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Outside Lands Podcast Episode 16: Sunnyside Conservatory

The story behind an octagonal San Francisco landmark on Monterey Boulevard.
Outside Lands San Francisco Podcast - Apr 25, 2013

Outside Lands Podcast Episode 16: Sunnyside Conservatory Outside Lands Podcast Episode 16: Sunnyside Conservatory

(above) Sunnyside Conservatory, circa 1919

Monterey Boulevard between Baden and Congo Streets. Angele Van Beckh with 3 dogs, large palms. (Van Beckh Collection)

Podcast Transcription

WNP16 – Sunnyside Conservatory

Woody: [00:00:00] It's Outside Lands San Francisco. I'm Woody LaBounty.

David: And I'm David Gallagher.

Woody: And this is the podcast…

David: Wait, wait.

Woody: You're not?

David: I'm David Gallagher. There that's better.

Woody: That's your podcast voice?

David: That's right, Woody.

Woody: This is the podcast for the Western Neighborhoods Project. We do this once a week. We talk about history. We say things off the top of our heads, and sometimes we make mistakes.

David: Often.

Woody: Well, last week, in particular, we made a mistake. What was it, David?

David: Well, we were talking about the 1906 earthquake and we talked about, briefly, I said something about martial law being declared. And it was pointed out by an astute listener and sometime contributor, Paul Rosenberg, that martial law was not declared during the aftermath of the 1906 earthquake. [00:01:00] Though General Funston did behave in ways that were iffy.

Woody: Uh oh. Here we go.

David: But that's it. That's all I'm gonna say.

Woody: Well see, we can correct ourselves. So, if you hear us make a mistake, please, by all means, tell us. We will correct it.

David: If you even hear us, tell us.

Woody: You have this thing that people aren't hearing this, but obviously people are hearing this.

David: Paul Rosenberg for one.

Woody: That's right. But what are we gonna talk about today? That was last week. This week we have some new, interesting West Side historic topic. What is it, David?

David: We're gonna talk about the Sunnyside Conservatory.

Woody: Conservatory? Is that a place where perhaps music is played?

David: It could be.

Woody: But not in this particular case, I don't think.

David: I think sometimes it is played there.

Woody: Aha! What is the Sunnyside Conservatory? Okay, wait. I know where the Sunnyside is and we should probably talk about that first. The Sunnyside is, despite its name, a foggy part of [00:02:00] town.

David: That's not right.

Woody: It is. Trust me. It's north of, well, it's kind of on both sides of Monterey Boulevard.

David: Right.

Woody: Between Glen Park and roughly City College.

David: Yeah.

Woody: Right, that area, that's called the Sunnyside.

David: Monterey Boulevard is the main artery through the Sunnyside.

Woody: In fact, Monterey Boulevard used to be called Sunnyside Avenue.

David: Right.

Woody: When it was first, when that little tract was being developed, it was named by Joost. Behrend Joost was the guy who was behind the Sunnyside.

David: So, he named Sunnyside Avenue? Did he name Joost Street? Is it Street?

Woody: Yeah, that's named after him. I don't even know if it's Sunnyside Avenue. It could be Sunnyside Street, now I think about it. But yeah, Joost.

David: We're just gonna hedge our bets on every fact we have from now on.

Woody: We don't wanna be corrected ever again. It's always sunny in the Sunnyside. Anyway, but it was an 1890s land development scheme to create the [00:03:00] Sunnyside neighborhood. And so, that is where the Sunnyside Conservatory is, I assume.

David: That's right. It's right on Monterey Boulevard. You can't miss it.

Woody: 236, I believe is the address, and I think it was built, see, I do know something about it. I'm revealing that I do know something about this. This building was built in the early 1900s, probably just after 1900. So, what’s a conservatory? The other conservatory I think of is the Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park.

David: Right.

Woody: And so, a conservatory is a place where you might grow plants or something.

David: Right. And anyway, it's kind of a, the Sunnyside Conservatory is an octagonal building, does it have eight sides? It's kind of octagonal, it's a tall…

Woody: I think it does have eight sides.

David: Window, window-lined building that lets the light in. And I believe that it was made to grow plants in, by the owners.

Woody: Right. [00:04:00] The guy who bought it, a little research was done, and the gentleman who first bought that land bought a number of lots in the Sunnyside neighborhood together. So, he had a big plot of land and his last name was Merralls. And the conservatory seemed to have been a building that was built to probably raise hot house flowers or plants that would thrive in a sort of conservatory environment.

