Streetwise - The Long & Short of it


More by Frank Dunnigan

Frank Dunnigan, WNP member and columnist. -

Streetwise - The Long & Short of it

by Frank Dunnigan
July 2011

Some time back, one regular Western Neighborhoods contributor raised the question of how and when 19th Avenue was widened into three lanes in each direction with a center divide. This query eventually set me off in search of some answers.

Planned as a standard residential street, 19th Avenue quickly became a north-south thoroughfare with the advent of the automobile. From Golden Gate Park to Parkmerced, today's 19th Avenue appears to cut a straight line through the Sunset District, as it shuttles a huge number of vehicles between the Park and the Peninsula, but that wasn't always the case. Shortly after the Golden Gate Bridge opened in May of 1937, San Francisco's leaders realized that there was a need to route even more drivers through the western part of town on their way to and from the newly opened bridge (and why do City officials always realize things like this after the fact?).

Thus, the widening of 19th Avenue was underway by late 1937. Much of the work was accomplished through removal of front yards and utility poles, as seen in this before-and-after shot looking south from a point just north of Noriega Street:

Views of front yard removal on 19th Avenue to widen for California Highway 1, 1940. - CA Hwys and Public Works magazine, Nov 1940 / Eric Fischer

In addition, though, there were some selected demolitions and relocations. Certain large buildings, principally Jefferson School at 19th and Irving, some long-time churches near Judah, and an apartment building or two were spared, thus resulting in a street alignment that varies slightly in some blocks because of these immovable objects. Although all of 19th Avenue seems to be a straight line while driving, take a closer look the next time you are exiting Golden Gate Park and headed south. Individual blocks occasionally veer left or right, and they sometimes have a slight bend at the midpoint—a layout that came about as the result of working around certain large difficult-to-move buildings.

Within a year or so, much of the work was complete, though in some cases, there were still structures protruding into the expanded 19th Avenue right-of-way. Here, the area near Vicente has already been widened by late 1938, but a few blocks away, there are still some structures north of Taraval near Santiago that are obstructing the new street, while the center concrete traffic islands in that area have yet to be built:

November 1, 1938, looking north on 19th Avenue at Vicente Street. - San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library

Here's a 1940 view of the completed work, taken from 19th & Taraval looking north:

Widening of 19th Avenue at Taraval, November 1940. - CA Hwys and Public Works magazine, Nov 1940 / Eric Fischer

Looking at these old pictures, I can just imagine how thrilled Dad was to have this fine newly widened roadway, filled with an abundance of gas stations, running right through the City when he lived just two blocks away on 21st Avenue near Rivera. With only a few traffic lights and not many other vehicles blocking the way, you can just imagine how drivers revved up the old Plymouth or the Model A, and then roared along in third gear, likely scattering pedestrians and cross traffic all along the way. And as much as today's 19th Avenue is derided for its congestion and backups, there was almost something far worse built in its place in the 1950s—a full-blown freeway.

Now, let's hop into the ol' Chevy and cruise down 19th, maybe picking up a malt at Shaw's on Ocean Avenue before we hit Junipero Serra Boulevard for a nice slow ride down to the Airport, just the way we did in the days before Interstate 280 was built. Here's what we used to pass, from corner to corner, along with some current updates.

Lincoln—For years, there was a Shell station on the southeast corner and Associated-Flying A on the southwest:

Looking north into Golden Gate Park across Lincoln Way on 19th Avenue, 1920s. - San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library

Note the exceptionally wide sidewalks and lack of a direct path through Golden Gate Park in this early 1930s shot. Those with good memories will note that in later years, these two gas stations found themselves strategically placed as the first and last that drivers would see when entering or exiting San Francisco's west side via the Golden Gate Bridge. Circa 1979 or so, the Flying A station disappeared, and was replaced by the present two-story structure and parking lot, built by Art Zimmerman, who owned the ever-popular Zim's chain of restaurants. Named "Arthur's at the Park," it was one of the largest new restaurants in the neighborhood. I remember taking my parents there once or twice when it was new, circa 1979-80, but the food was less than spectacular, though nightly specials were offered in an effort to pull in a crowd—large crab cocktails for 50 cents still come to mind. Originally there were plans for live music and dancing upstairs, but neighborhood residents were dead-set against that, and the permit process ground to a halt. Sadly, with a fine new building in a great location, the restaurant alone just didn't make it. The site went through a dozen or more food service incarnations over the years, then a retail outlet, and today, a church.

