s might well be surprised by the transformation that the campus has undergone over the last 20 years or so with several building remodels and expansion to include the Lone Mountain property to the north, the old Presentation High School campus to the northeast, and the beloved old St. Ignatius High School property (used by USF from 1969-1987 as "Loyola Hall" and then demolished in the late 1980s to make way for the Koret Health and Recreation Center).

St. Mary's Medical Center (Grove Street just west of Shrader)—The street location that provided access to the cafeteria ceased to exist sometime in the 1970s when the old multi-story nurses' dormitory was demolished and the last block of Grove Street was closed off to public access in order to make way for the new St. Mary's Hospital building. The cafeteria was an S.I. student's favorite place for low-cost hot food. Hamburgers were thick and generous and only 75 cents. For those who were so inclined, it was also the closest place to buy cigarettes from a vending machine (yes, inside the hospital) without Jesuit scrutiny.

St. Ignatius High School (222 Stanyan Street)—The iconic structure that best resembled a fog-stained bomb shelter when viewed from the north side. Home to high school memories for nearly 9,000 of us over the 40 years from the Fall of 1929 to the Spring of 1969. Talking with friends one day last year, we began to realize just what a raunchy, decrepit old dive the place really was—lath and plaster construction, open stairwells, no fire suppression system. Face it, we would have all been krispy kritters if a fire had broken out. Given some of the teenaged hi-jinks that were played out over 40 years in that place, there really was Someone looking over all of us. The ghosts of the past are still there, and highly conversational, every time that I find myself driving down that street.

2580 McAllister Street—In the late 1960s, just before S.I.'s move to the Sunset, space for after-school activities in the school building was so cramped that the Jesuits bought an aging Victorian house around the corner on McAllister Street, and used it for the band, newspaper, yearbook, computer club, and sodality offices. Hundreds of teen-aged hi-jinks were played out within those walls, though no one was ever killed, seriously injured, or subjected to a police raid. It has now reverted to a private residence, though legend has it that the Jesuits have been quietly buying up property on that entire block for decades, in anticipation of the next USF campus expansion.

Corner Store (northwest corner of Stanyan & McAllister)—Location of the unnamed "S.I. Store". THE place to hang out as a senior with an off-campus lunch pass, this place was a typical sandwich-soda-candy retail outlet of a type that no longer exists. Run for years by a lady named Betty Mersich and her mother Mrs. Welch, it catered to generations of S.I. students. Combined with their then-outrageous prices (20-cent bottles of Coca-Cola), the owners also reminded students who was the boss with a sternly worded sign behind the counter: "Attention S.I. Students: Father (principal's name pasted over each time it changed) assures us that any S.I. boy carrying soda bottles away from the front of the store will be IMMEDIATELY SUSPENDED." Like I'm going to risk my academic career for a three-cent Coke bottle? Get real. Closed in the Spring of 1969 as S.I. prepared to make the move from Stanyan Street to 37th Avenue, the space has been inhabited by a variety of changing businesses since then.

Kezar Stadium and Pavilion (Stanyan Street near Frederick)—Site of countless football and basketball games over the years, often involving S.I. teams. A place to shout yourself hoarse again and again, enjoying it every time. Then and now, the Pavilion is the home to Roller Derby, thereby placing it squarely into the category of having a somewhat rough clientele at times.

Doggie Diner (northeast corner of Geary & Arguello)—A late night food spot for those of us working on Inside S.I. or the yearbook at 2580 McAllister Street in the late 1960s. Like most newspapers (Inside S.I. was actually a news magazine, ala Time), the lowest ranking staffer was always the one to be sent out on the food runs—"11 hot dogs, 4 cheeseburgers, 6 Cokes, 3 chocolate shakes, a Dr. Pepper, and 31 bags of fries, to go please" was a standard order. The person handling this usually paid for it all with a $20 bill and then spent the rest of the evening dispensing food and change to the rest of the staff. The parking lot was once the scene of a massive condiment fight (the "Dog" still had removable quart-size plastic ketchup and mustard bottles on their counters at the time). My friends and I thought we had done well in one skirmish back in 1968, but my father almost had a heart attack, fearing the worst, when I drove home in his ketchup-splattered car.

Temple Emanu-el (northwest corner Arguello & Lake)—Classic mission-tiled Byzantine-domed structure that has been a landmark since the 1920s when it replaced the old downtown synagogue that was on the site of the present 450 Sutter Medical-Dental building. This location, with its magnificent acoustics, was the site of the 1975 wedding of my old friends and USF classmates Alan and Ruth (he from Lakeside and she from the Richmond & Parkmerced), who are still happily married some 35 years and several children later.


