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How Water Shaped Development of the Outside Lands

We’re pleased to share a new article from Richmond District historian John Freeman, who wrote this timely, drought-relevant article for the Western Neighborhoods Project. Enjoy!

Sarah B.


How Water Shaped Development of the Outside Lands

by John Freeman

San Francisco has unique geography. Over millennia of faulting, folding, uplifting and subsiding, the land surface at this end of the peninsula has a mixture of high peaks and low depressions, with a rock base and more than a third of it covered with dune sand. Beneath our western waters is sand from other geological developments south of us. The uplifting of the Sierra created rivers that moved millions of tons of glaciated sand westward across an inland sea, to exit the Coast Range at the Golden Gate, and deposit additional sand at our western edge. The sand bank shown on maps actually stretches under water all the way to the Farallon Islands. Tides, wind, and erosion contributed to the buildup of the sand throughout the north end of the San Francisco peninsula.

The shifting sand of this desert was the major deterrent to travel and homesteading, but the pioneers learned to cope in various ways. Large portions of the emerging city’s sand was moved into low spots or dumped into the tidal margins to create “made” land. The hills of San Francisco are a vital part of the development of the city. In earlier times, most of the steeper hills were impractical to build on because of the difficulty of access by horse and wagon, but also because there was no reliable water source atop the hills. As the city developed and pumping became feasible, many of the hills were used to create reservoirs for water from other sources to be stored for domestic use or fire protection.

Sand is a porous substance, allowing rainwater, even fog, to seep through it to the bedrock basin or aquifer. Before there was a reliable water system in San Francisco, wells were dug near the drainage of the hills to access that water. The topography of the Richmond and Sunset Districts is different, and these differences greatly affected their development. The Richmond District has a series of hills draining into it from three sides. The Sunset has primarily one hill system on its eastern flank, draining west toward the ocean and south toward Pine Lake and Lake Merced.

To best understand the original drainage system of the western portions of San Francisco where pioneers settled–the Richmond District, Golden Gate Park, and Sunset-Parkside areas today–we need to consult the major topographical map done by the United States Coast Survey of 1869. (See below.) This map was created before the street grid extended beyond the cemeteries or Golden Gate Park boundaries were drawn, but there are landmarks we can still reference today.
1869 United States Coast Survey Map with notes added – Courtesy of John Freeman

The 1869 map shows four major high points of land on the east of the southern side of the Great Sand Bank. The hill with an elevation 673 would be Grand View Park in Golden Gate Heights. South of that hill, marked 783, is the original elevation of Larsen Peak. Hill 733 is the original elevation of West Portal’s Edgehill Mountain, and lastly, hill 938, the highest elevation in San Francisco, is Mt. Davidson. Early development in the Sunset could be found at the base of these hills where water was available and near Pine Lake and Lake Merced. Water could be found fairly close to the surface back from Ocean Beach as well, but only near Golden Gate Park. A well in the middle of the current Sunset District would have to be drilled down through 400 feet of sand to reach the aquifer.

The topographical map reveals additional information about the drainage of these Sunset high-points. While they drain west and south, they also drain north through a narrow gorge, marked on the map as “Spring Valley Reservoir,” which was fed by the Sunset hills noted earlier, and the drainage of the west side of Twin Peaks (identified on the map as Las Papas and showing the south peak at 925 feet). Today this same reservoir site is at the intersection of Laguna Honda Boulevard and Clarendon Avenue. North of the reservoir can be seen a seasonal lake stretching to about Seventh Avenue and Moraga today. The map shows no surface river, but if you follow the contours north, another body of water appears, which is the low point of the botanical garden in Golden Gate Park, just north of Funston and Lincoln Way, where originally a lake and later pumping station used the water from that source to irrigate the park. The drainage continued through the park and into the Richmond District, terminating at Mountain Lake and Lobos Creek. Water from Lobos Creek was the city’s first domestic source, dating from 1858, when a redwood flume was built from the creek, before it reached the ocean at Baker Beach, around and through the Presidio to a pumping station at the foot of Van Ness Avenue. The water was then pumped up the north side of Russian Hill to two reservoirs, then to be piped to the city’s center…

Read the full article at outsidelands.org

5:01 am | Posted under History | Add comments

New book “Sutro’s Glass Palace” brings yesterday’s ruins back to life

John Martini, author of a new book entitled “Sutro’s Glass Palace”. Photo by Paul Chinn

One of the things I enjoy most about our neighborhood is its history, especially diving into the stories and photos of former entertainment meccas like Playland and Sutro Baths. In the last several years, we’ve had a trio of documentaries about the Cliff House, Playland and Sutro Baths, along with books about the landmarks.

