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Outside Lands Podcast Episode 13: Sunset Architecture

San Francisco's largest neighborhood has its own distinctive architecture thanks to 1930s merchant-builders like Henry Doelger, Oliver Rousseau, and the Gellerts.
Outside Lands San Francisco Podcast - Apr 4, 2013

Outside Lands Podcast Episode 13: Sunset Architecture Outside Lands Podcast Episode 13: Sunset Architecture

(above) 43rd Ave near Judah, 1951

1410 43rd Ave, near Judah was built, along with its neighbors, in 1950

Podcast Transcription

WNP13 – Sunset Architecture

Woody: [00:00:00] It's the Outside Lands San Francisco podcast. I'm Woody LaBounty.

David: And I'm David Gallagher.

Woody: And we're from the Western Neighborhoods Project. This is a podcast we do every week.

David: Every week.

Woody: So far in 2013. And what are we gonna talk about today, David?

David: Today we're gonna talk about one of the largest neighborhoods in San Francisco, Woody.

Woody: One of the?

David: Okay. Okay. The largest neighborhood in San Francisco.

Woody: The Sunset District. That’s what, the Sunset District is what we're gonna talk about, right? But specifically, what about the Sunset District?

David: Well, we're gonna talk, specifically, about the development of the Central Sunset and the rise of the production builder, I guess is how we would describe it.

Woody: A little bit of the architecture of [00:01:00] the Sunset District.

David: Yeah.

Woody: Which the Sunset District people don't think architecture. They think, in San Francisco, they think painted ladies and Victorian architecture, but they don't think of the kind of architecture that you would see in the Sunset District. Usually.

David: Row upon row of same colored, same sized houses, stretching onto the sea.

Woody: Yeah. And that sounds so exciting. We just have to talk about it today for the podcast.

David: Oh no.

Woody: But wait!

David: No, that's the, that's the misconception that people have.

Woody: Okay. All right. You're playing the, you're playing the way a person might think of it, but they'd be mistaken.

David: Sunset District dude.

Woody: Yeah. I do think the Sunset District, although it's changed, I think, since our organization was found in 1999, I think people thought of the Sunset District as sort of a cultural desert. You know, a wasteland.

David: And that's what I was trying to convey vocally.

Woody: Yes. But that's not true. That's not true.

David: It's not true at all.

Woody: And where [00:02:00] is the Sunset District? Let's just get that clear. What is it? Where is it?

David: The Sunset District is, generally speaking, is the area south of Golden Gate Park.

Woody: Right. And I think if you had to stop it on the southern boundary, it be around Sloat.

David: That would be around Sloat. Yeah.

Woody: Yeah. Sloat. And then on the east side, it kind of jimmy jams around the hill there.

David: It goes up to Golden Gate Heights, kind of.

Woody: Yeah. Yeah. And out to the beach.

David: And out to the beach. Right.

Woody: But you know, I don't if we've talked about this before, originally the Sunset was a number of neighborhoods, I mean, little separate neighborhoods. You had the Oceanside neighborhood, which was the old Carville.

David: On the northern end, right? Nestled up against Golden Gate Park and the ocean?

Woody: Right. And then you had the Inner Sunset today. But that was the part that kind of developed around the 1894 Midwinter Fair and the natural sort of westward expansion of the city.

David: Ninth Avenue, Seventh Avenue was an old creek and road that came through.

Woody: Right. And those houses, there are very what you'd expect for the early 1900s, [00:03:00] late 1800s, kind of like craftsman-y homes and cottages. And then you had the Parkside District, which was started in the early 1900s. And that's sort of what you might call the Southern Sunset around Taraval.

David: Right.

Woody: Had sort of a separate identity. And then in the ‘20s and ‘30s, everything kinda, the sand dunes in between were filled in by these merchant builders we're gonna talk about today. And really kind of closed and knit together these three neighborhood centers in now what we call it the Sunset today.

David: Right.

Woody: Right. So, David, say you're not from here, you're not from San Francisco.

David: I'm not from here.

Woody: And we meet, we meet on an airport in Dallas. Right?

