by Inge Horton
(Originally published in SF West History Oct-Dec 2015)
This article is dedicated to the memory of the late Preservation Planner Mary Brown, whose outstanding work on the architecture and builders of the mid-Sunset after 1925 (Sunset District Historic Resource Survey, Sunset Mediterranean Revival Tracts Historic District, and Sunset District Residential Builders) motivated me to explore an earlier builder, Fernando Nelson and his sons, and their work in the mid-Sunset.
For many years, when driving by the house at 2701 Lincoln Way, I observed with dismay the increasing neglect of the formerly impressive building and garden. At night, there was a bare bulb lit near the entrance, but everything else was dark. Then, in the summer of 2015, scaffolding with black netting went up. Yes, indeed, the property had changed hands and was bought by the San Fran Dhammaram Temple, which already owned other properties in the neighborhood. The director of the Buddhist temple told me that the house will serve as a residence for the nuns of the temple. Necessary repairs and maintenance required hard work by contractors and monks in orange robes. The results are amazing and the house now appears in its old glory, an Italian villa on a large lot at the corner of Lincoln Way and 28th Avenue. Fresh landscaping and the restored ornamental bench at the sidewalk round out the pleasant picture.
This house is of special importance to the surrounding neighborhood. It was the private home of Fernando Nelson (1860–1953), the owner and builder of five blocks between Lincoln Way and Irving Street and 27th Avenue and 33rd Avenue called Parkway Terrace. The residence was rather lavish with a pergola on the roof with a view of the Pacific Ocean. 1 The main floor included a reception hall, living room, library, dining room, kitchen, and maid’s room and was finished in solid mahogany. Fernando Nelson may not have experienced the happiest time of his life in this house, as his wife, Julia, mother of his five mostly grown children, suddenly died after surgery on October 26, 1916—shortly after they had moved in. A few months later he married the widowed Mary Henderson, 40, and lived in this house until about 1942, always actively involved in his building company with his sons. He spent the last years of his life in a more modest house at 201 Westgate Drive in the Mt. Davidson Manor neighborhood, where he died at age 93 in 1953. His obituary not only recounted his achievement of having built about 4,000 high quality homes in his more than sixty years as a builder, but also his enthusiasm for automobiles. 2 Historic newspaper articles show that he owned one of the first automobiles in San Francisco, bought several more high-powered autos, and held many records in long distance car racing. 3
On February 27, 1913, an article appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle announcing a remarkable real estate transaction in the Sunset District, “the largest deal of its kind in the history of San Francisco.” 4 Fernando Nelson, a well-known builder in the city due to his high productivity of building about fifty houses per year in many parts of the city such as the Haight, Castro, Noe Valley, Eureka Valley, Richmond, and other neighborhoods, had bought four blocks of land between Lincoln Way and Irving Street from 27th Avenue to 33rd Avenue (city blocks 1718, 1721, 1722, 1723, using current numbering).
The seller of the four blocks was Michael H. de Young, who had acquired the property from Adolph Sutro in 1897, but kept the blocks unimproved. 5 At the same time, Nelson purchased one of the two intervening blocks (1720) from the Boston Investment Company (owned by Lyon & Hoag). 6
Nelson—actually it was the company Fernando Nelson & Sons—spent nearly $45,000 for each block for the purchase, and intended to spend about $15,000 to $20,000 per block for grading, installing sewers, and paving sidewalks in the dune lands, before building modern residences on wide lots. One of the major advantages of these blocks was that the streetcar line along Lincoln Way provided convenient public transit to downtown. After the construction of the Sunset Tunnel in 1928, the line on Lincoln was augmented with the N-Judah line, still close to Parkway Terrace.
A newspaper article in May 1913, titled “Rapid Strides are made along Lincoln Way,” 7 emphasized that Nelson did not lose time and had let a contract for the grading of the five blocks. 8 This was important publicity because the blocks, while owned by de Young, were perceived as “one unsightly stretch of land along Lincoln Way.” The next steps were announced as the installation of utilities and the paving of the streets and sidewalks. The article also mentioned the effect of the improvements of these blocks on the surrounding neighborhood and the increased demand for lots on the adjoining blocks along Lincoln Way between 25th and 26th Avenues and 33rd to 36th Avenues. Nelson’s plans reportedly resulted in the sale of about ninety surrounding lots to private parties.
