by Devin Smith
Helen Grace Greenwood Yager stands up, cradling her three-month-old son Jackson. She’s 28, her patrician features brushed with the haze of new parenthood. She raises her right hand and swears to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help her god. It’s 1913.
The whole mess comes spilling out, splashing into the San Francisco Chronicle the next day.1 She was 17 when she married William in their home state of Kansas, and they traveled west in the dawn of the new century. William ran a construction firm, Helen Grace helped with the building sales. It was modest, but successful.
Eventually, William started taking work trips up and down the coast: Portland, Seattle, Los Angeles. And on these trips, he was—apparently—in the habit of traveling with another woman, whom he introduced as his wife. Right around the time Jackson was born, the other woman finally spurned his advances, and William confessed everything.
The gavel comes down, and Helen Grace walks out of the courtroom with Jackson and an alimony. It’s enough to cover rent and then some. She drops the “Helen,” and some time over the next year or two, she returns to the real estate business.
The iconic plunging strings which open Renée Geyer’s cover of “It's a Man's World” vibrate anachronistically overhead, as Grace Perego emerges—backlit, in slow motion—from billowing clouds of steam off a locomotive. Lace brocade and ostrich feathers. Tonight, she’s closing the sale on an under-construction apartment building on Clay and Polk Streets. Three stories of scaffolding and iron girders glimmer in the streetlights. It’s 1922.
After the divorce, she started out catch-as-catch-can: brokering small flats and flipping farmland in Santa Rosa. During her short-lived second marriage to Captain Fordyce L. Perego,2 they pooled their funds so she could swing larger properties. In the Chronicle, these sales are credited to “F. L. Perego and wf”3—but we all know what’s up. Fordyce ships off to Manilla.4
She finally got her name on the door with a partnership: Kincanon & Perego. She handles sales, prolific builder John Kincanon handles the construction. They put up a factory or two, but small apartments are their bread-and-butter. At this point, a woman in real estate is a rare bird: They comprise only 2% of professional Realtors in 1910 and 6% in 1920.5 The numbers are probably even lower for builders, but I don’t have the stats. She was the first (and for many years, only) woman in the San Francisco Builders’ Exchange, and a founding member (as well as Secretary-Treasurer) of its sister group, the Home Builders’ Association.
Slowly but surely, it’s all coming together. And if she can land tonight’s sale, that’s one more step on the way. Step by step, and she’ll be operating in the same league as any man in the game. Step by step, and she can drop the partner entirely, and move forward however she pleases, no questions asked. She strides across the road toward the prospective buyers, ready to close the deal. Ready to take the next step.
A round of applause and some curious murmurs greet Grace Perego as she ascends to the speaker’s podium at the 20th annual National Association of Real Estate Boards (NAREB)6 convention in Seattle. The swampy August air hangs thick in the room. It's 1927.
She clears her throat and begins:
At first glance, the answer to "In What Type of Real Estate Are Women Succeeding Best?" might appear very simple. Most of us would probably say, selling homes, of course. But a little investigation proves what I have always believed — that individual accomplishments are the result of natural ability and brains, regardless of sex… In every line of business, women are proving themselves as versatile as men.7
The speech that follows is a 1,500-word celebration of women operating all across the housing industries: From Mrs. MacAdams (the first woman to own an incorporated real estate business in San Francisco and owner/operator of Nob Hill’s luxurious Brocklebank Apartments) to Miss Alice Jackson (Pacific Coast division manager of the mighty Standard Sanitary Manufacturing Company — purveyors of that most humble and necessary of porcelain fixtures).
Perego is now in an excellent position to speak on the topic: last year, she finally made the jump and opened her own real estate office at 160 Sutter Street. An accompanying article in San Francisco’s The Business Woman casually mentions that it’s “said to be the only real estate office office in San Francisco operated [ed: exclusively] by women, occupying a downtown ground floor office.”8
And she’s not the only one: The California Real Estate Association (REA) Women’s Division was founded in 1924—over a decade before the formation of the national Women’s Council in 1938.9 NAREB allowed its Boards to handle admission at the local level, and many did not permit women to join (either explicitly or by custom).10 Though California’s Boards had generally welcomed women, when Perego was elected chairman of the REA’s Resolutions Committee in 1926, she decided to put a ring on it by introducing “a resolution to the effect that all Real Estate Boards shall extend the courtesy of membership to all eligible brokers, regardless of sex, and accord the same considerations to those who are members.”11
But anyways, let’s return to the auditorium in Seattle, where Grace is finishing her speech. Leaning against the back wall, a stringer for the New York Times—two days unshaven, bent cigarette—cracks a smile as he’s jotting down notes for his article,
As to the subject of men, Mrs. Grace Perego of San Francisco, builder of apartment houses and successful shifter of farm lands, sounded a note of warning to the men that they must be “up on the toes.” Mrs. Perego…closed her address with the famous “for the female of the species is more deadly than the male.”12
When she drops the mic, it lands with a satisfying thud. In the audience, men gape slack-jawed while women rise for a standing ovation—and the August air notches up another few degrees.13
Gentle waves lap the hulls of pleasure craft in the Marina, in the purple moments just before dawn. Around the corner on Casa Way, electric light warms a second-floor bay window, where Grace Perego is rolling a blank page into her black Underwood. She’s been working all night. She’s exhausted. It's 1934.
