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Outside Lands Podcast Episode 4: St. Francis Wood

Author Richard Brandi joins us to talk about one of the country's finest residence parks, San Francisco's St. Francis Wood.
Outside Lands San Francisco Podcast - Jan 25, 2013

Outside Lands Podcast Episode 4: St. Francis Wood Outside Lands Podcast Episode 4: St. Francis Wood

(above) St. Francis Wood artwork, 1913, circa 1913

Artwork with St. Francis of Assisi for St. Francis Wood, perhaps for a poster contest held in 1913.

Podcast Transcription

WNP4 – St. Francis Wood

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. Today we have a special guest, David.

David: One of our board members, Richard Brandi.

Woody: Richard is going to talk to us today about…

Richard: St. Francis Wood.

Woody: St. Francis Wood, which is a neighborhood in the West of Twin Peaks area.

David: It's one of the first residence parks, right?

Richard: Indeed. Really, one of the most comprehensively thought-out residence parks. In other words, the developer Duncan McDuffie hired the very famous Olmsted brothers landscape firm to plan this layout, this tract of houses. In a way that fit in with the Olmsted vision of what a residence park would be. And I could talk a little bit more about that, about what a residence park is. But the idea is that these houses would all [00:01:00] be as if they were sited in a park, the joy of living in the country with the convenience of living in a city. And so, it’s, it wasn't done on the cheap. In other words, if you look at the way the streets are laid out and the parks and the public architecture and the fountains, this was all designed to give a sense that this was a special place that you were really living in a park, but yet surrounded by or close to transportation. And it would be a place that you could raise a family and have, the big deal at the time was light, air, and clean air because of the congestion of the city.

Woody: And what time are we talking about when you say "at the time"?

Richard: Yeah, the tract was developed starting in 1912. A book that was recently published for the 100th anniversary of St. Francis Wood, which is 300 pages and I went into a lot of the history. It's full color and it's really got [00:02:00] the definitive word on St. Francis Wood. There's been a lot published in other places, and this is all pretty much verifiable facts as far as I was able to ascertain.

Woody: And you're the author. You're the author?

Richard: Yes. Yes.

Woody:   Okay.

David: I have a copy of it right here. It's big.

Richard: It is big.

Woody: It is big. It's 12 inches by 12 inches, over 300 pages. And you weren't kidding about the photography. Beautiful giant color photos.

Richard: Yeah. Mark Citret was the photographer and he was really a joy to work with. But all the houses, the landscape shots were taken by him, the modern-day shots, and they kind of give a sense of what it might be like to live or to walk through St. Francis Wood.

David: So, it's a mix of current photos and historic photos and also tells the historical story.

Richard: That's right. That's right. David. It's got a history as well as the [00:03:00] present day shots of the houses and the landscaping.

Woody: And so, we're talking about a master plan community. I mean, that's what we think of today when some developer buys a piece of farmland and builds a bunch of houses. This was being done back in 1912 in a city, in San Francisco. But it's that same sort of idea. And at the time, the land was, what was it? Where St. Francis Wood is today.

Richard: The land was part of Adolph Sutro's holdings. He owned a lot of land. I know a lot of our people, our members know, people that tune in know, he owned a lot of land in the western part of San Francisco. But, in St. Francis Wood, St. Francis Wood is, was the remnants of this forest that Sutro planted years earlier, was kind of overgrown with eucalyptus. So, the forest was thinned out a bit, streets had to be put in, and this was at a time before there was any environmental laws, planning laws, before San Francisco had zoning laws just [00:04:00] before. So, the developer was in a sense, had it planned for all those things, which today are planned by governments and laws. And there's a whole very, as you mentioned, the developers today have a bunch of rules and constraints that they follow, which at that time, a hundred years ago, they didn't.

Woody: Right. But these guys did, I mean, we talk about underground utilities, right? The space between buildings. There were laws about how far back your front yard was from the curb, and how much space it was between your house and your neighbor's house.

Richard: That's right. And McDuffie, the developer here is part of the, a residence park in general was supposed to have these setback requirements. So, the houses looked like they were sitting in a park, not jammed up against each other and,

David: And escape from the urban environments of the eastern side of the city, I guess.

Richard: That's right. To make a distinction between the narrow lots and, you might find yourself particularly say in the older neighborhoods, the Mission or the South of Market at the time where you'd have, [00:05:00] you could have a house next to a stable or a blacksmith shop or a saloon.

Woody: A butcher.

Richard: The butcher, the candlestick maker, right.

David: Corner store.