Recently, I added a new book to my collection – Sutro’s Glass Palace by John Martini. Martini is a retired National Park Service Ranger, author and local historian, highly regarded for his knowledge of western San Francisco, most notably Lands End and Sutro Baths. If you ever go on a tour of those areas, be sure Martini is leading it.

Sutro’s Glass Palace is a well-researched, highly readable look back on the history of Adolph Sutro’s grand vision for the ultimate recreation destination in San Francisco. Built over 2 acres, Sutro Baths was as much of an engineering marvel as it was a place to have fun, and Martini’s book does a good job as both a guide to the how and why behind Sutro Baths, and its place as a cultural and social icon in San Francisco history.

Adolph Sutro’s original idea was to leverage the natural wave action of the Point Lobos cove to open a saltwater aquarium at the base of the cliffs. The aquarium was designed to bring in sea life from the waves that hit the shore, and trap it in a pool area where spectators could look upon it, ala a tide pool. Sutro debuted the aquarium in late 1887 but already in press interviews was hinting towards a grander vision for the shore area that would include baths.

Fast forward to May 1894, when the first visitors were allowed into Sutro’s Glass Palace, which included a museum, restaurants, and 6 swimming pools complete with 517 private changing rooms. In an interview with the Chronicle, Sutro told a reporter “A small place would not satisfy me. I must have it large, pretentious, in keeping with the heights and the grand ocean itself”.

At an estimated cost of half a million dollars and spread out over 2 acres, it’s safe to say Sutro outdid even the grandest of Roman baths. Admission to Sutro Baths was 10 cents, and another 15 cents got you entry into the pools, plus a swimsuit, towel, and private changing room.

One of my favorite aspects of Martini’s book is the “Tour of Sutro Baths” section, which includes rendered drawings that show what Sutro Baths would have looked like in its heyday. You get a clear sense of the grandeur of the multi-level palace and its layout. Combined with the entertaining photos from the turn of the century, you will find yourself quickly wishing the book came with a time machine.

Martini’s book also touches on the many challenges that such a huge enterprise presented. Between the pounding waves that broke glass periodically, maintenance of the concrete pools and a completely separate boiler and laundry house, engineers had their hands full.

If Sutro Baths existed today, it would be a lawyer’s dream. A brief section in the book entitled “Sutro in the News” compiles press clippings that detail accidents involving broken legs, slide collisions and divers hitting bottom, lawsuits brought against Sutro for negligence, and even a couple of deaths.

The baths were even a source of controversy around civil rights, when a young African-American man named John Harris tried twice to go swimming with his white friends in 1897, but was refused entry.

At the time, Sutro Baths Superintendent A.O. Harrison defended their actions to a local paper, saying “It would ruin our baths here because the white people would refuse to use them if the negroes were allowed equal privileges in that way. No one could in equity expect us to make such a sacrifice. I do not think such a case would ever be won against us.” Turns out Harrison was wrong. Harris sued and won his case at trial.

Adolph Sutro died not long after the baths opened, and its management was handed off to his eldest daughter, Dr. Emma Sutro Merritt. She tried in vain to sell the establishment. Revenues were low as the baths struggled to attract patrons; it rarely broke even.

Finally in 1952, George Whitney, owner of Playland, bought Sutro Baths and made some changes including closing the baths for good, adding an ill-conceived Skytram ride, and restocking the museum with his own collection.

Sutro Baths closed for good in 1966, after 72 years in operation and shortly after, went down in a fiery blaze that fire officials attributed to arson. Plans for a condo development never came to fruition, and finally in 1980, the National Park Service bought the land for $5.5 million, ensuring its protection as part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

Sutro’s Glass Palace is a great read, full of interesting, rarely seen photos and visuals, along with a field guide that will make a great companion during your next trip to the ruins. The book is available at the Western Neighborhoods Project ($22.95), the Cliff House gift shop and at Green Apple Books ($22.95).

Sarah B.

5:04 am | Posted under Events, History | 5 comments

Explore Lincoln Park’s cemetery past by night, April 1

Remains found under the Legion of Honor in 1997. Photo by Richard Barnes

As you may have read in the past here on the blog, the Richmond District was once home to several cemeteries, including one out where Lincoln Park is today.

The last cemeteries were cleared and decommissioned in the 1940s, but even as recently as 1997, remains were still being unearthed beneath the Legion of Honor.

