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Outside Lands Podcast Episode 22: Carl Larsen

Carl Larsen, restaurateur, chicken ranch owner, and Sunset District pioneer has perhaps one of San Francisco's most-viewed parks named after him.
Outside Lands San Francisco Podcast - Jun 4, 2013

Outside Lands Podcast Episode 22: Carl Larsen Outside Lands Podcast Episode 22: Carl Larsen

(above) Larsen's Chicken Ranch, 1900

Carl Larsen\'s Chicken Ranch facing the Sunset District sand dunes around Noriega Street and 17th Avenue, circa 1900.

Podcast Transcription

WNP22 – Carl Larsen

Woody: [00:00:00] It's the Outside Lands San Francisco podcast. The podcast from the Western Neighborhoods Project. I'm Woody LaBounty.

David: And I'm David Gallagher.

Woody: David.

David: Yes, Woody. You got me again. I was about to say something.

Woody: Preemptively, Woody me?

David: Yeah.

Woody: David, you probably know this. We're trying to raise some money to build a new playground structure in Larsen Park, which is on 19th Avenue between Ulloa and Wawona streets. And in the old days, there used to be an old Navy jet. In fact, there were a couple of Navy jets that they had out there for neighborhood kids to climb on. It was like a play structure, but it was a real jet. So, we're trying to get a new play structure built that [00:01:00] looks like an old jet.

David: Huh.

Woody: Yeah.

David: That's a nice nod to history.

Woody: Yes, but that's not what our podcast is about today. Although if you want to contribute money to the playground, you can do so. LarsenParkJet.org, I believe is the website. But that's not what we're talking about today. However, it brings to mind the name Larsen, and who was Larsen Park named after?

David: Well, it was named after a man named Carl Larsen.

Woody: The Gentle Dane.

David: You know how I know that?

Woody: How do you know that?

David: Because there's a plaque on a rock that I read while zooming by at 45 miles an hour.

Woody: On 19th Avenue.

David: Yeah. That park is probably the most viewed park in all of San Francisco. Maybe.

Woody: Maybe Golden Gate Park. I don't know, but yeah, I know what you mean.

David: If you want to refute that, please [00:02:00] send us a message at, wait, no, don't. Paul, don't refute that. I know he's going to have a stack of papers this high.

Woody: Paul Rosenberg is going to write in “Actually, the top three viewed parks in San Francisco include…” But Larsen Park, you're right, has six-lane 19th Avenue going right by it, so there are cars going by it all day long.

David: Right.

Woody: And there is a giant sort of reddish rock, I don't know what kind of stone that is, with a plaque.

David: Woody, that is Franciscan chert.

Woody: Oh, here we go, okay. With a plaque embedded on it, right on the corner of Ulloa and 19th Avenue, right behind the baseball backstop, or softball backstop, that talks about Carl Larsen and who he was. And Carl Larsen actually donated those two city blocks of land to San Francisco in the 1920s to create Larsen Park.

David: That was nice of him.

Woody: Yeah. There's some question about whether he was just being generous or if he owed a big tax bill and [00:03:00] maybe we'll get into that. But who was Carl Larsen and why did he own land out there in the Sunset District?

David: Well, Carl Larsen was a Danish restaurateur.

Woody: Oh, ooh la la. That's not what they say.

David: Yeah. He came to San Francisco in about 1860s.

Woody: Oh, pretty early.

David: Yeah. And he opened a restaurant downtown on Eddy Street called the Tivoli Cafe.

Woody: Right, and this was a really famous restaurant. It was between Powell and Mason, right there just off the cable car line. And he had all sorts of celebrities and nightlife people and musicians and different people that would go to the Tivoli Cafe, I know.

David: And based on his success, he started accumulating land on the West side of town. For a couple of reasons. He was a megalomaniac? No.

Woody: He had plans of world domination? The Gentle Dane, you're telling me? [00:04:00]

David: No, no. Because he needed to supply his restaurant with eggs. So, he opened a chicken ranch in the Sunset District.

Woody: Yes, and I think the best, one of the best photos we have in our entire website, one of the best photos of the Sunset District of all time, David…

David: Right.

Woody: Is the view looking down the hill past Larsen's Chicken Ranch.

David: From Golden Gate Heights.

Woody: Right. Looking past, looking west, northwesterly past Larsen's Chicken Ranch. And you see the sand dunes.

David: Right.

Woody: It's just acres and acres. The sea of sand dunes there.

David: Yeah, you can see Golden Gate Park. The nascent Golden Gate Park.

Woody: Way in the distance you can see the Cliff House if you have a good version of the photo.

David: Yeah. But in the foreground is this large, it's pretty much the only development you see in the whole picture, is this large plot of land that is Larsen's Chicken Ranch.

Woody: Yeah, it was around Noriega, 15th Avenue, Ortega, [00:05:00] 16th Avenue. Yeah, it filled up a few blocks right there on the slope. And he, it was the big business of the Sunset District. I think the only business that was out there before that, of that scale, or of a large size, were the former what?