Richard: Some of these things were not very nice to be next to. You know, that I have to make a distinction. The rich people, of course, could always go to Nob Hill and have a mansion. But this was not for rich people. This was for sort of the professional class, although they didn't call it that at the time. So, it wasn't for the very poor or the very rich, but it would allow middle or slightly upper middle income people to have some of these advantages of living in a country that they couldn't get otherwise unless they were rich.

Woody: What'd you think looking through the book, David?

David: Well, I do have some questions about it. I'm looking at one of the very first maps and the mapped out of the lots and there are a bunch of parks listed in the map. And I'm curious about the main park there with the tennis courts. I mean, did [00:06:00] people play tennis?

Richard: Yeah, and this was all part of the original idea, original design, is that they would set aside this land. It's for the use of the residents. It is a private property owned by the association. But it's part of the, the benefits of living in a residence park is that you'd have not only was your house detached and had a nice garden around it, but there would be these common areas that you could go and for larger areas, for tennis courts and whatnot. And I might add, it also led to something, I'm not sure it was even anticipated so much at the time, but a sense of community in St. Francis Wood because the residents actually can use these recreational facilities. And so, it creates a kind of a community of people, neighbors that, you know, see each other and play on the tennis courts.

Woody: I know some of the hallmarks of what we would call a residence park here too. I mean, we have a lot of public fountains and sort of pillars and gateways and St. Francis [00:07:00] Wood has one of the most elaborate ones I've seen, which is right where St. Francis Circle and St. Francis Boulevard hit. This wide, it looks like something out of the Italian Renaissance, you know, with little pools and gateways. What was the idea there? And who was the designer of that?

Richard: The gateway to St. Francis Wood, what you're referring to, is designed by John Galen Howard, who was an architect, famous architect in the…

Woody: In Berkeley too. Didn't he do the campus at UC?

Richard: He was hired, he was an East Coast architect that was hired to come out to design the UC campus, actually take the existing plan and implement it. He was the dean of the architecture school, created the school.

Woody: Wow.

Richard: He was the only teacher for a while. And he was trained in the, a French method, French method of instruction of architecture, the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, and this was part of the city beautiful movement, as well. So, these gateways that he designed are really kind of over the top for, you know, a residential tract. And they cost a lot of money, but they were part of the [00:08:00] idea to make this a special place. Because when you looked at it, when you first came out, you know, this was just a forest, it was a wasteland, really in the sense of...

David: There's really nothing else around

Richard: And nothing around it.

David: And then these classic architecture things just pop up out of the middle.

Richard: Yeah. The original, there was even reflecting pools originally, I think you mentioned at the beginning of the openings.

Woody: Yeah. The gateway, right?

Richard: They've since decided not to fill those in and use it as a garden. It's all, but it's all part of the concept of giving this feeling like you're in Italy or in a Mediterranean environment where you would have these fountains.

Woody: Now this sounds very expensive too, though. Go ahead, David, please.

David: I have a, I have a question that, that's kind of appropriate to the fountains now. The homeowner's association is still active and still going because I remember, well, I'll admit that I cut class during my time at San Francisco State in the mid-‘80s, and we would walk through St. Francis Wood, and the fountains were in terrible disrepair, spray painted [00:09:00] and, and not functioning at all. Now I see they are functioning. So, I'm curious about the...

Woody: Yeah. Who pays for all this? I guess that's a question. Is it a homeowner's association?

Richard: It is. It's a homeowner's association that was part of the original idea of this residence park. McDuffie, right from the beginning, to have a homeowner's association that would enforce all the setback requirements for the houses, as well as pay for the upkeep of all the fountains and the landscaping, the trees, the street trees. And so, the homeowners are assessed the dues to pay for all that, and they administer it themselves. They, they vote on how much to spend on, on maintenance. And David, they, there came a time when St. Francis Wood needed some of these fountains in common areas were in need of repairs in the ‘70s and ‘80s and the community, the residents got together and went through this wonderful effort of like rejuvenation. They restored all the fountains, [00:10:00] they repaired them, they restored the landscaping and they actually voted higher assessments or homeowners dues to pay for it. Because they realized this was a really a special place and they wanted to maintain it. So, it went through a bit of a renaissance, a rebirth. And they also did fundraising internally as well as dues to pay for this restoration.

Woody: Now like, so I wrote a book on Ingleside terraces and it seemed that the time when Joseph Leonard was building in Ingleside Terraces, the big thing was he was waiting for the Twin Peaks tunnel to be built so that people would have street car access to get downtown, and that it really kind of stalled, Ingleside Terraces did. St. Francis Wood, did it suffer a similar sort of slow sales period waiting for the tunnel to open in 1918?

