Yerba Buena Cove 1853: A Closer Look

by Woody LaBounty

A closer look at an OpenSFHistory image.

The negative we scanned in 2017 was exposed in the late 1990s. The photographer at that time was capturing a scrapbook print made by a Department of Public Works employee in 1923. Through his viewfinder, the DPW photographer had focused on a gelatin silver print made by photographer and copyist T. E. Hecht perhaps twenty years earlier. Before Hecht’s turn-of-the century print, before who knows how many intermediate copies, photographer William Shew dragged lots of equipment to a sandy outcrop and took the original daguerreotype. The view: a five-piece panorama of Yerba Buena Cove and the boomtown of San Francisco taken from Rincon Hill in 1853.

View from Rincon Point, 1853.
First of five-part panorama of Yerba Buena Cove, 1853. Sutter House hotel, Sutter Iron Works, and home of Charles Hare visible in foreground. (wnp36.03149, DPW Book 34, image 9045. Copy negative courtesy of a private collector)

T. E. Hecht often scratched his own inscriptions on his copy negatives and sometimes made mistakes. “San Francisco in 1851 from Rincon Point,” inscribed above on the first plate of the panorama, is off by two years.

Patricia L. Keats, Library Director for The Society of California Pioneers, dissected an albumen print version of this same panorama in a 2008 article for The Argonaut, Journal of the San Francisco Museum and Historical Society. In her article, Pat noted various elements that accurately date the view from 1853. The Montgomery Block office building, constructed in 1853, is visible in the distance in the second image below. The local landmark survived the 1906 earthquake before being torn down for a parking lot. Today, the Transamerica Pyramid stands on the site. Another post-1851 clue are the side-wheel steamboats around the cove, such as the white one docked waterside at lower center. These distinctive craft didn’t begin being used as ferries on the bay until 1852.

View from Rincon Point, 1853.
Second of five-part panorama of Yerba Buena Cove, 1853. Storeship, water lots, ferry steamer Kangaroo, and Nob Hill and Russian Hill in background. (wnp36.03147, DPW Book 34, image 9043. Copy negative courtesy of a private collector)

The Noah’s Ark propped up above the water in Yerba Buena Cove was one of many storeships in business in the early days of San Francisco. After disgorging their arriving gold seekers, many vessels were transformed into instant stores, saloons, or warehouses. In the distant background, almost unrecognizable because of their open ridgelines, are Nob Hill and Russian Hill.

View from Rincon Point, 1853.
Third of five-part panorama of Yerba Buena Cove, 1853. Forest of masts of gold rush vessels, Telegraph Hill and Angel Island in distance. (wnp36.03148, DPW Book 34, image 9044. Copy negative courtesy of a private collector)

The center plate of the panorama (above) is a forest of masts. Behind is Telegraph Hill, with its actual telegraph station atop it, and in the distant right, Angel Island. A humble shack is under construction on a sandy outcrop in the foreground. The entire cove from this point westward, all the water visible in the previous two plates, would be filled in over the next five years. In fact, many “water lots” at this time were already for sale. The wood frames and rectangles set out in the cove designated lots available for purchase as future investment.

View from Rincon Point, 1853.
Fourth of five-part panorama of Yerba Buena Cove, 1853. (wnp36.03146, DPW Book 34, image 9042. Copy negative courtesy of a private collector)

As we continue panning right in the panorama, there are more lines of ships at anchor with the open bay beyond, and on the far edge of the last plate is Goat Island, now called Yerba Buena Island. In the 1930s, Shew’s vantage point became the anchorage site of the Bay Bridge, which would arch across to that island.

View from Rincon Point, 1853.
Fifth of five-part panorama of Yerba Buena Cove, 1853. Goat Island [today’s Yerba Buena Island] on far right. (wnp36.03145, DPW Book 34, image 9041. Copy negative courtesy of a private collector)

William Shew performed a kind of magic using chemicals, glass plates, an iron tripod, a heavy wood-frame camera, and, no doubt, high hopes that the weather and light would cooperate. From glass to paper to plastic film to pixels, the sight of the great city in its cluttered, raw childhood continues to fascinate.

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.