David: Yeah.

Woody: And I say I live in the Sunset District, and you say…

David: What am I doing in Dallas?

Woody: You're there for a…

David: Must be a connecting party.

Woody: A conference.

David: Come on.

Woody: No, you're there for a conference on medical supplies. But you ask me, you know, [00:04:00] what's the Sunset District look like, right?

David: I heard about this amazing, oh, wait, I heard about this amazing…

Woody: You're not from Dallas.

David: Oh, sorry. Okay.

Woody: No. Okay. Let's say I'm from Dallas now, what would you tell me, what does the Sunset District look like?

David: Well, the Sunset District is the largest neighborhood in San Francisco. And it's, it's kind of small, workingman homes, usually two bedrooms, stucco fronts, and they're, they were built in a production method that, that limited a lot of the variation from the, when you're just, you know, we're taking a 50,000-foot view of it. It looks pretty homogenous.

Woody: Ah, there you go. So now you're getting down to your terms here because the houses look very much alike.

David: That’s right.

Woody: They have, and people kind of derogatorily, is that a word, in a [00:05:00] derogatory manner.

David: I don't know if any of the words I've been using were words.

Woody: So homogenous is a word. Would say it's a cookie cutter sort of style.

David: Right.

Woody: Because these merchant builders we're gonna talk about used sort of an assembly line, Henry Ford style, way of building a house. That they had guys who would…

David: Just churn 'em out day after day.

Woody: Right.

David: Maybe a couple a day.

Woody: Yeah. That was the whole little publicity thing they would say of building two houses a day. But they'd have these guys, one guy would do the frame, or one team would do the framing on the house. One team would come in and do the, you know, the foundation before, and one would do the facade. One would do the windows and they would just like bang, bang, bang, run down the street, following each other to finish these homes. So very much quick, fast, assembly line, style of house building.

David: Sure. And one other thing I would say is that they're small. They're workingman. They weren't, they're not made for, weren’t made for professionals or rich people or…

Woody: Or to impress.

David: Or to impress, yeah. [00:06:00]

Woody: Yeah. They're definitely not. And we talk about the basic floor plan. You're, we talk about small, some of these houses are like 900 square feet. But the basic floor plan for many of them is what people would call like the junior five. Which is like a five-room house where you have two little rooms in the front facing the street, two bedrooms in the back, facing a pretty hefty backyard usually, and like a dining room, kitchen, bathroom in the center. The junior five is I think a Doelger term for that plan, but there's some variations.

David: Doelger?

Woody: Yeah. Henry Doelger.

David: So, he's one of the major builders out there.

Woody: Yeah, he was a good, he was kind of a publicity hound, so I think it's the one most people think of.

David: Who are the others that built large areas of the Sunset or who were active in the Sunset District?

Woody: Well…

David: Let's back up.

Woody: Yeah.

David: What period are we talking about?

Woody: Right. Really the Roaring ‘20s kind of gets the house building market going in the Sunset District. And so, in the mid-‘20s, this really kind of [00:07:00] kicks in. And then it goes into the late ‘40s and that's pretty much when the Sunset gets kind of filled up.

David: So, in the ‘20s you think that people were doing well and working men and women from the east side of the city, from the Mission District or from North Beach, decided that they wanted to get out of the center of town.

Woody: Right.

David: Or apartment living and maybe wanted a place of their own. The American Dream.

Woody: That's right. Definitely in the ‘20s. Roaring ‘20s. The economy's doing great. People are making money. And yeah, you're a mechanic or a steam fitter or something living in the Richmond district. I mean in the Mission district.

David: Yeah. And the street cars were coming out here.

Woody: That's right. The N-Judah starts running in the ‘20s. And so, the whole idea of being able to buy a house and the whole idea of making these, what were sand dunes in the Sunset District, a livable neighborhood, become a reality. And these were cheap. I mean, these houses were built quick. They were built well, but they're [00:08:00] inexpensive. You can buy a house below $5,000 back then. Which was even inexpensive back then. I mean.

David: Right.