Irving—The northeast corner has been a Chevron gas station for many years, while the northwest corner, once a liquor store, became a Starbucks outlet more than ten years ago. The southwest corner also once housed a liquor store, but that corner became a bank about fifteen years ago, while the southeast corner was destined to become home to Jefferson School:

Looking southeast at the intersection of 19th Avenue and Irving Street at the Sunset branch library, 1920. - Jesse Brown Cook Scrapbooks, BANC PIC 1996.003, UC Berkeley

Originally, the school building itself was a rather boxy structure facing 19th Avenue, designed in classic 1920s style by architect Timothy Pfleuger (whose credits also include Alamo School and Roosevelt Junior High in the Richmond District, plus both Washington and Lincoln high schools. The auditorium, with its large rounded windows, was the sole surviving campus structure following a devastating May 31, 1959 fire, allegedly set by a troubled young student when the school was closed.

Jefferson Elementary School, 19th Avenue and Irving Street, 1920s. - San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library

Following the fire, the school building itself had to be torn down, and was subsequently rebuilt in a 1950s modern style that now looks inward to the schoolyard and away from the congestion of 19th Avenue. Even worse than the property damage, though, was the fact that 21 San Francisco firefighters were injured in that blaze.

Judah—The northeast corner remains a single family home, while the northwest corner houses the Calvary Presbyterian Church, a long-time structure, once clad in brown shingles and then updated with stucco well over half a century ago. Just north of the intersection, on the east side of the street, is the 19th Avenue Baptist Church, another venerable structure that predates the widening project. These two churches and Jefferson School, built near the front edge of their lots, required the widening plan to take a couple of twists and turns in the street's widened layout to accommodate them. The southeast and southwest corners have long been home to matching Union 76 gas stations.

Kirkham—Three corners of residential units, plus one old gas station turned into an auto tune-up shop on the southeast corner that seems to cry out for a tear-down and rebuild as an apartment complex. I give that corner five years, tops, in its present form. The old telephone company building on the west side of 19th was originally built to house the LOMBARD 6-exchange, the first in the Sunset to go all-dial in 1937.

Lawton—Three corners of residential units, including one of the nicest looking modern corner apartment buildings in the Western Neighborhoods on the northwest corner. On the southwest corner sits the former Shriner's Hospital brick building, now with a new wing on 20th Avenue that is home to a large modern assisted-living community.

Moraga—Two corners of residential units on the east side of 19th, plus a row of newer townhouses, dating from the 1990s, that block access from 19th to 20th along Moraga. The story behind that closed street is that when Shriner's needed to expand in the 1960s, they owned a parcel of vacant land south of Moraga between 19th and 20th, but necessity demanded that the new wing be connected to the hospital proper. The City granted them permission to close off that block of Moraga, since it was for a worthy charitable purpose. Fast forward to the 1990s, when a new developer acquired the property after Shriner's Hospital was relocated. New developer somehow persuaded the powers that be at City Hall that the housing plan was not "economically viable" unless the land that was once Moraga Street could be filled with additional housing. Thus, Moraga Street remains closed for the foreseeable future.

Noriega—Appropriately for a retail street, all four corners contain retail establishments, with the ones on the east side also containing housing above the retail. The northeast corner was once just a single story building (originally a Richfield gas station as late as the 1950s, it housed Joe Alioto for Mayor in 1968, and later a produce market, and then a pet food outlet), but a rebuild about ten years ago turned it into ground floor retail plus units above. The southeast corner has long featured a ground floor liquor store with residential above. The northwest corner was once a Chevron station, but is now an auto repair shop, and the southwest corner has been a bank since the early 1960s (Pioneer Investor Savings, American Savings, and Chase are three that immediately come to mind, though I'm sure that there were many others), replacing an old Safeway store that occupied the site until about 1963 or so.

Ortega—One corner with a residential units, plus a long-time Chevron gas station on the northeast corner. In the late 1950s, the southeast corner became home to a two-story concrete and steel structure housing the Carlsen Plymouth dealership that soon converted to Volkswagen and then did a tremendous business (how many of us drove a VW back then—hmmm??). By the 1980s, the U.S. Postal Service had taken over the structure, dubbing it "Pacific Carrier Annex." Today, that corner sits vacant, awaiting a new tenant. Finally, on the southwest corner, there is the Lycee Francais la Perouse, a private junior and senior high school. This site was formerly the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (1956-2006) before that organization moved to Oak and Market Streets, and prior to that, it was the San Francisco Infant Asylum (1929-1956). When I first moved to 22nd & Pacheco in 1979, I was amazed on one of my first nights alone in the house to hear a series of Bach's Brandenburg Concertos drifting through the fog, loud and clear.