Early 1900s photo of Home for the Aged of the Little Sisters of the Poor, Lake Street at 4th Avenue. - Turrill and Miller photo

Little Sisters of the Poor (north side of Lake at 4th Avenue)—Old folks' home visited every Saturday by members of the S.I. sodality and their friends from local Catholic girls' high schools. The cupola that now sits on the front lawn used to be the high-point on the roof of the old red brick building with the long stone front stairway. Lots of old-time singing, with piano or accordion accompaniment: "Come away with me, Lucille, in my merry Oldsmobile, down the road of life we'll fly, auto-mo-bubbling, you and I…" Regular participants soon got over the "EE-YEW" factors associated with age and infirmity, and frequently emerged as the most responsible care providers in their own families. Those Saturday visits were a positive contribution to others in the community, while providing increased opportunities to line up a Saturday night date. Periodic open rivalry among some of the girls for a particular S.I. boy occasionally made our visits a bit more interesting for the elderly audience members who spotted this sort of thing instantly.

Busvan Furniture (northeast corner of Clement at 4th Avenue)—Iconic bargain furniture outlet that supplied tens of thousands of baby boomers-turned-yuppies with that first apartment full of furniture. A bargain hunter's mecca for decades, the place succumbed to changing times and tastes, and closed their doors in 2002, the space remaining vacant for many years thereafter.


On Clement Street, near 4th Avenue, Busvan (for Bargains) Furniture building and sign, 2003. - WNP Photo

Schubert's Bakery (south side of Clement near 6th Avenue)—Branch of an old-time San Francisco bakery located in the once-Jewish Western Addition neighborhood. If you try hard enough, you can still detect the sweet smell of long-gone almond paste, poppy seeds, and honey in the still morning air.

Wakelee's Pharmacy (south side of Clement between 6th & 7th Avenues)—Long-time neighborhood pharmacy, complete with old-fashioned scale in front—Weigh Yourself for One Cent. The proprietor offered home delivery, via a little blue Volkswagen, driven by an ever-changing cast of high school guys during the 1950s and 1960s.

King Norman's Kingdom of Toys (south side of Clement at 9th Avenue)—Classic kids' toy store that sponsored the King Norman TV show on Saturday mornings. One of the saddest days I had growing up was missing the chance to be in that studio audience just because I had the chicken pox.

See's Candy (north side of Clement near 9th Avenue)—There used to be a See's outlet in just about every San Francisco neighborhood shopping street, but this is one of the last non-mall locations left. The owner must have had them sign an unbreakable 99-year lease.

Gillon Lumber Company (southeast corner of Geary at 4th Avenue)—Once the site of the oldest lumberyard in the Richmond District, founded in 1896. It was THE place to go when all of us boomers were decorating dorm rooms with bookcases fashioned from concrete blocks and plywood shelving covered with contact paper. The usual culprits of big-chain competition and parking woes put them out of business in 2002 when the site became a produce market.

Herman's Delicatessen (north side of Geary between 5th & 6th)—The holy grail of delicatessens, with the world's absolute best potato salad. An old time establishment, complete with pickle barrel, head cheese (look it up in the dictionary!), and marinated everything. Their old motto, printed on a logo that looked like the Red Cross was: Eat Salad For Health. Today, only the dark blue ceramic tiles on the front wall serve as a reminder for the wonders and aromas that were contained within that humble little building.

Abbey Tavern (northwest corner of 6th & Geary)—The one and only Irish bar for many of us in the 1970s. I can still recall one highly spirited St. Patrick's Day, circa 1974, when I missed class at USF for a number of days thereafter. Their band was a "must-have" for weddings of that era.

Café Riggio (north side of Geary between 6th & 7th)—Popular 1980s dining spot serving northern Italian food. The subtle décor included hanging lamps made from overturned terra cotta flower pots over each table. Wonderful food, service, and ambiance, but gone by the early 2000s.

Le Cyrano (north side of Geary near 7th)—Just west of Café Riggio, this place had a quiet ambiance all its own. Serving "Continental" cuisine, but at very reasonable prices, they had a steady following. It was often said, "You cannot get a bad meal there." Everything was excellent, but the ever-changing tastes of San Francisco residents, along with the perennial parking problems, brought about their closing around the turn of the millennium.

Star of the Sea Academy (8th Avenue, just north of Geary)—Long-gone Catholic girls' high school that was the alma mater of comedienne Gracie Allen and countless others. Following George Burns' death in 1996 at age 100, the elementary school, still located on 9th Avenue, received a significant bequest from his estate, in memory of Gracie.