Grading sand dunes for streets and home sites was not unusual in the early twentieth century, but the process was rather intricate. The Parkway Terrace land gently slopes downward from Irving Street to Lincoln Way, and the road surface of the numbered avenues follows the slope. However, the build-able areas of the lots, which are generously set back from the sidewalk, are on a horizontal berm, or elevated platform, that does not follow the slope. The berm is higher for lots near Lincoln Way than those closer to Irving Street. Several steps lead to the first-floor living area of the detached houses, while the garages are at street level and dug into the berm.
Nelson paid special attention to the design of the streets and sidewalks of Parkway Terrace because he was competing with fashionable residence parks, and included building and occupancy restrictions similar to the exclusive master-planned developments. 9 While Nelson was bound by the rectangular layout of the blocks, he added visual interest by placing rounded stone benches at each intersection of the avenues with Lincoln Way. The tree-lined avenues were broadened in the middle of each block by about three feet, but this subtle design feature is hardly reflected in the facades of the houses. 10 With the electrical and telephone lines placed in the rear yards, visual clutter was avoided, appealing to potential buyers. The covers of the sewer connections in the sidewalk still show Nelson’s name and are helpful in identifying his houses.
In general, the most lavish residences were villas—large detached houses—located on 28th and 29th Avenues, with more modest houses, often one-story-over-garage bungalows, from 30th to 32nd Avenues. The west side of 27th and east side of 33rd Avenues contain large attached houses with two stories over garages. An analysis of property data (building permits, contracts in the Daily Pacific Builder and similar trade publications, and sales records available in the San Francisco Office of the Assessor-Recorder) shows that the three eastern blocks (Blocks 1723, 1722 and 1721) between 27th Avenue and 30th Avenue and Lincoln Way and Irving Street were developed first, from 1915 through 1917. Strained economic conditions and restrictions on building materials during World War I halted most non-war related construction from 1918 to 1920. The three western blocks—1720, 1719 (owned by Alice Hastings and not developed by Nelson), and 1718—were built out mainly in the years 1922 to 1924. These post-war houses are more modest and smaller in size than the pre-war residences. There is no evidence that Nelson sold partial blocks to finance other land purchases.
Overall, Parkway Terrace has 257 properties including those which were subdivided after Nelson’s purchase in 1913. Of the 257 lots, forty-four lots on Block 1719 belonged to Alice Hastings, who used her own builders: James Arnott & Son and R. N. Swift. The adjacent Block 1720, between 30th and 31st Avenues, was also mostly built by Arnott, but sold by Nelson to individual home owners. Nelson built houses on 147 lots: seventy-six residences from 1915 to 1918, fifty-eight houses from 1922 to 1925, and a few in between. Most of the remaining lots developed after 1925 in Parkway Terrace were executed by other builders, as Nelson had moved on to larger developments such as West Portal Park. (View a table of Parkway Terrace construction dates)
In the 1880s, Fernando Nelson first established his career by working as a carpenter for other builders. He started his own business together with his brother-in-law William Hamerton in 1889, building two- and three-unit buildings in the Haight. In 1891, the two amicably dissolved their partnership because Nelson wanted to specialize in single-family homes for sale, while Hamerton preferred multi-unit rental properties which he also managed. 11 At the beginning of his career as a builder Nelson is said to have carried a card in his pocket which had differing floor plans on either side from which his clients could choose. 12 The exteriors of the houses were copied from pattern books and, again, the clients could select what they liked. By the time Fernando Nelson & Sons took on Parkway Terrace, Fernando’s son Frank had taken correspondence classes in drafting and architectural design. He was able to design houses for lots sold by his father, not any longer in Victorian styles, but stuccoed Mediterranean styles. The designs were not pure styles, but adapted and catered to the owners’ wishes. Client satisfaction was important to the Nelsons. The lots, varying in width from 25 feet to 40 feet, and mostly 120 feet in depth, were sold under the condition that construction would have to commence within a year. Nelson did not develop whole rows at once but individually designed houses for specific clients. He allowed that they could either be designed by his son or other architects/designers, or be built by other contractors than Fernando Nelson & Sons.