Richard: Yeah, it did. It did. The first few years, almost the first decade, they didn't sell very many lots in St. Francis Wood. And I should add that the original idea was that you would, McDuffie laid [00:11:00] out the residence park idea, improved the lots made, put in the streets, all the utilities, and then he sold a lot. And the home, the lot buyer would be responsible for building their own house. So, he was selling lots. And, but very few were sold in the first few years, for the reason you mentioned, the Twin Peaks tunnel was, they all knew it was coming.

Woody: Right.

Richard: In fact, that's the reason the Ingleside Terraces, St. Francis Wood, Forest Hill and some other areas even got off the ground because they knew the tunnel was coming and they knew they needed the tunnel because otherwise nobody would want to buy a lot and try to build a house in the wilderness, too far from downtown. Because this was just at the time before cars. Automobiles became much cheaper and more prevalent. This, they were still kind of...

Woody: Everybody was tied to getting on a street car to work.

Richard: Yeah. So, it was very important. And then there were other things that slowed sales for all these developments during World War I. But they struggled through it in different ways. That is each residence park.

David: But so, [00:12:00] everyone built their own house and, did they, were there requirements in the building or, or…

Woody: Yeah. Quality control of any kind.

Richard: Well, they, they had, they tried to do, there were certain specific requirements as far as setbacks, you know, the distance the house had to be from the street, from the neighbors. You couldn't have too big or tall a fence and hedges. And some other things.

David: But there aren't any shacks.

Richard: No.

 David: In, in St. Francis Wood.

Richard: They couldn't have more than a two-story house, and it had to be residential. You couldn't have any commercial or, and you couldn't have renters or boarders. But as far as quality, they only tried to get at that indirectly by having what they call a minimum cost for a house. In other words, it had to cost so much money. And the minimum cost fluctuated over time.

Woody: Didn't they have a supervising architect like to approve the plans too?

Richard: Yeah, there was a, as part of the condition of residence park, you know, to enforce these rules, that [00:13:00] plans had to be submitted, submitted to the association's supervising architect, who was Henry Gutterson for many years from 1914 to his death in 1954.

Woody: Wow.

Richard: Which is a long tenure. So…

David: Are they still building? Are there any ‘50s houses?

Richard: There's a few, but most of the tract was built during the ‘20s and ‘30s. There were very few lots left, a few in the ‘40s and ‘50s.

Woody: Now wait, David had a question though. So, he was looking through the book and he knows there, as a residence park, there were restrictions on things like these front setbacks and how much a building costs and no businesses. But there were other restrictions involving the occupancy of St. Francis Wood as well. Right?

Richard: Yeah. There was a, a restriction that, that limited people to purchase in the tract, basically to Caucasians. This is, was a convention that a lot of residence parks [00:14:00] adopted, actually non-residence parks too, to limit sales to Caucasians. And it was actually made illegal by the Supreme Court in 18, 1948. But it was a, it was a period that was un unfortunately pretty commonplace, particularly in these residence parks.

Woody: It's like an exclusiveness they're trying to get here. Right?

Richard: That's right.

Woody: From its beginning in 1912 and now it's a hundred years later, how would you describe it? Has it been the same, has it changed? Where does it stand in the city today?

Richard: Well, I think physically looking at it, it looks very much as it did in the beginning, in the ‘20s. When we looked for historic photos, in fact, it was sort of frustrating because if we looked at a historic photo from 1925, it kind of looks like today. The trees were either bigger or smaller. But otherwise, it looks the same. What you can't see by driving through it though, is that there's a lot of multi-generational [00:15:00] families in St. Francis Wood. People that were born as children there have come back and raised their own families there. I didn't realize that. There's a significant amount of long-term residents, multi-generation, which you wouldn't know by just driving through. And that gives a place sort of a, I think, a little bit different neighborhood feeling, then maybe some other neighborhoods in San Francisco.

Woody: There's a continuity somehow.

Richard: There is. Yeah. I think that helped with the restoration efforts too. And the willingness to pay these dues, to pay, to maintain the, all the public amenities in St. Francis Wood.

Woody: Well, I mean, I saw a poll maybe 10 years ago that said that the people in St. Francis Wood rated as the highest level of happiness of people in the San Francisco Bay Area. So, I guess it must have something good going for it. And David, where can somebody get one of these books?

David: Well, you can, you can get it from us, the Western Neighborhoods Project at outsidelands.org. [00:16:00]

Woody: And at San Francisco’s St. Francis Wood, a book by Richard Brandi. Thank you so much for coming in today, Richard.

Richard: Thank you.

Woody: And we'll see you next time.

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

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