Geneva Terraces: A Closer Look

by Woody LaBounty

A closer look at an OpenSFHistory image.

Welcome to Ottawa and Cayuga Avenues in Geneva Terraces. This scan of a vivid 35mm color slide calls to mind the work of photorealist artist Robert Bechtel, an expert at capturing the familiar quasi-suburban life of San Francisco’s outer neighborhoods—quiet avenues with stucco row houses, strips of lawn, and cars in driveways.

Ottawa and Cayuga Avenues, 1950s.
1500 block of Cayuga Avenue from Ottawa Avenue, 1950s. (wnp25.0389. Courtesy of a private collector)

Geneva Terraces lies in the rough triangle south of Geneva Avenue between Alemany Boulevard and Interstate 280, in what Google maps would label the Outer Mission now. Street names in the area are mostly Native American tribe names and appear on the “West End Homestead” maps filed with the city in the 1860s. But into the twentieth century, this gully between the San Jose and Mission Roads was open farmland with Islais Creek running through it to the bay.

Cayuga Park area, February, 1915.
View north of farms and Islais Creek (on left) near the site of the future Cayuga Playground and Geneva Terraces, February 1915. (wnp27.0484, DPW Image 2229. Copy negative courtesy of a private collector)

In the 1910s, the city buried Islais Creek in a sewer project and in the late 1920s, the real estate firm of Baldwin & Howell began filling the old farmland with stucco bungalows. There was little terracing needed for Geneva Terraces, but every hopeful subdivision at the time was named Terraces or Heights. Baldwin & Howell were at the tail end of selling out Mission Terrace and Westwood Highlands, both restricted residential parks tailored for upper middle-class buyers, and initially, Geneva Terraces had the same marketing plan. Prolific house architect Charles Strothoff designed five-room Mediterranean-inspired homes constructed by builder F. W. Varney, and the first houses went on sale for $6,500 just north of Geneva Avenue in 1927.

Grading for Geneva Terrace, 1938.
Grading for Geneva Terraces streets. View southeast from about Modoc Avenue. Upper left is Mt. Vernon Avenue and upper right is the intersection of Ottawa Avenue and Alemany Boulevard, February 28, 1938. (wnp26.157, DPW Image A5533. Copy negative courtesy of a private collector)

The onset of the Great Depression changed plans. Baldwin & Howell contracted with the Stoneson Brothers, who would later have great success creating the Lakeside neighborhood and the Stonestown Shopping Center, to build slightly humbler houses southeast of Geneva Avenue. In June 1930, five-room houses were listed at $5,450, a not uncommon monthly mortgage payment in San Francisco today.

As with the hundreds of houses built at the same time in the Sunset District, these modest residences followed a cookie-cutter floor plan, but had lots of frosting to draw buyers. Kitchens and bathrooms sported colored tile work with skylights and center patios (“daylight halls”) bringing in light. Outside, the stucco facades got bright pastel paint jobs and were tweaked with Old World elements to put mock Tudor cottages cheek and jowl with Mission chapels.

All the color didn’t help in the depths of the Depression. In January 1934, new Geneva Terraces houses were listed as low as $3,750.

Thanks to FHA loans, the market picked up by the time the Cayuga and Ottawa Avenue houses pictured above were built. The model home for the block at 1556 Cayuga was priced at $6,000 in November 1938.

Who were the families moving into Geneva Terraces? Like in the adjacent Excelsior District, typical last names of buyers were Corradetti, Catelli, Del Carlo, and Bergolio—Italians moving out from North Beach or flats in the Inner Mission for the promise of a new home in a new neighborhood. On November 9, 1938, almost certainly the first baby on the 1500 block was born to the De Capeva family, who had just purchased 1586 Cayuga Avenue, the second house in from the corner in our color image at the top of this story.

Rincon Hill: A Closer Look

by Woody LaBounty

A closer look at an OpenSFHistory image.

This week, San Francisco Chronicle architecture critic John King did a nice piece on a Folsom Street building that has been an archaic sight: a century-old working blacksmith shop an anvil’s toss from downtown.

While now new slick towers rise around it, thirty years ago the rustic shiplap-sided building was surrounded by empty lots, quiet warehouses, and a stark PG&E substation. In the early 1990s I took lunch walks on the mostly deserted streets of Rincon Hill, and actually heard an occasional rooster crow behind a weed-rimmed fence underneath the Bay Bridge anchorage. I’d pass Klockars’ and, blacksmith signage or not, I assumed the place it was probably rented by some well-off gearhead to store his cars rather than actually housing a true smithy.

Folsom Street from First Street, February 17, 1919.
Folsom Street from First Street, February 17, 1919, when F. V. Wilbert did the blacksmithing at 443 Folsom Street. (wnp36.02048, DPW Book 24, Image 5820 by Horace Chaffee. Copy negative courtesy of a private collector)

In the photograph above, a scan of a Department of Public Works department image, 443 Folsom Street was only seven years old, a relative newcomer to Rincon Hill. Blacksmith F. V. Wilbert shared the block with a coppersmith, a boilermaker, and the Castle Hotel, where rooms were 35 cents a day. Other photographs taken from the department in 1919 show a neighborhood solidly working class, full of smelters, dark corner bars with swinging doors, ramshackle cottages, and residence hotels for sailors.

Rincon Street from Harrison Street, April 4, 1919.
Rincon Street (near 1st) from Harrison Street, April 4, 1919. (wnp36.02095, DPW Book 25, Image 5880 by Horace Chaffee. Copy negative courtesy of a private collector)

1st Street between Bryant and Harrison Street, February 4, 1919.
Cottages on First Street between Bryant and Harrison Street, February 4, 1919. Site now occupied by Bay Bridge anchorage. (wnp36.02095, DPW Book 24, Image 5779 by Horace Chaffee. Copy negative courtesy of a private collector)

2nd Street at Harrison Street, January 28, 1919.
Harrison Street East from 2nd Street. The boy posing has influenza mask around his neck. Fleishhacker Box Company at right, and the hill in background has since been cut down. (wnp26.088, DPW Image 5753 by Horace Chaffee. Copy negative courtesy of a private collector)

While these eerily empty industrial streets from the 1910s are hard to match up with the building boom of today, they were as markedly different fifty years earlier. In the 1860s and 1870, Rincon Hill was the neighborhood of genteel Victorians, where the fashionable, politically-connected, and wealthy lived on the sunny hillside.

2nd and Folsom Streets, 1860s.
1st and Harrison Street in the 1860s, looking north to Telegraph Hill. St. Francis Assisi Church in North Beach in distance. (wnp27.2692, Courtesy of a private collector)

1st and Harrison Streets, 1860s.
2nd and Folsom Street in the 1860s, looking north to Telegraph Hill. (wnp24.215a, stereoview image by Carleton Watkins. Courtesy of a private collector)

The nabobs relocated to Nob Hill and Peninsula suburbs in the 1880s, their retreat hastened by the infamous 2nd Street cut through the hill, which connected the city’s South of Market neighborhood with shipyards, docks, and industrial concerns to the south. Soon, the area became a blue-collar light-industry zone, with rail lines connecting to warehouses across dirt paths and cobblestone streets surrounded by smokestacks.

When the Bay Bridge was constructed in the 1930s, even more of the hill was obliterated to the point that today some real detective work was necessary to see any hillside among the on-ramps.

Forty- and fifty-story residential towers are now looming or being constructed on all sides of the old Klockars building at 443 Folsom Street.

The last blacksmith’s grandson wants to turn the landmark building into a cannabis dispensary.

Browse the Rincon Hill neighborhood images in the OpenSFHistory collection.