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Frank Dunnigan, WNP member and columnist. -

Streetwise - Some Cast Changes

by Frank Dunnigan
May 2009

My parents were married in August of 1947 and bought their one and only house on 18th Avenue near Vicente just a year later, on their one-year anniversary. The newlyweds, still childless at that point, were especially impressed with the fact that St. Cecilia's School was just half a block away, a proximity that proved fortuitous in the years to come.

Houses on the east side of 18th Avenue, between Vicente and Wawona, June 2009. - WNP photo

The house had been built in January of 1936 (according to the electrical permit posted in the garage) for a Mr. & Mrs. Galleazi, whose family manufactured accordions. According one of the neighbors, all of these original homes sold for about the same price, $6,500 in 1936. By the time my parents became the second owners in 1948, the price had exactly doubled to $13,000.

Mom never admitted that they had received help when buying the place, but among Grandma Dunnigan's papers when she died in 1960 was tiny check stub from the old Hibernia Bank at #1 Jones Street, in the amount of $1,500 with the notation "Frank & Kathy's new home on 18th Avenue." It was somehow reassuring to learn that we baby boomers were not the first generation to accept parental help when purchasing a home!

The standard house back then was almost always two bedrooms. Even today, there are only two homes on that block (both built later, in the early 1940s) that have the coveted third bedroom on the main floor. What was the original builder thinking? Nobody was going to have children of opposite sexes? Or that no one with children would ever be buying a home? Likewise, that same builder never planned for the car situation, and most people eventually had to replace those original double garage doors with an overhead door, thus widening the opening to allow for the newer cars. This was a big issue circa 1960 when cars began sprouting tail fins. Electric openers began appearing in the 1970s and 1980s, as the neighborhood population began aging a bit.

Our home's builder, a Mr. Johnson, constructed similar houses along the entire east side of 18th, from Vicente to Wawona, and along the west side of 18th, from Vicente only half-way up the block (the remaining homes were built circa 1939-40 by a different company). In trying to keep the prices consistent, the original homes were designed with three slight differences. The first group, from the corner of Vicente halfway up the east side of the block, had large kitchens, medium-size dining rooms, plus a breakfast room, but no view. Those on the west side, from the corner of Vicente halfway up the block, had medium-size kitchens, bigger dining rooms, a breakfast room, plus a view from the bedrooms. The final group had the large, eat-in kitchens, with medium-size dining rooms, and no breakfast room, but a spectacular westward view from the living rooms.

Hotpoint ad -

In my early days, every house had the requisite wooden kitchen table and chairs, which morphed into formica-topped tables and chrome-legged chairs in the mid-1950s, and then into maple hardwood table-and-chair sets by the 1970s. Everyone seemed to have the same yellow-green-red-blue set of Pyrex bowls, a Sunbeam Mixmaster, and Revere copper-clad pots and pans. Appliances were always white, though most households embraced the classic 1970s Harvest Gold in later years when the San Francisco firm of Mayta-Jensen swept through the neighborhood in a series of kitchen updates (end of those built-in, pull-down ironing boards). These kitchen renovations always managed to add a lot more counter space and electrical outlets—our original kitchen had only one outlet behind the stove and one other adjacent to the ironing board. All the kitchens on our block had a skylight, but during those remodels, most people had a light fixture installed within the skylight to brighten things up a bit at night. Our original refrigerator was huge for its time—a white 1948 Hotpoint with 12 cubic feet total, and a freezer compartment that could hold four trays of ice and a few boxes of frozen vegetables, maximum. I still have the original instruction booklet, showing smiling whole fruits and vegetables dancing a conga line of sorts in and out of the two crisper drawers. A half gallon of ice cream would have taken up virtually the entire freezer unit, and therefore such treats were only purchased in small quantities and brought home for immediate consumption. Our kitchen dishes in the 1950s were white, with a pine branch and pine cones on them, to be replaced in the late 1960s with unbreakable Corelle with tiny little flowers around the border, and then in the 1970s with the classic Franciscan pattern, Desert Rose.

Every home had a corner fireplace in the living room, but no gas starters. Numerous families never used their fireplaces, wanting to keep their homes "clean." Some rationalized that with a central gas furnace, there was no need to rely on a fireplace for heat, so why go to all the bother of lugging wood upstairs? In retrospect, this appears to have been a female argument. More than one young husband of the 1950s is reported to have said to his beloved, "Ya know, the day we get home from the cemetery after your funeral, the first thing I'm gonna do is light a fire in that fireplace!"

Many of the living rooms had cathedral ceilings, some embellished with Philippine mahogany beams to match the wood molding and doors in the living, dining, and entry areas. Again, to equalize the costs of all the homes, the builder sometimes eliminated the beams, or dropped the living room ceiling a bit, though still leaving it vaulted, with or without plaster embellishments. Electric wall sconces were a standard source of light in the living rooms, and most dining rooms started with wrought iron chandeliers that gradually morphed themselves into crystal chandeliers as time went by.

