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Streetwise: Looking Back 100 Years

by Frank Dunnigan
January 2024

Frank Dunnigan, WNP member and columnist. -
Development was relatively sparse in the western neighborhoods 100 years ago, but in the aftermath of the 1906 earthquake and fire, many San Franciscans began to move westward. Business and civic infrastructure (streetcar service through the 1917 Twin Peaks Tunnel began running in March of 1918) accompanied them on the journey toward the Pacific Ocean. Here are a handful of examples of just what was taking place in the western neighborhoods back in 1924.

65 Castenada above 7th Avenue, April 17, 1924 - photo by Horace Chaffee, SF Department of Public Works; courtesy of a Private Collector.
This new hilltop residence, photographed a full 18 years after the 1906 earthquake/fire, looks as though it might be located in some remote mountain village. In fact, it is in the middle of the Forest Hill development, and remains essentially intact today with only a few minor alterations at 65 Castenada Avenue: a 3-bedroom, 2.5 bath property that sold for $2 million in 2021. See recent images of this home and neighborhood.

View west on 20th Avenue & Noriega, 1924 - Courtesy of a Private Collector.
In 1924, there was some development in the Sunset District, though most of it was still east of 19th Avenue. Here is an early example of westward expansion at 20th Avenue and Noriega, looking west. At that time, there was a row of houses already built to the right along the 1700 block of 20th Avenue. Note that the sand has yet to be cleared from Noriega beyond the present block, as a crew handles the re-installation of a utility pole at the northeast corner of the intersection.

View northwest on 19th Avenue between Kirkham and Lawton, circa 1924 - Courtesy of a Private Collector.
In 1924, the sign above this building’s entrance on 19th Avenue read “The Pacific Telephone and Telegraph Company,” then a central office originally built in 1911. Within two years of this photo, another office building for the company was under construction immediately to the right, and housing units were being constructed to the left. Pacific Telephone later combined and expanded their offices at this location (1515 19th Avenue) into a single structure that is now occupied by a different commercial business.

Mt. Davidson Cross, 1924 - Courtesy of a Private Collector.
This 40-foot wooden cross was erected on Mount Davidson in 1923 and used for a non-denominational Easter sunrise service that year, though it was burned down by vandals two years later in December 1925. A larger cross was built in 1926, but it was destroyed by fire in December 1928. A new 3rd cross was built in 1929, but burned down in May 1931. A smaller 4th cross was hastily built in spring 1932, but it was reported as wrecked just over one year later. Emma Baldwin then donated the land for construction of a 100-foot-tall fireproof cross made of reinforced concrete. Individual subscribers donated $20,000 for the construction that required 30,000 feet of lumber to mold into place the 750 cubic yards of concrete that surrounded 30 tons of reinforced steel, with a foundation that goes down 16 feet to bedrock. Herb Caen reported that when engineers noted that excess building materials were available at the site, the height of the present cross was quickly increased to 103 feet. Local resident Madie Brown wrote to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and persuaded him to preside over the lighting ceremony. From the White House in Washington, D.C., Roosevelt pressed a gilded telegraph key to light the new cross for the first time on March 24, 1934. For many years, the cross was flood-lit every night, but that practice ended during the energy crisis of the early 1970s. In more recent times, concerns were expressed about city ownership of a religious symbol on public land. A court ruling ordered the city to divest itself of the cross. In response, the cross and its fractional acre of land was sold to the highest bidder at public auction, where it was purchased by the Council of Armenian-American Organizations of Northern California, a non-profit secular corporation, for $26,000. The sale was approved by a majority of San Francisco voters in the November 4, 1997 election, as well as by a unanimous vote of the Board of Supervisors. The monument was re-dedicated in 1998 and a plaque placed at the site reads: “This revered site is cared for in memory of the 1,500,000 victims of the Armenian Genocide perpetrated by the Turkish government from 1915 to 1918.” The cross is now lit annually at Easter and on April 24, Armenian Genocide Memorial Day. Read more about the opening of the 1923 time capsule in June 2023.

Article in Exhibitors Trade Review magazine about the opening of the Alexandria Theatre, March 22, 1924 - Courtesy of Jack Tillmany.
The Alexandria Theatre, shown here in 1924, was built with an Egyptian design popular in the 1920s, and opened in November 1923. Redesigned in the Moderne style in 1941 just before the U.S. entry into World War II, the theatre was a neighborhood anchor at 18th Avenue and Geary Boulevard for decades with second-run features. It was one of the few local theatres with its own adjacent parking lot on 18th Avenue. By the 1950s, it was upgraded to show 70mm films and with a reserved seating policy, and featured long runs of such blockbuster hits as Cleopatra (56 weeks), South Pacific (48 weeks), and Oliver! (43 weeks). In November 1976, the Alexandria reopened after being converted into a triplex and continued on in that mode for another quarter century until it closed abruptly in February 2004. The parking lot has since been converted to multi-story housing, but while plans for the theatre building itself have been discussed, nothing definite has come to pass. In early 2023, winter storms caused damage to the deteriorating vertical sign, and local government engineers ordered the owners to remove it in the interest of public safety. Read more about the Alexandria’s deterioration.