Jolly Friars (south side of Clement near 11th Avenue)—Dark, smoky, and very trendy drinking and dancing establishment in the 1960s and 1970s. This was the place where the singles mingled nightly until closing. In later years, I learned that one of the first significant houses in the Richmond District—a fabulous turreted, multi-story structure of vaguely Asian influence, painted red, was built in the late 1800s (and torn down in 1922) nearby at 12th & Clement by George Turner Marsh, who thought that the area resembled his hometown of Richmond, a suburb of Melbourne, Australia. (Marsh later went on to conceive and develop the "Japanese Village" of the 1894 Midwinter Exposition.)

Tia Margarita (southeast corner of 19th & Clement)—The USF hangout for enormous portions of great Mexican food, along with huge Margaritas and a staff that was not overly fussy about checking IDs (just remember to tip them well). Believe it or not, parking on Clement in the early 1970s was much easier than on Geary.

Alejandro's (north side of Clement near 22nd)—Small neighborhood spot serving Peruvian food—tapas and other "little plates." Scene of many an after-work gathering of my Bank of America counterparts in the early 1980s. Long gone.

El Sombrero (northwest corner of 23rd & Geary)—Classic Mexican restaurant that used to encourage a bit of dress-up formality among its clientele. Quiet, understated décor that catered to a slightly older crowd—not your typical college hang-out (see Tia Margarita for that). You were sure to run into your parents' friends here, so dress and decorum were especially important. For a place that was once so crowded, an aging customer base and worsening parking conditions both seem to have done them in back in the 1980s.

Yet Wah (northeast corner of 23rd & Clement)—Always described as "meet us at the big ugly purple building on Clement"—everyone knew exactly where it was. For many Caucasians, Yet Wah offered a first taste of Chinese food that resulted in a long and steady relationship.

Bill's Hamburgers (south side of Clement near 24th Avenue)—Quintessential San Francisco hamburger place that I've been going to since the early 1970s. Get there early and grab a table in the garden out back. Great food, moderate prices, and increasingly difficult parking.

The Courtyard (north side of Clement just west of 25th Avenue)—This was a popular 1980s restaurant where I often met my cousins from Marin County for dinner and an update on our family history. Ironically, it took me, coming from the Sunset District, the same amount of time that it took them, coming from Marin, to reach the restaurant and find parking.


Trad'r Sam or Trad'r Sam's bar on Geary Boulevard at 26th Avenue in 1949, advertising a television inside! Hollywood Food Market beside. - Courtesy of Jack Tillmany.

Trad'r Sam (northeast corner of Geary @ 26th Avenue)—Nondescript bar that has been there forever. I set foot in the place exactly once in my life in 1974 when celebrating USF's First Annual Amateur Auto Rally & Competitive Cruising Classic. Also a popular spot for those who indulged in the late 1970s craze of an A to Z Run—having a drink at 26 bars in a row, each with a name beginning with consecutive letters of the alphabet—Aub Zum Zum Room on Haight, Barrett's in the Richmond (owned by a neighbor of mine), Cliff House—well, you get the idea—all the way through other memorable locations such as O'Shea's, Plough & Stars, and a variety of other local watering holes. Needless to say, many once-hearty participants found themselves down and out by the time they reached Trad'r Sam. Outrageous as it was, this activity was one of the first to aggressively promote the concept of the designated driver.

Washington High School (32nd & Anza)—Classic 1930s-designed public high school with one of the world's most magnificent views from its football stadium overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge and the hills of Marin County. Generations of San Franciscans have graduated from here, including notable alums Maya Angelou, Danny Glover, Johnny Mathis, and Lana Turner.

Palace of the Legion of Honor (34th & El Camino del Mar)—Magnificent gift of the late Alma deBretteville Spreckels (who was born in the Outside Lands on her father's ranch, located somewhere between the corner of Ocean & Junipero and the San Mateo County line near Lake Merced. When not soaking up the culture provided by the paintings inside, the museum's parking lot by the fountain was the big make-out spot for generations of SF high school students. The place is still there and going strong after 85 years and a big-bucks renovation.


Last days of Sugar Bowl Bakery with sign down, Balboa Street near 38th Avenue, 2005. - WNP Photo

Sugar Bowl Bakery (north side of Balboa near 40th Avenue)—Classic old neighborhood bakery with aromas that pulled you right in the door. I'd always stop there to pick up something when going to visit Dad's elderly cousin Alice who lived to be in her mid-90s out there on 43rd Avenue. Places like this seem to define another era, and the Sugar Bowl has been gone for about 10 years now.