The Great Depression hangs like a miasmic cloud over the world. It has decimated the ranks of women Realtors; they won’t return to their 1920s levels until the mid-50s.14
As the market spiraled into chaos and new construction slowed to a trickle, owners of distressed properties were increasingly coming to Grace for advice. So she reached out simultaneously to the University of California system and the precursor to the San Francisco Apartment Association,15 to propose that she teach a new extension course: “Apartment House Ownership and Management.” After four years of teaching, she’s now putting the course down into a book.16
Across 327 pages, she guides the reader through the ins-and-outs of the task at hand, from inspecting the foundation and roofing; to advice on a charming demeanor while showing an apartment; to relevant housing laws and ready-made form letters; all the way down to the “Stain Removal Chart,” with instructions for lifting tar, blood, or candle-grease from wood, marble, or white cotton. Her style is straightforward and assertive. She writes with the experience of (as noted in the book’s forward) running a 23-person brokerage, and having expended approximately $4,750,000 in real estate over the last twenty years.
A quiet knock at the half-open door shakes Grace from her accidental reverie at the typewriter’s blank page. Ms. Effie Twilly, Grace’s live-in housekeeper, enters with a cup of coffee. Grace reclines and gratefully accepts.
Effie walks to the window and brushes aside the curtain, she watches the light glitter off the waves as the sun crests the as yet-unspanned caissons of the Golden Gate Bridge. Her features are fair—or dark, or lovely, or plain. We don't know.
There’s no photographs. No newspaper clippings. She is an immigrant housekeeper, the sort of person often ignored or forgotten by the keepers of history.
She exists only as an entry in the 1930 census: Sheet 14A, line 23. And here, watching the sunrise.
Moonlight traces the enormous steel barrels of the 16-inch guns at Fort Funston. Harbor Defense men stand under stacked tons of bunker concrete, bundled in wool against the salt wind and the chill of September. Everything pointing out to sea. Watching. Waiting. It’s 1943.
Across the spiraling dunes, over the untouched emerald of Twin Peaks, and into the cascading streets in the south of Nob Hill…we find the Mary Elizabeth Inn on Bush Street, a residential hotel for single women founded by Lizzie Glide in 1914.17 And through its brass doors, down a curving flight of stairs, we find Grace Perego giving a presentation up on a waist-high stage in a small auditorium. She has her sleeves rolled up, pipe fittings in one hand and a wrench in the other. Tonight’s presentation comes courtesy of the American Women's Voluntary Services.
Earlier this month, she began a series of 20-some-odd articles in the Chronicle’s Home And Garden section, detailing everything a woman might need to know to become “Mrs. Fix-It” while “the plumber is working in the shipyard and the man of the house is off to war.”18
In these articles, Perego gives instructions for identifying and repairing termite damage, and she takes you step-by-step through splicing and soldering frayed wires. She advises that particular care must be taken in the maintenance of electric irons—private industry will produce no new models “for the duration.” Two cartoon shoppers in the adjacent Safeway ad banter helpfully about rationing tickets.
The women in the audience: Homemakers. Factory workers. Women with leaking radiators and blown fuses. Women with rain seeping under the door. Blue Star mothers. Gold Star wives.
The totality of war permeates reality.
The sound of bending steel and smell of grinding rubber swirl in the air as a tow truck struggles to drag a seafoam green sedan backward up a tiny road on Twin Peaks. In the driver’s seat of the sedan, Grace Perego has her jaw clenched, the wheel sideways, and both feet on the brake. Surrounding them: a crowd of neighbors and newshounds, policemen and looky-loos, and schoolyard Baby Boomers armed with “atomic-ray guns.”19 Welcome to the Battle of Crown Terrace. It's a gorgeous spring day in 1952.
