by Woody LaBounty
The group is a dour looking one. A minister with clergical collar, a grim man standing beside him, and a collection of stern women and children in their dress-up clothes pose in a weedy courtyard for the photographer. One woman in the back is too shy to lift her head for the photo. Only the boy on the far right really goes for a smile and the reward for his cheerfulness is to become a blur on the negative.
The serious attitude of this congregation or Sunday school class is not so odd, but the group’s backdrop is truly strange. The wall behind the group is surmounted not by religious iconography, sacred symbols, or biblical scripture, but by the worn side of a North Beach and Mission Street horse car from the Market Street Railway.
When many of the city’s old horse-pulled rail lines were converted to electric streetcars in the 1890s the Market Street Railway Company offloaded the sturdy but incompatible cars for sale to the public for $10-$20. Transit cars that for thirty years had ferried thousands of San Franciscans from the Financial District to the Mission now became garden sheds, small shoe repair shops, real estate offices, summer cottages, and artist studios.
Along the beach south of Golden Gate Park a quirky community of converted horse cars started with bohemian clubhouses, weekend rentals, and coffee saloons. The grandest structure in this Carville-by-the Sea was the nineteenth century version of a bed-and-breakfast named “Vista del Mar,” run by Charles and Abbie Patriarche. He was a purchasing agent and the couple’s primary residence was a fine home on Pacific Avenue. Made up of ten old cars with destination signs used as fencing, Vista del Mar proudly displayed the open sides of car on the second story where the rows of windows offered superb ocean views. The main structure formed a U with an open courtyard sheltered from the westerly breezes in the center. It is in this courtyard that our church group posed.
Carville’s heyday lasted about a decade on either side of the turning of the twentieth century. Refugees dispossessed by the 1906 earthquake and fire moved out to the open beach lots and began building a more conventional neighborhood in today’s Outer Sunset District. The newcomers tempered the old party atmosphere of Carville with more conventional businesses, serious booster clubs, and new churches. St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church opened where it still stands today on the corner of Judah Street and 43rd Avenue. The old Vista Del Mar was taken over to become the St. Andrew by the Sea Protestant Episcopal Church at 1338 47th Avenue. Sunday School was taught in a shed up on the sand hill behind.
St. Andrew was San Francisco’s far western outpost of religion from 1908 until it closed about 1911. In 1912, a beach-dwelling Episcopalian had to trudge over the dunes to the Church of Incarnation at 11th Avenue and Irving Street.
The old Vista del Mar structure hung on another twenty years, with the Patriarches moving in from their Pacific Avenue home to spend their sunset years in the Sunset District. Today, two stucco single-family homes, built in 1938, occupy the lot.