Woody: You think today, but for a long time you could buy a house in the Sunset District for $5,000.

David: So that's what drove these merchant builders to start developing this vast area of, it wasn't all sand dunes.

Woody: Yeah. Mostly.

David: But mostly sand dunes.

Woody: Yeah. And Henry Doelger and his brother John were big home builders. Henry Doelger actually grew up in the Inner Sunset. So he kinda had a foot out here already. A lot of brothers, the Gellert brothers, Carl and Fred, they had Standard Building Company, built homes under the name Sun Stream, but they were big builders. Ray Galli. The Stoneson brothers who were Icelandic. Icelandic heritage, but they were builders and they built outside the Sunset too.

David: Even some builders that we [00:09:00] think of as more East side.

Woody: Or traditional Victorian sort of builders.

David: Yeah, like Fernando Nelson.

Woody: Yeah.

David: Developed a lot of West Portal, which, and then moved out to the Sunset, I guess.

Woody: Yeah, parts of the Sunset, his son did, for sure. And lots of smaller builders. Sometimes these guys would go and they'd buy four or five lots and just build four or five houses and that, they'd be done with it. There were many, many people like that, entrepreneurial folks who said, hey, I know a guy who's a carpenter.

David: But largely it was, they were builders that were building to sell the lots. They weren't, there were very few people that were building their own houses and living in them.

Woody: Very few. These were mostly guys who, this was their job and they didn't have architects usually. Or they had draftsmen, let's put it that way. These are not fancy architects, custom designing houses. These are draftsmen they'd have in their employ who basically churn out this basic pattern. And then they hired the builders. They secured the lumber. They did all the work themselves. But the idea [00:10:00] was to sell the house. Build the house and sell the house.

David: So, they would have, like you say, a template or a cookie cutter and then churn them out.

Woody: Yeah. But we talk about this cookie cutter thing. All the houses don't look the same from the front. I mean, you go to England or something, you see a traditional row house, even a Georgian sort of thing. All the houses might look the same from the front. But in the Sunset, they're not like that. They have a pattern. They have a basic façade. But there's a little difference between each house.

David: Right. Some have a mansard roof, or some have a Mission style. Some have even like English Tudor styles.

Woody: Yeah. And it would just be little details. They just change the roof line a little, add a little different window treatment or a little different balcony in front of the windows.

David: So, when you got home late at night after work or after a few drinks, you could figure out which house was yours.

Woody: That's right. Just enough. Just enough of a difference. And it's cold and foggy. You can hardly see. Right? But you go, I think that's my house.

David: But there were some builders that were [00:11:00] quite fanciful in what they did.

Woody: In the Sunset.

David: In the Sunset, right?

Woody: Yeah.

David: Oliver Rousseau is one, I think.

Woody: Yeah. He pretty much went bankrupt doing it. But he, he built some houses in the Sunset that are amazing. What they call storybook style now. Fairytale looking houses. They look like something out of…

David: Still there today?

Woody: Yeah. Out around Kirkham and 36th Avenue near Sunset Boulevard. A whole block there. They look like Hansel and Gretel houses or something from Disneyland. They'd have like these giant entryways with curved sort of fake bricks on the side. Towers, like little castle towers, as part of the entryway with little turrets and crenelations on the top. It looks like you're going into a fairytale when you go into one of these stucco houses in the Sunset District. And he invented something that is pretty much a Sunset District unique architectural…

David: What [00:12:00] was that?

Woody: Feature. Let's put it that way.

David: Okay. I know what it is.

Woody: You know what it is?

David: Central patio.

Woody: Center patio. Yeah. What is a center patio?

David: So, usually these buildings would have what we call a tunnel entry. And you would go in kind of into the middle of the lot and then up the stairs to the front door. It was hidden from the street.

Woody: Right.

David: And inside the middle of that second floor, Rousseau created kind of a light well. It made a little tiled spot in the middle that brought light into all parts of that upper story of the house.

Woody: Yeah. Like right in the middle of the floor, you have, it'd be open to the sky.

David: Right. You’d have like a glass door or something that you could open.