Almost without exception, these homes had a downstairs room, complete with a sink and bar set-up. These eventually became rainy day play locations for all of the kids who came along in the 1950s, and were the locales of most of our childhood birthday parties. Dad's friend Bill had an amazing set-up of glassware with recessed lighting and glass shelving behind the bar of his knotty-pine paneled room (complete with gold-color "comedy" and "tragedy" masks hanging above that I still remember to this day.) Most of us first-born sons eventually commandeered these spaces as our own bedrooms sometime during our high school years.

The center patio was a standard feature of those homes, though as time went on, most people noticed the heat loss, or discovered that the patio floor was beginning to leak, and covered the whole thing over with a vented skylight. Many people filled these areas with a variety of flora and fauna. About 1961 or so, there was a big neighborhood push for fuchsias, which can thrive in cool, foggy weather. Mrs. Cauley had an enormous variety in her patio, and often rooted them for the neighbors. When given some attention, the plants produced steady streams of color, though there was a certain amount of maintenance involved, including daily watering (multiple times during warm weather), plus fertilizing, picking up fallen blooms, and chasing the ever-present bee population out of the house.

Many of the adjacent dining rooms had built-in cabinets to store the china and crystal that the Moms had all collected upon marriage, and tables were lovingly set for all the christenings and birthdays, Thanksgivings and Christmases, and the buffet gatherings that always followed family funerals. The Moms always took their places at the table in a chair that was closest to the swinging kitchen door, with the Dads holding down the opposite end. Kids and grandparents, aunts and uncles all had their usual spots, assigned seating, so to speak, and no one ever had to wonder where they were supposed to sit—the Moms always had it planned out well in advance, and one look would tell a stranger immediately where to sit. Unlike Ward and June Cleaver, my parents never served regular weeknight dinners in the dining room—it was for special occasions only. In the 1950s, it was a real treat for kids to be allowed to have dinner on the coffee table in front of the TV in the living room, while the parents could then relax in the kitchen. While this was probably not the best for developing conversational skills in some, it did give the parents a brief respite before the turmoil involving bathtime and bedtime.

The bathrooms on our block were all classic art deco, in various combinations of black tiles with pink, yellow, pale green, or powder blue. Some of the houses had "split" baths, with the toilet in a separate room that had access from the hallway and from the main bathroom. The sinks were the classic pedestal, and there were separate stall showers, originally with shower curtains, and later, many people updated to glass shower doors, with the requisite frosted swan, after an advertising blitz by the old Sears, Roebuck Co. at Geary and Masonic. Most of these bathrooms never had an electrical outlet, unless the owners had one installed in the years after construction. Presumably everyone towel-dried their hair and men shaved their faces and women their legs with a blade in those early days. Every house had exactly one bathroom, though some lucky folks had the "half-bath," often just a toilet, tucked away in the garage near the downstairs room and its bar—presumably the builder knew the physiological effects of beer on the human body over time. It continues to amaze me how families with two adults and three or more kids could cope with just a single bathroom. Three kids seemed to be the demarcation line—at that point many families added an extra bathroom downstairs, much to relief of everyone's kidneys.

Bathroom tile in a Sunset house., n.d. -

The original single phone was in a recessed shelf in the hallway, complete with a telephone book holder beneath the shelf. These were obviously designed for the old "candlestick" style phones of the early 1930s, with the ringer located in a recessed, lattice-covered box above the shelf. By the time I arrived on the scene in 1951, the phone, with its 12-foot cord, looked like a late 1930s prop that might have appeared in The Maltese Falcon. This remained until the late 1960s, when it became modern, beige, and sported a 50-foot cord that could be dragged all over the house. I wonder just how many Outside Lands residents were tripped up in the 1950s by that black cord being stretched invisibly across the hall and into the bathroom when someone desired privacy for their conversation?

When it came to phones, we always had a party line in the 1950s and early 1960s. Mr. & Mrs. Vincent, who lived next door to us, and Mr. Nielsen across the street, were on our party line all those years. Sometimes you would pick up the phone and hear that a party line neighbor was using it, and you would then hang up quietly, and wait for them to be done—however, the phone rang only in the house that was being called. I don't know for sure, but I think that the telephone company must have matched subscribers up carefully. Our two-parent, two-kid household was linked with two childless households, which was a better situation than if we had been paired up with another household that had a bunch of kids. Calling a party line neighbor was also a tricky proposition—you had to go through the operator for that.

We had many original neighbors for years, including those on both sides. Our uphill neighbor died in 1982, but one of his adult children continues to live there; our downhill neighbor lived until 1991, and our family was there until Mom died in 2002. This was par for the course for that block—even today, there are still multiple houses there that are occupied by the children, grandchildren, and even the great-grandchildren of the original owners, due in some part to family ties, but also due to the intricacies of Proposition 13 and the laws involving real estate transfers among family members.