On Tuesday, April 1, Obscura Society SF is hosting a special tour called Flashlight Exploration of Old Lincoln Park Cemetery.

Led by historian, author and former National Parks Ranger John Martini, the guided walk will visit a former Chinese funerary temple set in a grove of cypress trees, a towering iron monument to sailors who died far from home, and the site of a macabre mass grave discovered in the not-very-distant past.

The tour runs from 7-9pm and costs $20 per person. Tickets can be purchased online. Flashlights are required!

And if cemetery trivia and history are your thing, check out the recent history minute below from the Western Neighborhoods Project. You may be surprised to learn what happened to the headstones from our old cemeteries.

Sarah B.

P.S. – Despite the date of this event, it’s not a hoax! ;)

9:45 am | Posted under Events, History | 6 comments

Photo: Beer-battered historic mural inside the Alexandria Theater

Recently, we marked the 10th anniversary of the closing of the Alexandria Theater, and its steady decline to its status as a blighted landmark.

We posted photos of the theater’s deteriorating exterior, but recently received evidence of decay on the interior as well.

A reader sent us this photo which was taken inside the theater. It shows the defacing of one of the historic art deco murals inside the Alexandria.

The mural is peppered with beer bottle caps along with paint and plaster streaks.

Since its closing in 2004, the theater has periodically been broken into and taken over by squatters and partiers.

It’s a shame to see that the owners are letting the historic aspects of the interior deteriorate as well.

Sarah B.

5:10 am | Posted under Art, History | 7 comments

10th anniversary of Alexandria Theater closing. When will the blight end?

The Alexandria Theater at 5400 Geary Boulevard and 18th Avenue. And yes, we 311′d “le poop”.

Sunday marked the 10th anniversary of the closing of the Alexandria Theater on the corner of Geary and 18th Avenue. The decade since its closing has been one of ongoing neighborhood blight, with the building slowly deteriorating and suffering from vandalism, as promised development plans never get underway.

The theater was opened in 1923 by Samuel Levin, a movie theater entrepreneur who was in business with his two brothers, Alex and Joseph. It was noteworthy for being the first theater to install a sloped floor for better viewing from every seat.

But the building is best known for its architectural fathers, the well-known Reid Brothers, who designed the movie house with an Egyptian theme, mixing elements of ancient Egypt, Minoan culture, and classical detailing. The brothers designed upwards of twenty movie houses in San Francisco, including the Balboa Theater.

In 1941, the theater underwent extensive remodeling and all that really remained of the original design were the stone pillars on its facade. United Artists then purchased the theater in 1976, converting it from a single screen theater into a 3-screen multiplex.

The Alexandria Theater, 1942

Interior of the theater, 1942

The theater, after struggling financially, closed on February 16, 2004 – one week after being sold to a group of investors, Alexandria Enterprises LLC, which owns it today. [SF Heritage]

Photos of the inside of the Alexandria just before it closed

Since its closing, the theater has been a source of blight for the neighborhood. A favorite for graffiti hounds, the walls along 18th Avenue and the entrance are often tagged.

Trash collected in the entrance to the theater and vagrants sometimes slept out in front of the theater under its protected alcove. Ownership resorted to erecting unsightly cyclone fencing around the front entrance, and throughout the last 10 years, trespassers have broken into the abandoned building and squatted for periods of time, one time causing a small fire.

The exterior of the building has had its share of travails as well. In April 2011, high winds unhinged the blade marquee of the theater. Repairs were made and the sign finally got a much needed, fresh coat of paint. High winds caused more damage two years later.

The decaying entrance alcove to the theater, featuring a peeling, water-damaged ceiling

So what do the Alexandria owners plan to do with the aging building?

For the last few years, plans have been shared with the community for a new development on the property, which would include a 221 seat theater and commercial retail space in the theater building, and a mixed use development on the back parking lot with retail space on the ground floor, residential units above, and underground parking.

The proposed development would preserve original architectural elements of the art deco building, including the domed roof that was part of the original theater before it was sectioned off when it became a multiplex. The ornamental decoration on the facade of the theater building would also remain, including the blade sign (though the 1-2-3 numbers would be removed from the sign, an addition made in 1976).

The plans also indicate that some (or all?) of the original murals inside the building would also be preserved and on view.

The last update we received on the project was in late April 2013, when the city approved the final plans for the development (PDF).

But to this day, no work has started on the property. A quick search of the records at SFDBI shows that no new building, electrical or plumbing permits have been filed since the project approval came through.