David: Dynamite factories.

Woody: That's right. We can do a whole podcast about that. But the Sunset had some dynamite factories in its early days. But the problem with the dynamite factories? They kept blowing up.

David: Yeah.

Woody: So, the Larsen's Chicken Ranch basically became the big business of the Sunset District. And Carl Larsen was known as, I think he was kind of a short guy, he had a full head of white hair, and a big mustache, and kind of a character, as a restaurateur often is, kind of a good host.

David: Sort of charismatic?

Woody: Yeah, charismatic. And every Easter, he would open up the chicken ranch to all the people essentially in the southwest corner of the city, to come in for a big party.

David: Right.

Woody: On [00:06:00] Easter Sunday. And we have a book here that was written by Mary Ada Williams. And her husband, George Williams, grew up in the Parkside in the early, early days of it, like early 1900s and told her a lot of stories.

David: Yeah.

Woody: And she captured a lot of these in a book. And some of the stories are, you know, we're not quite sure about the total accuracy. But she really captures the flavor of one of those Easter Sundays. She writes about how they always had 15 to 20 barrels of beer with bartenders with red and blue armbands just above their elbows serving the beer. All the kids got to walk around and do, have hardboiled egg, sandwiches and every kind of cake and cookie.

David: Hardboiled egg sandwiches? Mmm.

Woody: There was a comma. Hardboiled egg, sandwiches.

David: Oh, okay. I don't like, just let me go on record and saying I don't really like egg salad myself.

Woody: What?

David: So, yeah.

Woody: That was my go to lunch when I was a kid. The [00:07:00] egg salad sandwich.

David: Yeah, well.

Woody: Although I haven't had it in a while.

David: It’s a grand tradition of the West side of San Francisco, the egg salad sandwich.

Woody: I didn't know. I didn't know we were known for that. Anyway, the Easter Sunday event was always a big affair, drew many, many people until, this is what Mary Ada Williams says.

David: Uh oh.

Woody: Until one year, things got out of hand. And a lot of people who weren't neighbors had heard about the party, crashed the party. This sounds familiar. This is another west side tradition.

David: Those Mission District hoodlums.

Woody: We don't know if they're from the Mission. Anyway, apparently there were a lot of drunken, passed out people along 19th Avenue after the party. So Carl Larsen was so disturbed he actually shut down his party and put ads in the paper apologizing for the disruptance.

David: Wow. Disruption.

Woody: Disruption.

David: Yeah, that's better.

Woody: Thank you. Anyway.

David: Disturbance.

Woody: Disturbance. So [00:08:00] Carl Larsen, his legacy actually after that became more, he was kind of an obstructionist to progress.

David: Really?

Woody: Yeah.

David: Yeah, I read something where he wanted the Twin Peaks Tunnel to end at the Forest Hill Station.

Woody: Yeah. Why would he do that? Why wouldn't he want it to continue on to Forest Hill?

David: Well, Woody.

Woody: I mean, to West Portal. West Portal.

David: Well, Woody.

Woody: Yes, David?

David: It turned out that everyone who had land on the West side of the city was going to have a higher tax assessment because of the presumed value increase of the land when the tunnel was opened. And most people who own land out here wanted the tunnel open because they planned to develop their land.

Woody: Right. They bought the land as an investment, essentially, and this was the payoff, right?

David: Right. But Larsen had been there for years and years, and he liked the [00:09:00] bucolic nature. And he had his business out there that relied on it. And I expect that if the tunnel was gonna open and there was neighborhoods growing up around it that he saw it as the end of his business out there.

Woody: The chicken kingdom was gonna end. Is that what you think?

David: Yeah.

Woody: Yeah. I don't know. I wonder if he was just, he might been one of those guys who was land rich and cash poor and just didn't have the money for the assessment. Or maybe he was getting older and just kind of thought, you know, I don't want to pay this. For whatever reason, he was on record as being opposed to the assessment west of Twin Peaks.

David: Right.

Woody: And not real happy with the whole tunnel thing. And I think that is part of why Larsen Park ended up being donated to the city. I think it might have been part of a tax deal. Or an amnesty deal or something that he gave that to the city in exchange.

David: Well, I mean, he donated a lot of different land. He donated the land for St. Cecilia's Church.

Woody: Oh, did he?

David: Yeah. And he donated the land for where [00:10:00] the Shriner's Hospital was built, I believe.

Woody: So, yeah, he had some holdings there, huh?

David: Yeah. He owned a lot of land out in the Sunset that I guess Adolph Sutro didn't own.

Woody: They basically split it between them, right?

David: Yeah.

Woody: Well, that's true. And I think we still have Larsen's legacy in the park, for sure. I mean, I think people do think of the Navy jet when they think of the park.

David: When you go zooming by that strip of land on 19th Avenue. You can think of the Gentle Dane and egg salad sandwiches.

Woody: Did anybody call him the Gentle Dane?

David: I don't know.