David: Right. So, it was private.

Woody: Yeah.

David: It was his own place in his own yard.

Woody: That's right. And it has some interesting little stories that have been passed down through the years though. But your memory of the Sunnyside Conservatory, when you first became aware of it, was it being used as a conservatory?

David: No, it was kind of a, it was a public park-ish place where you could walk in. They had one of the park, I think Park and Rec ran it.

Woody: Yeah.

David: Except that it was very decrepit. It was open to the elements. A lot of the windows were broken. There really wasn’t, there weren't [00:05:00] many people hanging around there except for people drinking beer and stuff, I think.

Woody: Were these people your friends?

David: Some of them. Some of the people drinking beer there were my friends. Some of them were just acquaintances.

Woody: Yeah, so the time you're remembering, it's the time I remember probably in the early ‘80s, mid-‘80s. And it was this kind of park land that was right along Monterey Boulevard with this building and all the trees and everything were overgrown and the building kind of was just sticking out of this bushy tree, technically a city park.

David: Yeah.

Woody: Because the conservatory was actually made a city landmark, a San Francisco city landmark in 1975.

David: Wow.

Woody: So, it had been noted as a notable building.

David: Right.

Woody: In San Francisco. And it was the landmark of the Sunnyside District for sure. It really kind of sticks out as an interesting building. And we talk about it being octagonal and, you know, people used to think that eight [00:06:00] sided buildings were somehow more healthy. There was this strange sort of belief, and for a long time, people were, there was a fad of building eight-sided houses because they thought it brought in more light and it was just better for your health. So, the conservatory, maybe the gentleman thought that an eight-sided conservatory was better for his plants. I don't know.

David: Yeah.

Woody: Anyway, I was gonna say there's some interesting stories that have kind of, it's more legends and lore that have come down through the years about the conservatory. One story that I’ve heard, which I really don't believe, but I like, was that a woman who bought the land after Merralls had died and she had just bought the land and the lots and all the plants around it. There was a house also on the lot. She didn't know the conservatory was there because it was so overgrown, the patch of land, until her dog ran into the bushes and she went to retrieve him and said, “What the heck? There's a giant octagonal building in the middle of my plot of land.” [00:07:00]

David: Really?

Woody: I don't think that's true, but that is a good story.

David: Wow.

Woody: Yeah. I guess I was trying to say how sort of decrepit and overgrown the land was. But the first, let's talk a little bit about what was going on there. The other story I had heard was the guy who originally owned it, who I think was the original owner, was an inventor. And one of the things he was trying to invent was a balloon or an aircraft. You know, everybody was trying to build aircraft.

David: A dirigible.

Woody: Yeah. Something in the early 20th century. And that was, he was…

David: I don't know if a dirigible is a balloon or not, or if it's an air ship. I don't know.

Woody: Yeah. Anyway, I don't think he was a great inventor. And he actually got run over by a train, was how he actually died unfortunately.

David: One of Joost’s trains running up Sunnyside Avenue?

Woody: It might have been because Behrend Joost also brought the first electric streetcar system to San Francisco. Another sideline there.

David: Right. So, I've seen pictures of [00:08:00] Sunnyside Avenue. I want to branch out a little bit onto, into the Sunnyside. And so, where was, the two main structures around that time in Sunnyside was the conservatory and Joost’s powerhouse.

Woody: Right. For the electric railway you're saying?

David: Yeah.

Woody: Yeah. And that was all the way at the edge, like near Acadia, kind of going over towards where you can get on 280 now, getting towards the Glen Park side. Yeah, but there was a giant powerhouse for the electric railway that Behrend Joost had. That went from San Francisco all the way down to I think San Mateo. And it was a big move forward in transit technology in San Francisco, the first electric streetcar.

David: Was it the precursor to the old interurban San Mateo car?

Woody: I don't know if it ran on the same track or not. I get to talk to one of my transit historian friends about that. The first guy who owned those lots though was actually a streetcar guy. A streetcar gripman, somebody who worked on streetcars, [00:09:00] Charles H. Taylor. And I think he might have had bought the land so that it was a larger plot of land. But we think it was this guy W.A. Merralls who built the conservatory. He was British and I think he had a background in the mining industry and he invented gasoline motors. You know, one of these tinkerers. Yeah, sort of Thomas Edison types. But definitely was into aircraft and biplanes and tried to form a company.