By the 1980s, iron gates became a standard feature on most homes in the neighborhood, a factor that has been universally recognized as the beginning of a decline in the overall quality of life for the neighborhood. The fact is that the 1980s era corresponded with the passing of many of the men in the neighborhood. Many of the Moms, with kids grown and moved away, plus a recently deceased spouse, felt a far greater sense of security in their long-time homes with those iron gates in place.

In spite of all the physical elements that surrounded us, what remains first and foremost in my memory are the people who came and went in the nearly 55 years that our family occupied that 25-by-120-foot spot of San Francisco. I can still see images, either in photos, or in my mind's eye of:

  • Excited 30-somethings bringing me home from the hospital in 1951, Mom in her navy blue polka dot dress, along with a hat and gloves, and Dad in a light gray suit standing next to her in front of the dark green 1950 Plymouth. My christening party, a few weeks later, was the biggest gathering that they had hosted in the house up until then.

  • Long-gone grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, schoolmates and prom dates who joined us for birthdays, first communions, confirmations, graduations, and all sorts of other events, and all the hugs and kisses that were exchanged at the front door as they arrived and left. Pictures were always taken of everyone around the dining room table, and again, posing in front of the fireplace. Looking back it's amazing that there were practically no changes to that fireplace/mantel backdrop in over 50 years, except for the occasional potted plant (sometimes real, sometimes fake) in one corner.

  • There was the St. Patrick's Day in 1956 when Mom & Dad hosted an engagement party for Dad's brother, and Mom wowed everyone by placing a tiny drop of green food coloring in the bottom of each champagne glass—a project in which I was allowed to help out.

  • Thanksgiving had its own set of rituals. Although we always went to Mom's mother or her sister's house for Thanksgiving—Mom never hosted her own until 1992—there was always a turkey in the oven "so we can have enough leftovers". Were we the only family that cooked a whole turkey just to have leftover turkey sandwiches with dressing after the holiday? I think not.

  • Christmas, particularly on 18th Avenue took on a life of its own. The "night of the lighting" was usually the Saturday night two full weeks before Christmas, when Santa arrived on the fire engine and all the Christmas trees and outside lights were turned on. Everyone hosted an open house that night, with large quantities of Chex mix, Lipton's Onion Dip, and Christmas cookies consumed and washed down with a variety of beverages. Mom always recalled the Christmas of 1950 at the Kelly's house when one neighbor had to leave the party early, in order to get to the hospital just in time to deliver twin girls—that was likely the inspiration that brought me onto the scene a year later. My parents always seemed to favor white trees, both flocked real ones and artificial, though in 1959, we had one of those ubiquitous aluminum trees with the color wheel. For the last 25 years of her life, Mom was committed to green trees, both real and artificial, with small clear lights and gold ball ornaments.

  • Our long-time family friend Theresa, invariably dropping by in the middle of Dad's pre-July4th birthday dinner, with her ever-present box of See's candy for him. Originally one of Grandma's friends, she continued her ritual long after Dad died in 1980, a silent little reminder of a family friendship that went back to 1906 when my great-grandparents left their burned-out home South of Market and became next door neighbors and close friends to Theresa's parents on 21st Street in the Mission.

  • My high school and college graduations from St. Ignatius and USF, and what had to be the two largest and longest parties that we ever held in that house— both starting in the late afternoon, topping 60 people each, and spilling out, upstairs, downstairs, and into the big back yard, with the final guests departing in the wee small hours of the next morning. A good time, as they say, was had by all.

  • Easter brunches were one of Mom's favorite get-togethers in later years, as we mixed and matched family and friends, older-middle-younger generations, co-workers and neighbors. The early morning buffet morphed itself into an all day snacking session, and the leftover ham became dinner for anyone who was still there.

As happy as most events were, there were others that remain just as clear, though incredibly sad. I still remember where I was in the house when I was told of the unexpected deaths of some beloved neighbors, exactly where everyone was sitting around the dining room table that hot Indian summer afternoon after Grandma died, and the typically foggy Sunset District summer day in 1980 when we returned home after my father's funeral.

In Mom's final months in 2002, approaching age 90, she remained housebound, save for that standing hairdresser appointment that she faithfully kept on Thursdays, almost up to the very end. Seated in her "den"—almost all the women who lived alone converted the second bedroom into a den with a telephone, easy chair and console television, televisions having been banished from most of the living rooms on that block sometime in the 1970s—she continued to have visitors in person and by telephone daily. Assisted by a wonderful Irish woman, who had been helping her out a few hours each day for ten years, Mom got her fondest wish—to remain in her own house right up to the end. No doubt, the ghosts of the past were especially friendly to her, and I'm sure that she was content to live out her days among so many fond memories.

As I drive up and down that block today, I still see the manicured patches of lawn, the present generation of children, still running in and out of each other's houses, plus Dads in shirtsleeves and one or two Moms in aprons, chatting casually with one another. The Venetian blinds of living room windows still twitch, almost imperceptibly, as neighbors peer out to see just who is driving along so slowly and staring at things. It's as though a popular, long-running play is still in progress, being acted out upon the same stage and under the same lighting, with just a couple of minor changes in the cast of characters..

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