Woody: Or windows.

David: Or windows.

Woody: Yeah.

David: But usually there was access to it. Right? There was usually a door.

Woody: Yeah.

David: That you could walk in and use it.

Woody: Like French doors or something like that.

David: So, you could sunbathe or fog [00:13:00] bathe in your central patio, if you chose to.

Woody: It is one of the ironies that they invented this center patio open to the sky in a very foggy part of town. I don't think people got to use 'em. And I think most of them ended up with a skylight put over the opening.

David: Yeah.

Woody: But Rousseau's were tiled and they'd have little fountains sometimes in them, even. They were very fancy. Interior little gates between the living room and the other parts of the house. Like you'd almost have a little gate and a door to enter the living room. Like it was a special little garden you were entering. Yeah, very neat stuff. And you talked about the tunnel entry. That's a very much a Sunset District style feature that's just out there. And Ray Galli was one of the builders. He supposedly invented this. And the idea with the tunnel entry is that you go in the front of the building and there's like, it looks almost like a grotto you're walking through along the side of the garage.

David: Sometimes there'd be a little alcove for plants or something. Yeah.

Woody: Yeah. And then you walk up [00:14:00] into the, so you enter the house in the center of the building. And that brought light in too. Because that would often have a skylight above that center entry.

David: Yeah.

Woody: But it, but they were open when they first built them, those tunnel entries were open to the street and they've all been pretty much gated off now. People sometimes put up walls, even now, and doors in the tunnel entry.

David: Well, maybe the houses are so small that they need that extra space, or…

Woody: Yeah. I mean, people just have more stuff these days. I mean, we talked about back in those days, people would have one car, if they had a car. And nowadays, everybody's got two or three. So, a lot of the front yards, which you were telling me, had front lawns, little strips of green lawn, have been paved over and people are parking on the sidewalk these days.

David: Sometimes they still paint 'em green though.

Woody: To make 'em look like front yards.

David: Yeah.

Woody: Yeah. I always tell the story. Our friend Andre, his dad was a gardener for many years, and he has a home in the Sunset. He just passed away last year. But he was a gardener and we always laugh, [00:15:00] because we knew which house was his because it had AstroTurf where the lawn was supposed to be. He was so tired of gardening all day. He had an AstroTurf front lawn.

David: That’s funny.

Woody: But that's how I knew which house was Andre's.

David: But, so are these? Is the Sunset appreciated? I mean, are these…

Woody: Architecturally?

David: Little houses architecture, are they appreciated?

Woody: They are now. I think we're getting there. I mean, something just happened last week, right?

David: Yeah.

Woody: 320 Judah Street, which is near Ninth Avenue in the Inner Sunset, used to be a Henry Doelger building company office. And it's a beautiful art deco facade and a very interesting, dramatic building. It's just gone…

David: It’s got a clock on the wall on the outside of the building there.

Woody: Yeah, it has like this beautiful lobby with gold gilded balcony inside. And just a really neat looking chandelier.

David: Very unusual for the neighborhood there. Yeah.

Woody: Yeah. People always ask [00:16:00] us, was it a theater, a movie theater or something, but it was his building company offices. And it just went through a bunch of steps to get closer to becoming a San Francisco City landmark.

David: Wow.

Woody: Yeah. Planning Department has been pushing this through, so there's some appreciation right there.

David: Yeah.

Woody: And the other thing is, Mary Brown, who's a planner over at the city Planning Department, has been working on a, it's over like a hundred pages, this paper on different styles of the Sunset District and the different merchant builders who worked out there. And so, just to kind of help city planners when somebody wants to do work, to know more about the history of the buildings, so they can make decisions on whether somebody should add a second story or change the facade.

David: Right.

Woody: But so, appreciation. People used to not appreciate these buildings, and I think now they are. Yeah.

David: So, oh, one thing that the 320 Judah reminds me of is that it used to have this beautiful [00:17:00] etched glass window in it, kind of down the driveway there that said Doelger Homes. It was one of the original door, doors of the building.

Woody: Right, like in the garage door over there.