David: Okay, so, Taylor buys the land from Joost, and then Merralls builds a conservatory.

Woody: Right.

David: And then what?

Woody: And originally it was an octagon building, but it had a couple of wings on each side. And he was interested, I think, in exotic plants and trees. And he just created this pleasure ground essentially as part of the land. And he had a separate house that was part of it all.

David: But he, so he got killed?

Woody: He did. He got run over by a train. [00:10:00]

David: And?

Woody: And then his wife, his widow, her name was Temperance. And this is going to give you an idea of what her plans are for the conservatory. She wanted to create a sanitarium there, using the conservatory building as a sanitarium.

David: It's just a part of it. I mean, it's not that big.

Woody: Like a private sanitarium, I think, where people go, and this was a sanitarium, a place where alcoholics could go and sort of dry out. So, she was very much against alcohol.

David: So, Sunnyside was out in the country.

Woody: Right.

David: Really.

Woody: Right.

David: Only there was a couple of buildings, a few buildings out there.

Woody: A lot of farm land.

David: A lot of farms.

Woody: And, you know, back then people didn't know about alcoholism as much as they know now. And so, there were all these different methods and treatments that people would try to come up with to cure it. You know, it wasn't thought of, you know, we didn't have the 12 steps and programs and all that. So, this was one of these treatment programs she came up with. She wanted to [00:11:00] call it the Sunnyside Laboratories and have sort of a, a treatment program for alcoholics using the conservatory building.

David: Huh? Well, I'm glad I didn't know that when my acquaintances were drinking beer there.

Woody: They wouldn't have been inspired to stop?

David: No. But so what, but she ran out of money?

Woody: Right. Right. She went bankrupt.

David: And she lost the whole place.

Woody: Right. Lost it to the bank. I think she was foreclosed on.

David: Bankers.

Woody: That's right. And then in, I think in 1920s roughly, new people moved in, and that's where I think that dog story came from. The people who bought it after her supposedly bought the land from the bank and then found out there was this big conservatory building in the middle of the patch of wilderness next to their house. So, that was the Van Becks, that was their name, Van Becks. But they were kind of well-known in the Sunnyside. They were, I guess you could consider, like they had the biggest place and the biggest land. And so, they had a [00:12:00] lot of influence on improvements in trying to make the Sunnyside a nicer neighborhood at the time.

David: Right. And over the time, I mean, so the original person, Taylor, bought seven lots around and built the, or did not build the conservatory, but had, it was a big plot of land. And over time, these successive owners each built their own homes and subdivided those, I mean, not subdivided, but they were all lots by themselves.

Woody: Right.

David: And so, the conservatory wilderness land those lots, that it was on, successively got smaller. The park.

Woody: Yeah. Yeah. And actually, the guy, one of the owners down the line, the old house that was part of the conservatory land…

David: Yeah.

Woody: Actually got separated out at some point and was not part of the land anymore. And the guy who kind of helped fix up the conservatory, cause remember we're talking about a glass building at some point…

David: Well, it's made of wood with a lot of windows.

Woody: Right. But it had had been broken and people were throwing rocks through them. And this guy, [00:13:00] Walter Anderson, who owned the land, did a lot of restoration, which included boarding up a lot of the window openings, because he was just trying to keep it up and make it a nicer looking building. He died in 1973 and his wife sold the property to another couple for $70,000. This is great. In 1973, you could buy all this land for $70,000.

David: Yeah, but we only made a dollar and a quarter an hour.

Woody: Yeah, I had a paper route. No, I didn't have paper route. Anyway, the guy who bought it from them for $70,000, they wanted to tear down the conservatory because you know, it's valuable land. You could build a bunch of houses and stuff. And that really got the Sunnyside neighborhood all riled up. They formed a neighborhood association. And they really fought to save the building, and that's when it was made a landmark. Remember I said it was a landmark in ‘75?

David: Oh yeah. City Landmark Number 78.

Woody: Yeah. Anyway, so there was a big push to save it. There was still some scares about it being [00:14:00] demolished. The wings got taken down in the late ‘70s.

David: But there's some weird stuff there. I mean, it's a landmark in 1975.

Woody: Yeah.

David: But then the owner still was able to secure a demolition permit in 1978?

Woody: There was some mistakes made, I think. I think it was some bureaucratic errors. He wasn't supposed to get the demo permit, cause it was a city landmark.

David: Right. So…

Woody: He did, and he started tearing it down.