But to explain this whole debacle, we have to backtrack to 1947, when congress introduced the Housing and Rent Act (which rolled back the wartime restrictions on construction, and set the stage for the midcentury's suburban proliferation and racially fraught "urban renewal" projects).20
With visions of “Sold!” signs swinging in their dreams, the NAREB Women’s Council held a competition for “best building plans.”21 Here, we find Grace beaming with her prize-winning model in the Apartment category…before we dissolve forward to 1950, where Perego has constructed six of these buildings (54 units in total) along Graystone Terrace, on the east side of Twin Peaks.22
As these were situated on a terraced hillside, Perego had installed a small, steep ramp to connect the uppermost units’ carports to Twin Peaks Boulevard.23 But after a spate of bad weather left this ramp impassable, she connected the carport lane to the adjacent Crown Terrace—whose residents (“Crown Terracites” a’la the Chronicle) said their cozy fifteen-foot road couldn't handle the extra traffic. And more pertinently: they claimed it was privately-owned, whereas Perego claimed it had been conditionally accepted as public in 1930.
The storm was brewing: The Terracites blocked the connection with a stone wall, and Perego had it bulldozed. Twice. The situation exploded into open warfare (and onto the front page) on April 26, 1952, when she drove through Crown Terrace to inspect the damage on her apartments’ ramp. Upon leaving, she found the Terracites had parked in the road, blocking her way out.
Furious, she got out of the car. The Terracites demanded she close the carport connection permanently. She refused. When she returned, she found her tires—mysteriously—airless. Her son Jackson (now working as her assistant) came to pick her up.
The sedan sat motionless through sunrises and sunsets. Superstar lawyer Jake Ehrlich stepped onto the scene for the Terracites, with his trademark cowboys boots and endless swagger. Compromises were proposed and rejected. The City waited with bated breath.24
And with a shriek of bending metal we return to Crown Terrace on that gorgeous spring day; where, after hours of fruitless negotiation, all decorum has been abandoned. The police direct the tow truck, and haul Jackson off after he sits down to block it. The Terracites string a chain across the connection. The Chronicle runs a full-page photo spread, “Mrs. Stay-Put Perego Budged.”
For a month, suits and counter-suits fly across the courtroom. Finally, Presiding Superior Judge William T. Sweigert arrives to inspect the road in person, along with a “jabbering retinue of four lawyers.”25 The next morning, his lusciously-penned pronouncement put the matter squarely in the hands of the Terracites…whose once-again sleepy little lane remains—to this very day—impassable to auto traffic.
You look resplendent in ermine and pearls as you climb aboard the 37 at Castro, where the enormous rainbow flag waves triumphant in the heavens. The bus winds up the mountain, and you disembark at Crestline Drive, where you recognize the half crumbling wall and bold maroon of the Vista Francisco sign. But instead of walking to the Peaks, you cross the street and follow Burnett around the bend, where you notice a little cul-de-sac to your right.
You’re standing at the entrance to Perego Heights, Grace’s last major apartment project in San Francisco, built over a few years, starting in 1959. Perhaps wary of further publicity after the Crown Terrace fiasco, her public record begins to fade—an advertisement for this apartment complex in March of 1967 is the last time her name appears in the Chronicle. They ran no obituary when she passed in 1973.
Some records indicate that she might have retired to Healdsburg, where she had summered for many years. The record of her passing, in Sonoma, indicates that late in life she probably married fellow midcentury developer Thomas D. Harney. But like I said, the details are hazy.
So that’s the story. That’s all I’ve got—for now, anyways.
Right there on the corner of Burnett and Perego, you pop a bottle of André and raise a toast: “To California’s First Woman Builder!” And the champaign glitters in the midday sun.
1927 photograph of Grace Perego in article header image Courtesy of National Association of REALTORS® Library & Archives
1. “Mrs. Yager Gets Divorce” San Francisco Chronicle, August 20, 1913.
2. Grace’s 1927 passport indicates they were officially divorced in 1922, though his surname will stick. Intriguingly, this document lists his whereabouts initially as “Deceased,” which was then crossed out and corrected to “Unknown.” My gut tells me there’s an interesting story here, but I don’t (at present) have the time to track it down.
3. San Francisco Chronicle, November 14, 1919.
4. After 1922, F. L. Perego makes only two other appearances in the Chronicle. First, as an undercover Prohibition Agent, having made a notable arrest in August of 1926. And second, after a fight with a fellow G-Man in January of 1927, which was so rough that both combatants wound up in the hospital.