“The Planning Commission’s approval is good for three years. Within that period, a building permit needs to be filed and issued. Once a permit is issued, the Department of Building Inspection or Building Department may grant extensions to start work and to complete work if the sponsor needed additional construction time,” Mary Woods of the Planning Department told us last April.

The back lot of the Alexandria Theater on 18th Avenue. The proposed redevelopment includes
building a 4 story residential building on the back lot.

At various times, the property has been for sale to the right developer. This expired listing from Marcus & Millchap Real Estate Investment Services was last updated over a year ago, and references the “Project Near Full Entitlement from City of San Francisco”.

Let’s not forget the illegal drama regarding the building’s plans and permits. In 2010, Jimmy Jen, a formerly licensed civil engineer, was arrested for allegedly forging the signatures and stamps of two licensed engineers on documents related to more than 100 construction projects throughout the city between 1990 and 2007, including those of the Alexandria development project.

Jen was often hired as an “expediter” for projects to move them through city approval channels more quickly. Rather than hiring a licensed engineer to review his clients’ construction projects, he allegedly impersonated unwitting engineers.

Jen’s ex-wife, Nancy Jen, was also reportedly the largest stakeholder in the Alexandria Theater project. [SF Examiner] Jen’s case went to trial in July 2013, but we were unable to find the outcome. But his wrongdoings on the Alexandria development’s paperwork did not hinder the project according to city officials.

At this point, most residents have an “I’ll believe it when I see it” attitude about the Alexandria Theater redevelopment. After 10 years of neglect, it’s time for this large neighborhood landmark to be rehabilitated and put back into use.

Let’s hope that the owners and developers don’t wait until day 1,094 of their three year permit period to get started. Or worse yet, abandon the project altogether, leaving the Alexandria to continue its decade plus run as a neighborhood eyesore.

Sarah B.

See more photos of blight at the Alexandria Theater

A rendition of the planned development at the Alexandria Theater

The proposed residential apartments that would be built on the lot behind the Alexandria on 18th Avenue

4:30 am | Posted under Business, History | 20 comments

Former Legion of Honor Director was part of Monuments Men WWII platoon

Today, George Clooney’s latest film The Monuments Men opens in theaters. The film depicts an unusual WWII platoon made up of museum directors, curators, and art historians who were tasked with rescuing artistic masterpieces that had been stolen by the Nazis and returning them to their rightful owners.

One of the platoon members was Thomas Carr Howe, Jr., who at the time was the Director of the Legion of Honor Museum. Howe’s character is not portrayed in Clooney’s film but during his years of service as a “Monument Man”, he helped rescue and preserve countless artworks stolen by the Nazis, including Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child (1501) and Jan Van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece (1432).

During World War II, Howe joined the U.S. army and served from 1945 to 1946 in Germany and Austria. He began as a naval lieutenant but was soon assigned to serve in the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives (MFAA) section. Howe reported to Lieutenant Commander George Stout at Wiesbaden, and was later promoted to Lieutenant Commander and Deputy Chief of the MFAA at Frankfurt.

During his service as one of the “Monuments Men” Howe located hidden and recovered large repositories of cultural objects and works of art stolen by the Nazis. He also helped with the restitution effort. At the Altaussee salt mines in Austria, Howe helped salvage a large cache of stolen artwork that included Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child and the Ghent Altarpiece or The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb by Hubert and Jan van Eyck, Vermeer’s The Artists Studio, and the Rothschild family jewels. Howe later described his wartime work in his book Salt Mines and Castles: The Discovery and Restitution of Looted European Art (1946). [Archives of American Art]

Today at 12noon, the Legion of Honor is hosting a lecture about Howe and the real life story of the Monuments Men. The talk features presentations from UC Berkeley, The Frick Collection Art Reference Library, the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art, and the American Institute for Conservation Oral History Project.

To watch the art talk online, follow the Legion of Honor on Google+ and then tune into the broadcast.

You can also watch at the Koret Auditorium at the de Young or at the Florence Gould Theater at the Legion of Honor. Museum admission is required.

Thomas Carr Howe, Jr.’s papers are stored at the Archives of American Art, which includes a great gallery of images from his time with the platoon. A few are shown below but more can be seen here.

For his wartime service as a Monuments Men, Howe was honored with the Chevalier of the French Legion of Honor and the Officier of the Dutch Order of Orange-Nassau in 1946. After completing his service, Howe resumed his place as Director at the Legion of Honor, a position he held until his retirement in 1968.

