Temple Emanu-El: A Closer Look

by Woody LaBounty

A closer look at an OpenSFHistory image.

As naively disrespectful boys in the 1970s, we would ride our bikes into the Temple Emanu-El courtyard; do a quick loop around its fountain; and coast back downhill on Lake Street to our 11th Avenue block. The red clay tile dome rising from the northwest corner of Arguello Boulevard and Lake Street was a landmark of the Richmond District for us, an orientation point to lead us back home when wandering the hilltops of Fort Miley, Buena Vista Park, or Golden Gate Heights.

Temple Emanu-El.
Temple Emanu-El on Arguello at Arguello Boulevard and Lake Street, March 1972. (wnp25.2465, 35mm slide, courtesy of a private collector.)

The predecessor Temple Emanu-El on Sutter Street between Powell and Stockton was just as much an icon, culturally and visually. At the time of its dedication in 1866, the temple was home to the largest Reform Jewish congregation on the west coast, and for decades its distinctive onion-domed twin towers shone on the slope of Nob Hill, gleaming in bronze-plate above the smaller buildings that separated the temple from Union Square.

Temple Emanu-El on Sutter Street, circa 1890.
Temple Emanu-El on Sutter Street, circa 1890. (wnp27.4144, Pope Collection, courtesy of a private collector.)

Designer William Patton was an expert in Gothic Revival and he brought hallmarks of the style to Emanu-El with details celebrating Jewish life. Illuminated six-pointed Stars of David glimmered in stained glass windows and the Tablets of the Law was set above the main entrance. The onion domes that topped the eight-sided towers were plated in bronze with golden globe finials. Fred Rosenbaum, in his book, “Visions of Reform, Congregation Emanu-El and the Jews of San Francisco 1849-1999,” wrote how the synagogue’s towers acted as beacons of the entire Bay Area:

“One hundred sixty-feet high, these gold-tipped spires were an integral part of the early San Francisco skyline: they were a prominent landmark for ships entering the Golden Gate; they could be seen by hikers across the bay in the Berkeley hills.”

The towers were iconic landmarks even after the April 18, 1906 earthquake. While the massive fires that followed the quake gutted Temple Emanu-El, the frame and towers remained standing. As we sort through hundreds of post-earthquake images in the OpenSFHistory collection, Temple Emanu-El’s ghostly skeleton acts as a wayfinder for us, a place-marker, along with the Call Building and the “birdcage” Whittell building, to identify locations in a landscape of blackened rubble.

Ruins of Temple Emanu-El after the 1906 earthquake.
Ruins of Temple Emanu-El after the 1906 earthquake. (wnp14.4603.jpg, negative courtesy of a private collector.)

After the earthquake, the Jewish community rallied to restore the temple. Cone-topped blocks on the towers replaced the elegant onion domes, and the walls and the stained glass were restored. On September 1, 1907, the doors to the sanctuary reopened, and the space served as temple for another 15 years.

After the Richmond District was chosen for a new temple in the 1920s, the growing Emanu-El congregation sold the Sutter Street property. (The medical office building, 450 Sutter Street, occupies the lot today, and the golden gleam of the temple’s old onion domes is more than matched by architect Timothy Pflueger’s Neo-Mayan entryway and lobby.)

Ground was broken for the new Temple Emanu-El in August 1924. The cornerstone at Arguello and Lake was laid with the same trowel that had been used for the Sutter Street synagogue sixty years earlier.

The San Franciscans: Irene Canby LeRoy & Family

by Nicole Meldahl

Researching locals found in an OpenSFHistory image.

History work is anything but glamorous. Long hours, laughable pay, up to your elbows in dusty boxes that reek of mildew half the time. But we history nerds are a passionate, persistent sort and sometimes that pays off in what I like to call “archival serendipity.” One extreme example of archival serendipity allowed me to meet another San Franciscan—Irene Canby LeRoy.