5. Jeff Hornstein, “Rosie the Realtor,” Enterprise & Society, June 2002. These numbers should also be taken in context of a woman’s legal rights to individual property ownership—in some states, a relatively recent development. I’m not well-versed on the legal particulars, but here’s a summary of the overview which I read: Yikes.
6. The NAREB [National Assoc. of Real Estate Boards] discussed in this article is the precursor to the present-day NAR (the name change occurred in 1972). It is not the present-day NAREB [National Association of Real Estate Brokers], which was founded in 1947 to counter discriminatory industry practices.
7. Grace Perego, “Women in Real Estate,” National Real Estate Journal, August 22, 1927.
8. “Women in Real Estate,” San Francisco Business, June 23, 1926. Additionally, Perego is also involved in many of the state’s new women’s organizations: the Soroptomists, the Western Women’s Club, the City and County Federation of Women’s Clubs, etc. etc. (Max Binheim and Elvin A. Charles, Women of the West,” 1928.)
9. Pearl Janet Davies, Women in Real Estate: A History of the Women’s Council of the National Association of the Real Estate Boards, 1963. The formation of California REA’s Women's Division was suggested by executive secretary Glen D. Willamen. There were eight inaugural members, and Hazel Grant King was its first president.
10. Ibid. And as Davies notes, many of the women who found themselves in the industry followed a similar path as Grace. Many were “widows or daughters competently carrying on established businesses; mother-son or husband-wife combinations; women who began as rental agents or office workers and who in time of emergency were pressed into service as brokers.”
11. Caroline Bachich, “Club Notes,” The Business Woman, July 3, 1926.
12. “Woman Realtors Hold First National Parley,” New York Times, August 14, 1927.
13. Okay, so here’s one last tantalizing little loose end I never managed to tie up: A two-paragraph report from the May 25, 1930 edition of the Los Angeles Times mentions that prior to a meeting of the Northern half of the California Women's Division at the Sonoma Mission Inn, Perego sent out a call for script submissions to the Division's members. The winning scenario was to be filmed during the meeting, with the winning entrant selecting the cast and acting as director. I came across no follow-up reporting on this. If anyone has any idea if this actually happened, and if so, if the film still exists…email me please! I would love to see this odd (and surely Bechdel-Test-passing) bit of sponsored film.
15. The Apartment House Owners’ and Managers’ Association.
16. Published by Rochester Alliance Press. A copy can be obtained from the Stanford library, via the San Francisco Public Library’s Inter-Library Loan service. An Ex Libris sticker and penciled note indicate this book was acquired by the Oregon State Agricultural College on October 11, 1935, and processed by “Stacey.”
17. The Mary Elizabeth Inn remains in continuous operation to the present day. Special thanks to Dion Roberts, the Inn’s Executive Director, who took the time to show me this auditorium and give me a brief overview of the building's history. See the Inn’s Facebook page for more information: https://www.facebook.com/The-Mary-Elizabeth-Inn-233902248635/
18. The first of these articles ran on August 22, 1943, and the last on January 30, 1944. The quotes in this and the next paragraph are from various of these articles.
19. Richard Reinhardt, “Perego Act 2: Enter Ehrlich, With Chain,” San Francisco Chronicle, April 28, 1952.
20. This act went into effect in 1949. The full text of this law is up here: https://www.loc.gov/law/help/statutes-at-large/81st-congress/session-1/c81s1ch42.pdf
21. Davies, ibid
22. There’s a wonky backstory here that I couldn’t figure out how to work into the main thread without slowing the pace down. As is often the case when a developer wants to build high density housing in San Francisco, there was some back-and-forth with the neighbors about the zoning of this complex, via the City’s Planning Department. They eventually reached a compromise where Perego could build her apartments on Graystone, as long as the residences across the street would remain single-unit houses. Having strolled through here many times, I had always wondered why this street was laid out in this odd way, with white picket fence houses on one side and apartments on the other (Here’s the Sanborn map: https://sfplanninggis.org/pim/Sanborn.html?sanborn=V7P676.PDF). These initial conflicts between the neighbors and Perego introduced the bad blood which is about to resurface in spectacular fashion...
23. Today this teeny-tiny stretch of road bears the unglamorous name “Racoon Drive,” though contemporaneous articles refer to it only as the even more unglamorous “Output Ramp.” The carport lane is now named “Crown Court.”
24. Hilariously, this story hit the AP wire: I found an article about it way down in the Santa Cruz Sentinel (which featured the incredible dek “No Bloodshed, Yet”).
25. Richard Reinhardt, “Judge Tours Twin Peaks Battlefield,” San Francisco Chronicle, June 6, 1952.
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