Fernando Nelson offered his potential clients a financial plan in order to increase sales during the economic difficult times before and after World War I, advertising, for example, “This Home $500 Cash and the balance like rent.” 13 He is said to have made monthly rounds to collect mortgage payments from his clients, as he often personally loaned customers money without involving a bank.
Numerous advertisings in the San Francisco Call and Chronicle show the details of the homes in Parkway Terrace. Since Nelson & Sons developed Parkwood Heights at Arguello Boulevard and Parnassus Avenue at the same time as Parkway Terrace, the ads often included both neighborhoods. Ads included a picture of a recently-completed home and described both the property size, “Large lots, 33 x 120 feet,” and the equipment of the houses: “All Modern, with Solid Mahogany Living-Room, Open Fireplace, Hardwood Floors throughout, Cabinet Kitchen, Latest Coolers, Sanitary Sink and Drains, Cement Finishing on All Sides; Combination, Sun, Guest and Living Room; Garage entrance, etc.” 14
Among the very first houses built in Parkway Terrace was one for Frank Nelson, Fernando’s son, at 2755 Lincoln Way. 15 It was on the same block where, two years later, his father’s home was erected at 2701 Lincoln Way. A construction yard is said to have been between the two houses, allowing the builders to easily allocate materials for the surrounding construction sites. It was typical for the Nelsons to live in the neighborhood where they were building and have a construction yard right next to their homes. After Frank’s divorce around 1926, the large lot on which his house stood was subdivided and an additional house built.
The company Fernando Nelson & Sons appears the first time in Polk’s Crocker-Langley San Francisco Directory commencing with the year of 1918, but actually already existed in 1913. Listed are “Nelson F” for Fernando, “F F” for Frank Fernando, “G R” for George R., and “W A” for William A. Also listed is the sales manager, A F Lang Jr. The office was located in the Mills Building downtown with additional offices on West Portal and Ulloa Avenues.
The listings in the city directories changed over time, and the 1930 listing also includes the positions held by members of the family; the company is now an incorporated real estate firm with Fernando Nelson as President, William A. as Vice President, George R. as Secretary, Joseph W. as Assistant Secretary, and Mrs. Adelia Wesenberg as Treasurer. Not everybody remained in the family enterprise. In 1930, Frank was no longer part of Fernando Nelson & Sons, but listed as a carpenter living with his new wife, Ramona, at 2 Edgehill Way.
In 1942, Fernando Nelson still appeared in the city directory at the helm of the company, now located at 801 Bay Shore Boulevard. This was a difficult time for the construction business with World War II looming. Nelson still lived at the marvelous house at 2701 Lincoln Way, but soon after moved with his wife, Mary, to a smaller house at 201 Westgate Avenue. One would assume that he retired, but after the war he continued as the president of his company, still improving the housing situation of his beloved San Francisco.
In walking through Parkway Terrace these days one cannot avoid wondering what will happen to this well designed “residence park.” Will the property owners be able to withstand the development pressure so prevalent in San Francisco in 2015? Here and there, one sees a scaffolding going up for the addition of a story. At 30th Avenue and Lincoln Way, both corner houses have been enlarged, but still preserve the overall scale of the neighboring properties. With no active property owners or neighborhood association, who will look out for the preservation of the neighborhood character?
There are also the decorative benches at the intersections of the avenues with Lincoln Way. While most of them are well kept, others seem to be in need of maintenance and a fresh paint job. Even worse, some benches have been removed or buried under soil. Perhaps the example set by the members of the Buddhist temple, who carefully maintain the two corner properties east and west of 28th Avenue, will inspire and stimulate the community spirit of Parkway Terrace.
The author would like to sincerely thank Gary Goss for sharing the results of his research of contracts for buildings of Parkway Terrace and providing her with many copies of articles about Nelson and Parkway Terrace. She would also like to thank Richard Brandi for his comments, especially those on residence parks. Woody LaBounty deserves a heartfelt thank you for editing the article and creating the map.
Inge S. Horton is a retired City Planner and author of Early Women Architects of the San Francisco Bay Area—The Lives and Work of 50 Professionals, 1890–1951.