Sutro Super (south side of Geary near 43rd Avenue)—This was the westernmost large supermarket in San Francisco prior to the construction of Safeway at the Playland site. Like many old supermarkets in the Outside Lands, it morphed into a Walgreen's drug store in the late 1990s.

Fort Miley (north of Clement Street near 43rd Avenue)—The VA Medical Center has long been out there on the western horizon, and I got to know the place intimately beginning in 2001 when I took over the care responsibilities for one of Dad's ailing cousins. This is truly an extraordinary place, providing every level of care necessary for thousands of veterans, both in- and out-patient, on a daily basis. Our cousin Ray spent his last years in the Long-Term Nursing Facility, and I could not have found more professional and compassionate care for him anywhere else—a truly remarkable staff and dedicated volunteers keep the place running smoothly. The main cafeteria offers a spectacular view of the Golden Gate and the entrance to San Francisco Bay. A great history of the site appears here.

Louis' (Point Lobos Road, above the Cliff House)—Classic little hole-in-the-wall diner that has been doing business in the same location since 1937. It's a spot that Mom used to enjoy taking me for lunch on my birthday. The owners have been wrangling with the Park Service over a new lease recently, so stop in and show them some support. Good food, gorgeous views, and easy enough parking.

Cliff House (Point Lobos Road at the Pacific Ocean)—The latest incarnation of a classic restaurant and watering hole that has been around since the days of the Civil War. Although the most recent remodel resulted in a fine interior space, the exterior east-facing wall leaves a lot to be desired. Growing up, this was always a favored spot for First Communion Sunday brunches (followed by a walk through the Queen Wilhelmina Tulip Gardens at the nearby Dutch Windmill). In the 1970s, when the Cliff House's reputation for "fine dining" began to fade, it suddenly became THE hot college spot featuring 50-cent pitchers of beer on Monday through Thursday nights.

Skateland (Great Highway, north of Playland)—One of Dad's favorite places to take a group of neighborhood kids. He was a very good skater from his youth, and loved to show off, with the rag-tag bunch of kids behind him constantly falling down and getting into the way of the real skaters. Long gone.


Detail of Playland image from early 1970s showing part of 1950s era Fun-Tier Town western-themed attraction. - Photograph by Dennis O'Rorke.

Fun-Tier Town (northeast corner LaPlaya & Cabrillo)—Late 1950s expansion of Playland, with mild Disney-type conveyor-belt rides and an Old West theme. As I look at the location now, it's amazing that it was able to operate on such a tiny corner site. It was tacky, cheesy, and a whole lot of fun for a child of the 1950s.

Playland (Great Highway between Balboa & Fulton Streets)—Nothing to say that hasn't been said already. It marked a different age in the annals of San Francisco. I can still taste the over-salted stale popcorn, hear the shriek of the roller coaster crowd, and smell the graphite of the bumper car arena every time I put on my Outside Lands T-shirt with nighttime image of Playland emblazoned on the front. For those of us who attended S.I. on Stanyan Street, the image of a MUNI bus emblazoned with "5 McAllister-Playland" marked the journey home at the end of the day with a tease about the fun that existed at the end of the line (somehow the present "5 Fulton-Ocean Beach" is simply not the same).

The Hot House (Great Highway at Playland)—Technically a part of Playland, but really a destination unto itself. This place served as my introduction to Mexican food, at about age 5, thanks to Mom's mother, who always loved stopping at the old Estrada's on Mission Street in Daly City whenever she was on the way home from paying a visit to family members at Holy Cross Cemetery. (Grandma actually remembered when Estrada's first opened in 1917—it was quite the place then.) The Hot House was closer, though, and the food was every bit as good, and we had a many dinners there on nights in December when Dad was working late and Mom didn't feel like cooking. Once Playland closed, The Hot House relocated to a storefront on Balboa for a few years, and I visited there once or twice, and the food was still good, but the ambiance was gone. The place quickly melted into the nostalgic fog that swallowed up the entire Playland area.

Beach Chalet (east side of Great Highway just south of Fulton)—Transforming this place from a raunchy, smoke-filled Veterans of Foreign Wars hall into a trendy micro-brewery/restaurant just shows that money can clean up almost any old place and make it presentable. Spectacular views and good food at decent prices, and with easy parking. Depending on the time of day, though, reservations can be hard to come by.

Sadly, today, most of my views of the Richmond District are of the trees along Park-Presidio, as I make the trek from the north side of the Park to the toll plaza of the Golden Gate Bridge. As I zip along, though, I think of all my memories associated with the area, and of George Turner Marsh's magnificent red house overlooking it all.


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