David: Yeah.

Woody: It was a really neat window.

David: Yeah. Beautiful. And what happened?

Woody: Well, they've been doing foundation and termite work on it recently and somebody snuck over there early in the morning and stole it.

David: They stole that window?

Woody: They stole it.

David: Was it you?

Woody: No, it wasn't me. Although I have hopes that somebody will return it. Maybe they stole it thinking with all the work going on in the building that it was going to be thrown out or destroyed and they wanted to save it for history.

David: So maybe there's a good Samaritan who stole the window.

Woody: A good thief Samaritan.

David: Just for safekeeping. I sure hope that thing comes back.

Woody: The owners want it back. They appreciate the history of the building. They definitely want it back to have it be part of the building. So, if you stole that window, bring it back. No questions asked. I won't ask any questions.

David: If you’re one of the two dozen people who listen to our podcast. [00:18:00]

Woody: They are one of the two dozen people I'm sure, because they appreciate history and they love our podcast. But yeah.

David: All right.

Woody: Sunset District homes. Anything else?

David: No.

Woody: I know.

David: What?

Woody: When they were building the houses and they had these sort of gangs of people coming and building them quickly, twice a, you know, two houses being built today and all that, what was it called when they'd come back and put the little facade treatment on?

David: Oh, right, the last bunch.

Woody: To make it look, you know, to add the nice little frills to the house. What, what did they call that?

David: They called that “putting on the architecture.”

Woody: That's right. I always like that. It's like, yeah, we build the house and then at the end we put on the architecture, you know?

David: That's right.

Woody: Little clay tile or a chamfered window or something like that.

David: So, one thing that I've noticed in Sunset houses, now we think of that, is that the builders put a mark inside the building somewhere?

Woody: Some of them did. Yeah.

David: Some of [00:19:00] them did.

Woody: In fact, we have one of those signs here in our office.

David: We have one.

Woody: Right over there. So, this was a common thing. These builders would build so many houses, they would number them. And Henry Doelger had a little sign, he'd have a number for each house and a little logo. But the Gellerts, the Standard Building Company, they went all out. They started pressing these little tin or metal signs.

David: They're like license plates almost.

Woody: They look like license plates. And it would say Standard Building Company. And they had little tabs that they'd put in to say it was built in 1950. They would put in the tab, it said 1950, what year it was built, plus the number of the house.

David: So, there are records of the building of all these houses somewhere.

Woody: Doelger destroyed all his records. I don't know if the Gellerts did. But it was just their way of keeping track. They just numbered the houses. And people, it's like a little point of pride that people have these signs. Some people do, some people don't in their houses still. It's kind of neat.

David: So…

Woody: Even One Nail Doelger had little signs. That's what Lorri [00:20:00] Ungaretti always said.

David: Awww.

Woody: That they thought they were poorly built. So, they called them One Nail Doelgers. But they're pretty well built. They got redwood framing and they're still standing out there today, most of them.

David: So, it's not just one long stretch of cookie cutter homes to the sea.

Woody: It is. But we should appreciate it. And the builders after World War II, in the ‘50s, they moved down to the Peninsula. So, the Gellerts did Serramonte and Doelger went, where did he go?

David: Daly City. Westlake.

Woody: Westlake. Westlake Shopping Center. But he did that whole Westlake development.

David: Yeah, he got kind of…

Woody: Big.

David: ‘50s out there too.

Woody: Beautiful. Cool. Split level Mad Men homes, right?

David: Yeah.

Woody: What we'd call them. Yeah.

David: In the…

Woody: Still foggy though.

David: Well…

Woody: That's it. Sunset District architecture. Go out there and check it out [00:21:00] and bring that window back.

David: That's right. I'm David Gallagher.

Woody: And I'm Woody LaBounty. This is the Outside Lands San Francisco podcast by the Western Neighborhoods Project. Go to outsidelands.org and send us a note if you heard this. I think there's more than two dozen. We're gonna find out.

Learn more about the Western Neighborhoods Project and more about San Francisco history at outsidelands.org.

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