Pacheco—Three of the corners contain residential units, with a long-time gas station, currently branded Olympian, on the southeast corner—another spot that looks ripe for residential development. Mid-block on the south side of 19th between Pacheco and Quintara, there were several side-by-side vacant lots for many years, until a large concrete nursing home was built circa 1966. In the mid-1980s, the City moved our neighborhood polling place from Mrs. McGovern's garage to this nursing home at a time when it was not a very pleasant place, thus prompting many of us to register as "permanent absentee voters"—perhaps achieving what the City truly wanted all along.


Corner of 19th Avenue and Quintara Street in 1917. - Photo by H.H. Dobbin. Courtesy of California State Library.

Quintara—A 1960s apartment house is now on the northeast corner in place of an old Union Oil station, while a Richfield station long sat at the northwest corner, though that has now turned into an auto repair shop. The southwest corner has for many years (40 or more) had a tiny open-air flower stand tucked into the corner of the parking lot (once the site of a Wilshire gas station) for an adjacent 1950s structure that houses Allstate Insurance. Finally, the southeast corner was once home to our own JoAnne Quinn.

Rivera—Three corners of residential, though the apartment building at the northwest corner is a relatively new addition to the scene, circa early 1970s, when it replaced an old Texaco gas station. The southeast corner, once a Norwalk gas station, now houses the Chinese Bible Church in a newly constructed building that is attached to the former offices of the Gellert Brothers' Standard Building Company.

Santiago—A tiny dental building sits in the shadow of a classic three-story art deco apartment house on the northwest corner, while the northeast corner contains a couple of 1970s-era apartment buildings that replaced a Flying A gas station. Residential units occupy the southeast corner while a long-time gas station, now branded Flyers, is on the southwest corner.

Taraval—Once an intersection occupied by three gas stations—Mobil on the northeast, corner, Shell on the northwest, and Richfield on the southeast, while today, only the Shell station remains. The northeast is now home to ground floor retail with residential units above and the southeast contains a tiny branch of Chase Bank. Shumate's Pharmacy, once on the southwest, became a counter-service-only Zim's in the 1950s, followed by a variety of other restaurants, including one featuring a grass-thatched awning. It is now a sushi outlet.

Ulloa—Three corners of residences and the beginning of Larsen Park, with a massive boulder and metal plaque honoring the "Gentle Dane" Carl Larsen, on the southwest corner.


Navy Jet in Larsen Park, 1960s. - Courtesy of Richard Lim

Vicente—The northeast and southeast corners have long been residential, while the southeast and southwest corners are the open space of Larsen Park. A series of fighter jets, converted to play structures, occupied the southwest corner from the late 1950s to the 1980s.

Wawona—The northeast and southeast corners aren't really there, since the hilly terrain does not allow for the 700 block of Wawona to exist as a paved street between 18th Avenue and 19th Avenue. From 1916 to 1945, the #17 streetcar ran along 20th Avenue, and this corner was the line's terminus from 1937 when the street widening began, until the line's demise in late 1945. (See this page for details and some great photos.) The northeast corner has been home to both the old (1959) and the new (2009) Larsen Park Charlie Sava Swimming Pool, while the southwest corner, tucked into Sigmund Stern Grove, contains a lawn bowling field.

Sloat—The eucalyptus-filled Sigmund Stern Grove entrance graces the northwest corner, and while there used to be a small garden nursery at the northeast corner, that site has been the massive white Scottish Rite Temple since about 1962 or so. The southeast corner is residential, while the southwest corner has been a vacant lot, with seasonal vendors selling pumpkins and Christmas trees for as long as anyone can remember. It is now fenced off, prompting some speculation about what the property owner has in mind.

Ocean—The northwest and southwest corners are both residential, though the northwest corner was a vacant lot until the early 1970s. The building at the northeast corner was once the offices of Lang Realty, developers of Balboa Terrace (featured in a prominent scene in one episode of the 1950s TV drama Line-Up, aka San Francisco Beat), while the southeast corner contains a parking lot for the adjacent 1950s-era medical building on Ocean Avenue.