1. The view of the ocean is now obscured by tall trees and buildings.
2. “Fernando Nelson Rites Set,” San Francisco Chronicle, November 22, 1953, p. 24.
3. Fernando Nelson, “The Terrible Strain of the Los Angeles Race,” San Francisco Chronicle, February 17, 1907, p. 35; other articles in the San Francisco Chronicle of June 12, 1907, p. 7; and September 29, 1907, p. A49; also in Sunset Magazine, 1907, vol. 18, p. 276; among many others.
4. “Builder Acquires Tract for Homes – Largest Deal of its Kind is Closed in Sunset Blocks, Fronting the Park,” San Francisco Chronicle, February 27, 1913, p. 12. See also: 4-16-1913, Meichel or M. H. De Young and wife Kate to Fernando Nelson, Edwards Abstract of Records, 4-23-1913 (Blocks 641 [now 1718], Block 644 [now 1721], Block 645 [now 1722], and Block 646 [now 1723].
5. “Real Estate Transactions,” San Francisco Call, December 3, 1897.
6. 4-16-1913 Boston Investment Company to Fernando Nelson, Edwards Abstract of Records, 4-22-1913 (Block 643 [now 1720]).
7. “Rapid Strides are made along Lincoln Way. Home builders buy land and build Houses and Grade many Blocks,” San Francisco Chronicle, May 10, 1913, p. 13.
8. Nelson owned five blocks after having added a block between 30th and 31st Avenue bought from the Boston Investment Co. that acquired it from Stephen Potter, who had purchased the property from Alice Hastings in 1897, according to a notice in the San Francisco Call of July 25, 1897. The sixth block (Block 1719) was owned by Alice Hastings, who had inherited it in 1893 from her sister, and does not appear to have ever been owned by Nelson.
9. Residence parks were a special type of subdivision in which the developer comprehensively planned land use through deed restrictions. The restrictions usually limited buildings to detached, single-family residences; encouraged custom house designs that were reviewed by the developer; required front, rear, and side setbacks; and banned racial minorities. Public sculptures were constructed to define a sense of place and the developers tried to create a feeling of living in a park through landscaping and curvilinear streets when possible. Many residence parks were begun across the nation during the early twentieth century. Nelson lived in the city’s first residence park, Presidio Terrace, before moving to Parkway Terrace. More than twenty residence parks were launched in San Francisco between 1912 and 1916, including St. Francis Wood, Forest Hill, Ingleside Terraces, and Sea Cliff, to mention just the larger ones.
10. The design was prescribed in Ordinance No. 2661, passed by the Board of Supervisors on March 9, 1914, and approved by Mayor James Rolph, Jr. on March 11, 1914.
11. For further reading of contemporary books and articles about Fernando Nelson and his career, please refer to: Waldhorn, Judith Lynch and Sally B. Woodbridge, Victoria’s Legacy, 101 Productions, San Francisco, 1978; with many examples of houses by Nelson built before 1910. Brandi, Richard, “Fernando Nelson (1860-1953),” Western Neighborhoods Project Member Newsletter, Spring 2002 (with a focus on West Portal); LaBounty, Stephen “Woody,” “Parkway Terrace,” Western Neighborhoods Project website: outsidelands.org, July 1, 2002; Freeman, John T., “Fernando Nelson: Master Builder,” Heritage News, Vol. XXXI, No. 5 (September 2003), and “San Francisco Master Builder II,” Heritage News, Vol. XXXI, No. 6 (November/December 2003), with focus on the Richmond District); Freeman, John, “Fernando Nelson: Father of the Richmond District,” Western Neighborhoods Project Member Newsletter, Summer 2007.
12. Draft Transcript of an Interview with George R. Nelson, Penny de Paoli, Judith Waldhorn, Gary Kray, Mrs. George Nelson, Victorian Architectural Collection compiled by Judith Lynch Waldhorn, Ephemera Collection, San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library, August 31, 1974.
13. “Parkway Terrace,” Advertisement in San Francisco Chronicle, February 19, 1916, p. 9.
14. Ibid. See also, “350 Homes 350,” Advertisement in the San Francisco Chronicle, February 5, 1916, p. 9.
15. Building contract published in the Daily Pacific Builder, March 29, 1915.
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