Streetwise: Doelger City


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Doelger City

by Woody LaBounty
November 1999

"Lying south of Golden Gate Park, and far beyond Stanyan street, lies a vast tract of waste and barren lands, whose topographical arrangement is hourly changing through the shifting of the restless sands, and yet whose favorable position - in the direct line of our westward growth which is as inevitable as fate - renders it a most desirable region for investment and for the founding of lovely and healthful homes." —Baldwin's Real Estate Guide, August 1887

I drive down Forty-first Avenue, between Kirkham and Lawton in the Outer Sunset District. There are more parking places in this one block than in all of North Beach right now. I stop the car, and get out to lean on the trunk and breathe in the light mist.

It's a quiet treeless block. As a boy in the Richmond District, I thought of the Sunset as that strange land beyond the park that didn't have any trees.

There are no businesses around. No one walks by. I am alone with a regiment of stucco homes, lined up in 25 by 120-foot lots, waiting for the fog that sits just offshore ten blocks away. I stand on the edge of Doelger City.

30th Avenue and Quintara Street, November 22, 1943. - San Francisco Department of Public Works

Hot Dogs to Homes

No man had a greater impact on the Sunset District than builder Henry Doelger. Eighty years ago, Doelger ran a hot dog stand on the corner of Seventh Avenue and Lincoln Way, and most of the land west of him was empty sand dunes.1 In the mid 1920s, Henry joined his brother Frank in the real estate business and began building homes on 39th Avenue. A romantic newspaperman recounting Henry Doelger's career summed up those first years:

"There was only one way to sell homes out in the Sunset District of San Francisco in those days; you hammered a few nails along with the carpenters and when a prospective buyer came along, off came the coveralls, and presto, instant real estate salesman.

"That's what Henry did!"

Although they may have started off sporting coveralls with the common men, the Doelgers worked their way into a prosperous living building on the empty sand and scrub south of Golden Gate Park. They competed with the Gellert and Stoneson Brothers, Chris McKeon, and Ray Galli to fill in the western blanks of the city grid. From 1934 to 1941 the Doelgers reigned as the largest homebuilders in the country, tossing up two residences a day.

Business only became better after the initial effects of the Great Depression. The newly-created Federal Housing Administration made home purchases realistic for middle-income buyers. Bank of America helped Henry Doelger build his empire with loans that ended up totaling over $75,000,000. The sand that blanketed the western half of the peninsula for a thousand years disappeared under concrete, stucco, and automobiles.

Suburbia in the City

Many scoff at these "Avenue" houses, bemoaning them as the precursor of the conformist suburban architecture that prevailed in the years following World War II. One local architecture guide postulates the Sunset houses were "made with a set of giant cookie cutters."

For all their assembly-line standardization, Sunset row houses can feature a hodge-podge of stylistic elements—curlicues of French Provincial, a roofline of Spanish Colonial tile, an angled Moderne lintel can all be present in one stucco facade. Each house can offer the eye a dollop from the American melting pot.

The houses stand in good repair sixty years after their construction. Doelger used redwood frames and—as opposed to many large-scale developers—made sure his product was well-built.

Doelger and his brothers constructed homes in the Richmond District, Golden Gate Heights, and along MacArthur Boulevard in Oakland. During World War II they put up over 3,000 units of defense housing in the East Bay and South San Francisco.

After the war Henry masterminded the Westlake subdivision in Daly City, where a drive down the well-manicured streets still screams 1950s California. But in most people's minds, Henry Doelger's legacy is defined by the area roughly bounded by 27th and 39th Avenues and Kirkham and Quintara Streets, the so-named "Doelger City."

If only they had put some trees in.

View west from Funston and Pacheco streets in Golden Gate Heights, January 16, 1928. - San Francisco Department of Public Works

Notes:

1. In June 2001, Leslie LaManna, the granddaughter of John Doelger reported in with some corrections, notably about the Doelger hot dog stand:

"My grandfather told us the story many times of brewing bathtub gin and homemade beer to sell at a tamale stand they had in Golden Gate Park. Henry invested all the earnings from the stand in land purchased from artichoke farmers, which he was told he was crazy for trying to build on since it was mostly sand."

Apparently, Henry became more concerned about his reputation as he grew more successful, and made up the hot dog stand story, which has been repeated in many places. Thanks to Leslie for the truth!

Bibliography: Gateway to the Peninsula, Official History of Daly City, CA., Samuel C. Chandler; The Guide to Architecture in San Francisco and Northern California, David Gebhard; Architecture, San Francisco, The Guide, Sally B. Woodbridge, John M. Woodbridge; Biography of a Bank, The Story of Bank of America, Marquis James, Bessie R. James.


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Page updated 18 August 2001.