Irene Canby LeRoy with daughter Peggy on the lawn of Colonel James Canby's Presidio of San Francisco residence, c. 1926.
Irene Canby LeRoy with daughter Peggy on the lawn of Colonel James Canby’s Presidio of San Francisco residence, c. 1926. (wnp14.0314, negative courtesy of a private collector).

While working at the Park Archives and Records Center in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area a few years ago, I was cataloging a batch of photos and ephemera in a large blue envelope marked “Irene Canby” that was inherited from the old Presidio Army Museum. This one was a real conundrum: no donation receipts, partial IDs that often weren’t very helpful of photos that ranged from formal portraits of nineteenth-century European nobility to 1920s snapshots of a small Jack Russell terrier wearing a snazzy harness. Each time I tried to unravel this puzzle I inevitably failed and had to set it aside, hoping something mixed in with another collection would be the key to unlocking the Canby secrets.

The Canby-LeRoy dog.
The Canby-LeRoy family dog: key to solving a history mystery. (wnp14.0320, negative courtesy of a private collector).

The Canby-LeRoy family at the Presidio with their dog—our archives serendipity.
The Canby-LeRoy family at the Presidio with their dog—our archives serendipity. (wnp14.0315, negative courtesy of a private collector).

Then one day I was processing a batch of unidentified family snapshots and negatives at Western Neighborhoods Project, and I couldn’t believe my eyes: there he was, the Canby’s Jack Russell terrier wearing the same harness, photographed in the same location in the Presidio of San Francisco. Piecing together scraps of information—visual and written—from materials held by both organizations, I was able to compile a history of Irene Canby and her family. Archival serendipity made possible by one persistent archivist.

Peggy and her pooch at the LeRoy residence on Vallejo Street.
Peggy and her pooch at the LeRoy residence on Vallejo Street. (wnp14.0308, negative courtesy of a private collector).

The LeRoy family home decorated for Christmas c. 1930.
The LeRoy family home decorated for Christmas c. 1930. (wnp14.0311, negative courtesy of a private collector).

And what lovely local history it is. Irene F. Canby was the daughter of Eugenia (Cunningham) and Colonel James Canby. Colonel Canby had roots in Delaware that distantly relate him to former Secretary of State John Kerry through that European nobility. The colonel came to California as an officer in the U.S. Army. He served in the Spanish American War and settled down in the Presidio of San Francisco as post paymaster with his wife and daughter. Irene married Eugene Rene LeRoy, son of a French importer/exporter who inherited much of a defaulted Mexican land grant called Rancho Guadalupe located near Santa Barbara. The couple had one daughter in 1925, Marguerite, and the small family lived just outside the Presidio gates—taking trips with their pooch to visit Grandpa Canby on post, playing at Ocean Beach and in Golden Gate Park, being San Franciscans.

The LeRoy family enjoying a day at Ocean Beach.
The LeRoy family enjoying a day at Ocean Beach. (wnp14.0322, negative courtesy of a private collector).

Colonel Canby passed away at Letterman General Hospital in 1935, and by that time the LeRoy family was living in Palo Alto where Marguerite (better known as Peggy) would attend Stanford University. There she met and later married a dashing young man named William Nichols, who left University to enlist in the Air Force during World War II. Sadly, Irene would outlive her entire family—surviving the loss of her mother in 1951, her daughter in 1981, and her husband in 1985.

Irene pushes Peggy and friend on a ride at Children's Playground in Golden Gate Park, c. 1930.
Irene pushes Peggy and friend on a ride at Children’s Playground in Golden Gate Park, c. 1930. (wnp14.0321, negative courtesy of a private collector).

It’s hard to know how and why family archives are split up, but my guess is the LeRoy family had an estate sale after Irene’s death. According to our private collector, he purchased the Canby materials now accessible on OpenSFHistory at an antique store in San Francisco sometime in the late 1980s or early 1990s. Materials that ended up at the Presidio Army Museum and later inherited by the Park Archives may have been purchased at the same antique store, perhaps directly from the estate…who knows? I’m just glad I was in the right place at the right time to ensure another family of San Franciscans no longer suffer the injustice of being forgotten.