David: Today there's one wing on the eight-sided building, but in 1975 there were two wings. There was another wing on the other side.

Woody: Right.

David: And in 1978, the other wing that's gone now was demolished by the owner in that sketchy demolition permit.

Woody: Yeah. It shouldn't have been issued. And then a lot of the original window sashes, a lot of stuff was done to it to kind of tear off original material. But it was saved, thank goodness, in the late ‘70s, early ‘80s. And then, that's when the park was sort of added to the Rec and Park [00:15:00] land. Because the building was saved as a, in a sense, as a landmark, but all the land around it wasn't a park until the 1980s. And, but as you know David, city parks have a way of sometimes going through good times and bad times.

David: Right.

Woody: And so, even after it was a city park, we have a city landmark. People like you were going in that park.

David: Who appreciated the place for its solitude and a pastoral environment.

Woody: Yes. So, it was a good place for teenagers trying to drink, to hide in the bushes and drink. Right? So…

David: It wasn't a convenient place for me to go. Okay. I mean, I went there because I had an interest in history. I'm like, what's this place? Sunnyside Conservatory.

Woody: Oh, so you're saying it was your, your interest in history that had you drinking beer in these parks.

David: And my interest in drinking beer.

Woody: You know, it's funny, we're doing this and I see here on your desk you have a six pack of Rock & Roll beer [00:16:00] that I think probably dates from…

David: 1980, I think.

Woody: 1980. So, you could have been drinking this Rock & Roll beer. It's all rusty now. You could have been drinking in ’82, drinking this at the Sunnyside Conservatory.

David: Yeah, it's possible. It's possible.

Woody: But as I remember, even though in the ‘80s, even into the ‘90s, it was still kind of run down. I think there was still homeless people kind of camping in there occasionally. Vandalism, graffiti. It had kind of fallen on hard times.

David: Yeah, it was all open, as I say, it was open to the elements and, and t was kind of like you're in a gazebo sort of thing. I mean, it wasn't really an enclosed building.

Woody: Right. But that's changed. And you were at the big dedication. So, there was a bond issue and there was a lot of work put into it. And then in 2009, December 5th, they had the rededication, reopening of the Sunnyside Conservatory. And it's a very different place now, isn't it?

David: Yeah, yeah. It's beautifully remodeled and [00:17:00] restored. It's sealed, it's locked up. So, the inside and outside is taken care of. There's a community group there that takes care of the gardens and you can have, you can have your party there and you could still drink beer there, but you have to clear it with the group and probably have to pay something too.

Woody: Get a permit?

David: Yeah. Get a permit.

Woody: But yeah, it's like a neighborhood gathering space now, a community space where you can go and have a party or an event.

David: And the gardens are open to the public all the time. And I'm not sure about the inside of the conservatory, whether that's open every day or not, but it's a really beautiful spot over in the Sunnyside.

Woody: They did a great restoration, little finial on the top, and the windows, the wood, all the kind of like exposed beams are really neat. So, they did a great job on it. It has a gate to the park.

David: Right.

Woody: There's a gate to get in, so it's got a little bit more security. But it's really a success story. And it's [00:18:00] really a tribute to the neighbors of the Sunnyside that fought really hard for a long time to get that building and that park fixed up.

David: Absolutely. I'm glad it's there.

Woody: Yeah, and so if you're in the Sunnyside, if you're driving a Monterey Boulevard, pull over and take a look at the Sunnyside Park there and the Sunnyside Conservatory. It's the second biggest conservatory, I think, in San Francisco. Think so?

David: Don't quote me. Please don't.

Woody: That could be another correctable error. So, before we sign off, David, I wanna mention that we're going to have a movie night at the Balboa Theater on Tuesday, May 14th, 2013.

David: That's coming up soon.

Woody: Yeah. So, buy your tickets, $10, and we're gonna show a lot of old news reels, interesting history minutes from our website. Other things of a historical interest.

David: Right. So, if you enjoy the sort of banter that you hear on the Outside Lands podcast, you will probably enjoy this movie night. Because Woody and I will be crackin’ wise all night.

Woody: Yeah. [00:19:00]

David: From the stage.

Woody: Yeah. With our friend Katherine Petrin. But we're gonna show a lot of interesting old history stuff too. So, until next time, I'm Woody LaBounty.

David: And I'm David Gallagher.

Woody: And this is the Outside Lands San Francisco podcast.

Learn more about the Western Neighborhoods Project and more about San Francisco history at outsidelands.org.

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