Eucalyptus—Residential units on the northeast and the northwest corners, with a dental office on the southeast corner and Lakeside Presbyterian Church on the southwest corner. One of those nearby homes used to sport a pair of concrete lions at the front door, which always fascinated me as a child. The great urban legend of the 1950s (depending on whose older relatives you heard it from) was that these lions signified: a house of ill-repute, a Mafia hangout, an abortion clinic, a gambling den, or some combination thereof. Or perhaps it was just a nice quiet owner who liked the look of stone lions.

Rossmoor—Small residential street that intersects 19th only on the east side, opposite Stonestown. Just south of the intersection sits the 1950s Mercy High School campus (See this page for some historical photos.) Though they deny it to this day, Mercy's Class of 1970 wrought particular havoc with the merchants of Stonestown (nasty allegations about some stall doors in the ladies' room going missing a few times that year). There's no sign of it now, though also in 1970, someone spray-painted a CalTrans highway insignia reading "Cattle Crossing" at the head of the driveway, likely suggesting an unhappy breakup of someone's high school romance. But since most of those alums and their one-time boyfriends are now quiet, respectable grandparents, we'll let such stories slip away without any further investigation.

Winston—There is one residence on the northeast corner, while the southeast corner is home to the now-refurbished Merced branch library, which has been there for more than 50 years. The iconic Stonestown sign with its cursive orange script and a bubbling fountain once occupied the northwest corner. The 1986 remodel did away with all of that, creating an entrance with only glass enclosures for waiting MUNI passengers and a few flagpoles. Just beyond the southwest corner was the last gas station (Chevron) on the southbound side before reaching San Mateo County, though that has now evaporated into a cloud of exhaust fumes, to be replaced by more Stonestown parking spaces.

Buckingham—Entrance to the Stonestown Apartments, originally built in the early 1950s. My Aunt Margaret's apartment on the 6th floor at 265 Buckingham, with a spectacular lake view, was our family's Thanksgiving destination for years. The complex, with four tower buildings of 90 units each and hundreds more low-rise units, was acquired in 2008 by San Francisco State for student housing, and is now known as University Park North.

Denslowe—Tiny residential street that intersects 19th only on the east side of the street, opposite San Francisco State. The neighbors in this area were among the first on the west side of SF to lobby City Hall successfully for preferential residential parking.

Holloway—Single family residential on the east side of the street, and the ever-sprawling San Francisco State University on the south side. Since construction began on the former cabbage fields in 1953, the school has expanded significantly, and it recently acquired a few hundred adjacent garden apartments on the south side of Holloway from Parkmerced, to be added to the existing base of student housing. Although the campus once consisted exclusively of low-rise structures to complement the surrounding residential area, new architects have shown little respect for the sensibilities of the neighbors in recent times, though the towering Verducci residence hall, circa 1968, located at the far west side of campus overlooking Lake Merced, was torn down in the 1990s following damage in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.

CrespiParkmerced office. Once derisively referred to as being home to "the newly wed and the nearly dead," the area is now making an impressive resurgence with people of all ages. In a tight housing market, Parkmerced's spacious World War II-era units are often a pleasant change from the tiny apartments that dot the San Francisco landscape. The small shopping center has now undergone significant improvements, with many new retailers moving in. Under a bold new plan recently approved by a 6-5 vote of the Board of Supervisors, the area is now setting forth on an ambitious 20-year program that will eventually demolish the 65-year old garden apartments, while leaving the 11 towers, built circa 1949, intact. In place of those garden units will be more than double the number of new units, but in mid-rise buildings with underground parking. While the rental nature of the community will be preserved, some of the new units will also be available for purchase. With more services and mass transit in the community proper—plans call for rerouting the M-Oceanview streetcar line into Parkmerced's central core via Juan Bautista Circle, and then exiting back to its original route to the Balboa Park BART station—the plan looks like a winner. Time will tell.

Junipero Serra—Technically, 19th Avenue turns left and crosses Junipero Serra Boulevard and continues eastward for a couple of blocks, to Randolph Street in the Oceanview neighborhood (so it's really Junipero Serra that takes drivers onto Interstate 280). What child of the 1950s can ever forget the multi-story C.M. Murphy Oldsmobile showroom at that corner of 19th & Junipero Serra with the newest Olds on display (red bows added for Christmas) in the top-floor glass-enclosed showroom under the spotlights? It was a great display that likely prompted hundreds of sales.

And that's 19th Avenue—the long and short of it.


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