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A Short History of West of Twin Peaks

San Francisco's West of Twin Peaks neighborhoods include Balboa Terrace, Forest Hill, Forest Knolls, Midtown Terrace, Mount Davidson Manor, Sherwood Forest, St. Francis Wood, West Portal, Westwood Highlands, and Westwood Park.

In 1910, twelve years after the death of Adolph Sutro, his heirs hired the real estate firm of Baldwin & Howell to appraise his vast land holdings in San Francisco. Part of the estate was a section of the old Mexican land grant, Rancho San Miguel, in the geographic center of the city. Sutro bought this land ranging from the Inner Sunset south to beyond Mount Davidson in 1880, and proceeded to cover much of it with a forest of eucalyptus trees.

After completing the survey, A. S. Baldwin organized a company to purchase the rancho lands for the creation of master-planned housing developments. The city’s Twin Peaks Tunnel streetcar project coincided with the plans of Baldwin’s new Residential Development Company. The Municipal Railway would open up the land “West of Twin Peaks” with streetcar lines, and the Residential Development Company would sell tracts of land to companies interested in creating high-end homes for new residents.

The Twin Peaks Tunnel promised a twenty-minute commute on the streetcar from the west portal of the tunnel to downtown. Based on that promise, companies such as Newell-Murdoch, Mason-McDuffie, and Fernando Nelson & Sons began cutting down the Sutro Forest and creating Forest Hill, St. Francis Wood, and West Portal Park. These new neighborhoods were based on the City Beautiful ideals of “residence parks,” which featured curvilinear street plans, lush landscaping, and decorative street furniture, gateways, and staircases. Minimum construction costs and building line set-backs were proscribed, and banned by restrictive housing covenants were commercial structures and minority ownership or residency. (Supreme Court rulings invalidated these racial covenants decades later.)

The early developments struggled to find buyers while the Twin Peaks Tunnel was delayed and World War I put restrictions on building materials. Finally, the tunnel opened and streetcar service began on February 3, 1918. The economic prosperity of the 1920s spurred the growth of the West of Twin Peaks area and new residence parks—Balboa Terrace, Mount Davidson Manor, Westwood Park, Westwood Highlands, Monterey Heights, Sherwood Forest, and Miraloma Park—were established and prospered. By 1924 the assessed valuation of the West of Twin Peaks area had risen by $4,000,000.

These neighborhoods have housed doctors, lawyers, and some of the city's wealthiest and most powerful citizens: mayors, baseball stars, and corporate leaders. Strong neighborhood associations maintained the beauty and architectural integrity of these residence parks, at the same time limiting ownership opportunities in the early years with racist housing covenants and profiling.

Later 1950s and 1960s developments around Twin Peaks and Mount Sutro—Midtown Terrace and Forest Knolls—marketed to more middle-class buyers, but till featured undulating street plans and terraced view lots.

Racial diversity (if not economic diversity) finally came to West of Twin Peaks, and these neighborhoods, these “garden communities,” are still some of the most highly sought addresses in San Francisco.


WOTP Articles

  • Podcast # 398: Willie Mays on the West Side

    Willie Mays is a baseball icon. Already a superstar with the New York Giants when they moved to San Francisco, Willie and his wife, Marghuerite, found a brand new home near Mt. Davidson, only to be denied purchase because they were African American - but ultimately prevailed. (Outside Lands San Francisco Podcast Sep 26, 2020)
  • Podcast # 396: Forest Knolls

    You've probably driven past the Forest Knolls neighborhood many times without even knowing it. Community action led by a now prominent politician, finally opened up the development to people of color. (Outside Lands San Francisco Podcast Sep 12, 2020)
  • Podcast # 356: Nineteenth Ave and Sloat Blvd

    The proximity of Nineteenth Avenue and Sloat Boulevard is teeming with history: Stern Grove, the Trocadero, Ardenwood, and the Scottish Rite Temple are just a few of the highlights discussed. (Outside Lands San Francisco Podcast Dec 14, 2019)
  • Podcast # 333: Laguna Honda

    The story of the San Francisco lake in the hills. (Outside Lands San Francisco Podcast Jun 29, 2019)
  • Podcast # 323: Easter on Mount Davidson

    The tradition of sunrise services on San Francisco's highest peak. (Outside Lands San Francisco Podcast Apr 20, 2019)
  • Podcast # 296: Rancho San Miguel

    A Mexican land grant from 1845 still reverberates on San Francisco's west side 173 years later. (Outside Lands San Francisco Podcast Oct 6, 2018)
  • Podcast # 287: Charlotte Estes

    A mysterious monument in a city park. Who was Charlotte Estes? (Outside Lands San Francisco Podcast Aug 4, 2018)
  • Podcast # 280: Balboa Terrace

    The residence park with Spanish Colonial Revival villas and Storybook cottages. (Outside Lands San Francisco Podcast Jun 16, 2018)
  • Podcast # 278: Balboa Reservoirs

    Why are the two reservoirs across from City College used for parking and not water? And what will happen to that land? We have some answers, thanks to researcher Amy O’Hair. (Outside Lands San Francisco Podcast May 27, 2018)
  • Podcast # 262: Opening the Twin Peaks Tunnel

    Recognizing the 100th Anniversary of the streetcar tunnel that opened up the southwest side of San Francisco. (Outside Lands San Francisco Podcast Feb 3, 2018)