900 block of Faxon Avenue (945 Faxon at right) under construction, likely by Nelson Brothers company - Westwood Park Association.
Residence parks were a popular concept in San Francisco in the years just prior to the 1917 entry of the United States into World War I. Although Presidio Terrace, adjacent to Arguello Boulevard, was developed in 1905, construction activities on newer, larger communities such as St. Francis Wood, Forest Hill, West Portal Park, and Ingleside Terraces were already underway when Westwood Park emerged in 1916 as a similar locale but at more moderate prices. The expansion of World War I and the involvement of the United States in April 1917 caused construction to be suspended temporarily, but it returned with strong sales in the post-war years of the early 1920s, as shown here on Faxon Avenue in 1924. Read Woody LaBounty’s two articles from 2013 about the birth of Westwood Park: Part 1 and Part 2.

Parnassus Masonic Temple on southwest corner of 9th Avenue and Judah, 1924 - photo by Martin Behrman; courtesy of a Private Collector.
The Parnassus Masonic Temple at 9th Avenue and Judah Street saw its cornerstone laid in a grand ceremony on February 23, 1914, with a crowd of 2,000 people in attendance. At the time, there were dozens of Masonic Lodges in San Francisco, one in virtually every neighborhood. The building often leased out the ground floor to retail businesses (Safeway was a long-time occupant of that space and the basement in the World War II era), with lodge rooms, administrative offices, and a kitchen/dining room on the upper floors. Shown here in 1924 when it was 10 years old, the building was undergoing maintenance and the ground floor appears to be vacant. (Note the triple-lamped gas streetlight at the corner, still in common use.) The lodge eventually sold the property, as its membership numbers declined severely in the post-World War II period, and the entire building is now occupied by a variety of commercial tenants.

Fleishhacker Pool, August 18, 1924 - photo by Horace Chaffee, SF Department of Public Works; courtesy of a Private Collector.
In 1922, Park Commission President Herbert Fleishhacker arranged for the purchase of a large parcel of land from the Spring Valley Water Company for the construction of a large swimming pool, playfield, and zoo at the site, all to be managed by the Park Commission for the benefit of San Francisco residents. Fleishhacker and his brother Mortimer donated $50,000 to construct a Mother's Building on the site in memory of their mother, Delia Fleishhacker. Mayor James Rolph introduced a resolution to name the entire park after the Fleishhacker family. Shown here in August 1924, the six-million-gallon pool (filled with heated ocean water and patrolled by lifeguards in row boats) is nearing completion prior to its 1925 opening. By the early 1970s, the pool had fallen into disrepair and was closed. It was eventually paved over for the zoo parking lot, and in December 2012, the abandoned bathhouse building was destroyed by a fire. Today, the only monument to this memorable civic facility is the triple-arched entrance wall of the old bathhouse structure, and the Mother’s Building. Read more about the early history of the pool in Woody LaBounty’s 2001 article and see the remaining wall of the bathhouse building.

Palace of the Legion of Honor in Lincoln Park, circa 1924 - Courtesy of a Private Collector.
The Palace of the Legion of Honor is another civic amenity that came about because of the generous philanthropy of one individual, San Francisco native Alma deBretteville Spreckels. The building, a full-scale replica of the French Pavilion at the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco, was opened on Armistice Day, November 11, 1924, and dedicated to the memory of California soldiers who died in World War I. Mrs. Spreckels personally visited Europe to generate financial support and to persuade both the French government and Queen Marie of Romania to donate works of art to the new museum. From 1992 to 1995, the building underwent a seismic retrofit, systems upgrades, and significant expansion of basement areas into additional galleries. At that time, numerous graves were found beneath the building, a clear reminder of Lincoln Park’s prior use as a City Cemetery. The museum is now operated in conjunction with the deYoung Museum under the joint name Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

View southwest of construction work on Harding Boulevard, later called El Camino Del Mar, circa 1924 - photo by Moulin Studios; courtesy of a Private Collector.
One of the most scenic streets in San Francisco was being laid out in 1924. Often called Harding Boulevard at the time (in honor of U.S. President Warren Harding, who died at the Palace Hotel in August 1923), it was more commonly referred to as El Camino del Mar. Running from the Palace of the Legion of Honor site to 48th and Point Lobos Avenues above the Cliff House, the roadway offered exceptional views of the entrance to San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean. Land in the area proved notoriously unstable, however, resulting in the abandonment of a nearby streetcar line following storms in 1925. The nearby El Camino del Mar roadway proved equally problematic to city maintenance crews, with repairs to the cracking and sliding roadway a common occurrence. The area was closed to vehicular traffic by the early 1960s, and today is a walking trail only.

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