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A Short History of the Sunset District

San Francisco's Sunset District neighborhoods include Golden Gate Heights, Inner Sunset, Outer Sunset, Parkside, and Parnassus Heights.

Sand, scrub, and more sand. Such was the foundation of the Sunset District.

The Park and Ocean Railroad line along today’s Lincoln Way began bringing weekend revelers to Ocean Beach in 1883. What the passengers saw to the south was a rolling cold desert of sand. On some maps, the area was described as the "Great Sand Waste." This part of the Outside Lands was added to the city of San Francisco in 1866. An 1868 map created the grid pattern of streets we know today, but while speculators bought lots, until the twentieth century it was almost all undeveloped dunes.

Between the 1860s and the 1890s, the Inner Sunset had nothing but a few dairies, ranches, roadhouses, dynamite factories that kept exploding, and an early elementary school. On the west side of today's Golden Gate Heights hills, Carl Larsen had a chicken ranch, and members of the Green family planted eucalyptus trees in today’s Stern Grove. That was about it.

Although real estate investors such as Aurelius Buckingham and Sol Getz later tried to claim credit, the Sunset received its name in 1889, when the firm of Easton, Eldridge and Co. marketed land it was selling on the east side of Mount Sutro as "Sunset Heights."

Buyers did not rush in. The Olympic Club built an athletics facility on the block between 7th and 8th Avenues along Lincoln Way, but made so little use out of it, that it was abandoned when the lease ended.

The 1894 California Midwinter International Exposition held in Golden Gate Park gave the Sunset some life. Newspapers nicknamed the fair site "Sunset City," and establishments such as the Little Shamrock (still serving drinks on Lincoln Way at 9th Avenue) moved in to accommodate the crowds.

The Inner Sunset slowly attracted more residences, often only small islands of two or three houses at a time. In the mid 1890s, enterprising bohemian artists created homes at Ocean Beach out of recycled horsecars and cablecars, naming the community "Carville." (More "respectable" residents of the Carville area soon called it "Oceanside.") In 1905, William Crocker's realty company began the first large housing development on the western edge with Parkside, built up around 20th Avenue and Taraval Street.

The 1920s and 1930s brought developers such as Ray Galli, the Stoneson Brothers, the Doelger Brothers, and others who took advantage of the availability of new FHA loans to construct row upon row of affordable single-family housing. By shortly after World War II, the sand dune desert had been filled in with a sea of stucco homes.


Sunset Articles

  • Podcast # 416: Levin Family Theatres

    The neighborhoods of the West Side would not be the same without their local movie theatre and we have the Levin Family to thank for them, from the Alexandria to the Coliseum to the beloved Balboa and many more... Nicole, Arnold & David tell the story of this arts-devoted family. Plus an all-star live audience Listener Mail. (Outside Lands San Francisco Podcast Feb 6, 2021)
  • Podcast # 415: Sand Dunes of the Outside Lands

    That the west side of San Francisco was covered in sand dunes will come as no surprise to regular listeners. Michael Lange joins Nicole and David to tell us how the City transformed the expanse of sandy, wind swept land into the Richmond and Sunset we know today. (Outside Lands San Francisco Podcast Jan 30, 2021)
  • Podcast # 395: Catholic Sunset

    Take a tour of some of the Catholic parishes in the Sunset. This week, we cover St. Anne's, St. John of God, Holy Name Parish, and St. Gabriel Church. (Outside Lands San Francisco Podcast Sep 5, 2020)
  • Podcast # 393: Rousseau Brothers Realty

    You can't miss spotting a Rousseau-built "Storybook" home in the Sunset. Special guest Michael Lange joins the pod to tell the story of the Rousseau brothers and how they developed their distinctive homes across the West Side of San Francisco. (Outside Lands San Francisco Podcast Aug 21, 2020)
  • Podcast # 390: Zakheim Murals at UCSF

    New-Deal era, Bernard Zakheim murals at UC San Francisco are in imminent danger of being destroyed. Portraying the history of medicine, ten frescoes displayed in UC Hall, which will soon be demolished as plans for a new hospital take shape (Outside Lands San Francisco Podcast Aug 1, 2020)
  • SF Ice Arena

    The story of the Outer Sunset's 48th Avenue Ice Rink ( Jan 24, 2020)
  • Podcast # 352: The Nightclubs of 3595 Taraval

    The building at 46th and Taraval has an unexpectedly colorful, if not checkered, past. What is that two-story silo on the corner? (Outside Lands San Francisco Podcast Nov 9, 2019)
  • Podcast # 351: Breon Gate

    You can appreciate the Breon Gate the next time you're waiting for the light on 19th Avenue and Lincoln. But what is its origin? Who built it and when? (Outside Lands San Francisco Podcast Nov 1, 2019)
  • Podcast # 349: Cutting Through Golden Gate Park - Part 1

    Nineteenth Avenue began its transformation from a residential street into six lane highway in the 1930s. Learn about the driving forces behind the expansion. (Outside Lands San Francisco Podcast Oct 19, 2019)
  • Podcast # 339: The Wreck of the Reporter

    One Ocean Beach shipwreck the city turned out for in 1902. (Outside Lands San Francisco Podcast Aug 10, 2019)