Woody: On our website we have an article about Carl Larsen.

David: I know Lorri Ungaretti called him the Gentle Dane.

Woody: Yeah. Is that just her idea, or is it?

David: If you know, if you are Lorri Ungaretti, and you've heard this, please let us know.

Woody: We can get Lorri here to talk about Carl Larsen. But I [00:11:00] think that Carl Larsen definitely has a legacy. It's not as big as Sutro's. I mean, with Adolph Sutro, you have, I mean I went to Sutro Elementary School for kindergarten.

David: Yeah.

Woody: You have Sutro Heights and Sutro Tower.

David: Well, one of the hills at Golden Gate Heights is called Larsen's Peak.

Woody: That's right. A lot of people do call that little hill that sticks out Larsen's Peak.

David: You know how I knew that?

Woody: How did you know that?

David: From that book we talked about a few weeks ago, The Hills of San Francisco.

Woody: Ohh.

David: And that's, Larsen's Peak is the totally bald one to the north end of those hills. It's just got a stairway going up.

Woody: So, you know, we talked about the park and Larsen's Park being donated and that, that's kind of his legacy. But he could have had an even greater legacy, I think.

David: Yeah, he left a…

Woody: There was an old will, right?

David: Yeah.

Woody: I don't know if it was his wife.

David: After he died, so he died in 1928. And after he died, they found a handwritten will, written in 1909, [00:12:00] that divided certain amounts up between his brother and his brothers and sisters and a friend and the Danish Ladies Relief Society and the Boys and Girls Aid Society. But most of the money, most of his estate was supposed to be given to San Francisco for a museum in Golden Gate Park.

Woody: Another one?

David: Yeah. And however…

Woody: Yeah. It was contested.

David: The will was contested by Larsen's relatives. 22 relatives, some living in Denmark, came out of the woodwork to contest this 1909 will.

Woody: Yeah, and I guess they won.

David: They went through like two years of legal wrangling and then it was declared invalid.

Woody: So, they got the money.

David: So, the relatives split all of his estate.

Woody: You know, I'm kind of on the relative side. You know why?

David: Because you have a [00:13:00] relative that you're hoping won't...

Woody: Because I'm Carl Larsen's great grandchild. No, I, no. Because I kind of think that, I mean, that was a common thing for the rich folks to do back then, is to give something to the city they thought they should have. Give a big statue or a museum or something in the park.

David: Yeah.

Woody: But I think the park, I kind of like it more parky and less museumy.

David: Yeah.

Woody: And we already had the de Young Museum.

David: So, it's not because you just wanted your share?

Woody: No.

David: I mean, the thing was over 20 years old when he died, and it didn't, you know, and his signature had been removed from it somehow, suspiciously. But…

Woody: And how much money are we talking about? I mean…

David: I guess we're talking about half a million dollars in 1928.

Woody: Oh, that's a lot of money in 1928. So, you could build a big old museum.

David: But in 1909…

Woody: Right.

David: It wasn’t presumably half a million dollars.

Woody: Right.

David: So, why he didn't rewrite his will, we don't know.

Woody: And we could have had another museum. See, that's what [00:14:00] I mean. I think, I'm okay with museums in the Park, because they've been there a long time. I grew up with them, but I wouldn't want to keep adding them.

David: What if it had been the West Side Sunset Museum, Woody?

Woody: The History of Richmond District, Sunset District?

David: Then there'd be no Western Neighborhoods Project.

Woody: No, we'd be working there. We'd have cushy jobs as curators or something.

David: I'd have my feet up and be wearing white gloves all day.

Woody: That's right. We’d be, and we'd be spraying acid free spray all over everything. They do that.

David: Oh no, is that what you learned in museum school?

Woody: Yeah, they got this like aerosol can or whatever and they shoot it and it like gets rid of acid.

David: Oh my goodness, this podcast is over.

Woody: This is true. This is totally true. They have this spray.

David: Acid free?

Woody: You're looking it up right now online. They do. You know there's acid and old paper and stuff that eats away.

David: Acid free spray. [00:15:00] Krylon.

Woody: See, it's right there on Amazon.com.

David: Acid free spray. This is not our, this is not our podcast.

Woody: This is not our bailiwick.

David: Protect artwork, memory, books, crafts...

Woody: See? Woody vindicated. Live on the podcast.

David: It instantly neutralizes acid by raising the pH level.

Woody: See, if you were working at Carl Larsen's West Side History Museum.

David: We'd be buying this stuff in bulk!

Woody: That's right! Alright, we've deteriorated. So, until next time, you know, if you have an idea for a podcast subject, please write us at outsidelands.org.

David: Obviously we need some ideas.

Woody: No, that was, this was a good idea. We just had bad execution. But until next time, I'm Woody LaBounty.

David: And I'm David Gallagher. [spraying sound].

Woody: Ahh! Get rid of that acid.

Learn more about the Western Neighborhoods Project and more about San Francisco history at OutsideLands.org [00:16:00]

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