And you can see the new Monuments Men movie starring Matt Damon, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban and George Clooney at the Balboa Theater, starting tonight.

Sarah B.

Stephen Kovalyak, George Stout and Thomas Carr Howe transporting Michelangelo’s sculpture Madonna
and child, 1945 July 9. [Archives of American Art]

Herr Sicher, George Stout and Thomas Carr Howe inspecting paintings, 1945 July 9 [Archives of American Art]

4:45 am | Posted under Art, Events, History, Museums | 2 comments

Remediation complete at Mountain Lake; Planting day February 8

Since last spring, Mountain Lake has looked a lot like a construction site as dredging equipment has sat on the surface, methodically removing sediment contaminated with lead and motor oil from the bottom of the lake.

In late 2011, a $13.5 million settlement was reached between the Presidio Trust and CALTRANS for cleanup of contaminated sediments that have run into Mountain Lake off of the Park Presidio roadway. The runoff has been occurring since the roadway opened 70 years ago.

The first phase of the project involved making adjustments to the roadway to avoid future runoff, including the installation of 400 stone columns into the ground along the northbound shoulder of the roadway west of Mountain Lake. Treatment devices were also installed in storm drains along the highway to prevent contaminants from entering the lake in the future.

Another part of the project involved removing all non-native species from the lake, including fish and turtles. All of the captured wildlife, including 42 red-eared slider turtles (photos), were taken to Sonoma County Reptile Rescue where they were relocated with breeders, pet stores, herpetological societies and local citizens.

One of the red-eared slider turtles that was removed from the lake and relocated

Dredging then got underway in Spring 2013. The dredged sediment from the bottom of the lake was transported via pipeline to a staging area north of the lake where it was dewatered and then pumped back into the lake. The dried, contaminated sediment was transported offsite and disposed of in a permitted, offsite landfill.

The last truckload of sediment left Mountain Lake in December, and all of the dredging equipment was removed from the lake. The remediation equipment in the staging area will also be removed soon, officially completing the remediation portion of the Mountain Lake project.

Crews plant new trees along the Park Presidio roadway in May 2013.
In the background, dredging barges can be seen on the lake. Photo: Presidio Trust

Up next is the beginning of the restoration phase, which is expected to last nearly three years. During that time, Biological Science Technician Jason Lisenby says they “will plant thousands and thousands of local plants into the newly cleaned-up areas.”

Planting will also take place in the lake itself, to ready it for the return of fish and act as a food source for wildlife:

Planting into Mountain Lake is expected to begin in March, and the first priority, Laskowski said, will be to introduce three of the lake’s most important plants: sago pondweed (Stuckenia pectinata), coontails (Ceratophyllum demersum) and water nymphs (Najas guadalupensis).

Those plants will play many roles, Young and Laskowski said. They will form a leafy canopy to shield microorganisms on the bottom from sunlight and provide a source of food for the lake’s dabbling ducks, as well as for the rare Western pond turtles that are being raised at the two zoos until they can be moved to the lake.

Once the plants are thriving, Young’s team will introduce hundreds of fish called three-spined sticklebacks, (Gasterosteus aculeates), a 2-inch species with a crucial role in the lake’s ecology. [SFGate]

Next Saturday, the Presidio Trust will host a celebration of the end of the remediation phase that includes a volunteer planting day. Volunteer opportunities will run from 9am to 12noon, followed by guided walks and a talk about future plans for Mountain Lake by Michael Boland, Chief Planning, Projects & Programs Officer for the Presidio Trust.

This is an auspicious rebirth for Mountain Lake, which scientists estimate is 1,700 years old, and one of the few remaining natural lakes in San Francisco (the others are Lake Merced, Pine Lake west of Stern Grove and the semi-natural Chain of Lakes in Golden Gate Park).

The lake was also a valuable source of drinking water for the Ohlone Indians and for early European settlers like Juan Bautista de Anza, who camped along its shores in 1776.

For more information on the Mountain Lake remediation and enhancement project, visit the project website.

Sarah B.

A view of Mountain Lake from 1899, looking west from the south shore (the side where Mountain Lake Park is today). The buildings in the background are the historic Marine Hospital, where the Presidio Landmark apartments are today. Photo: Presidio Trust

9:35 am | Posted under History, Parks | 13 comments

Photos: Travel back to the Richmond District in 1951

215 6th Avenue, 1951. Courtesy of Western Neighborhoods Project

The history-minded folks at the Western Neighborhoods Project recently acquired a photo collection from a local historian; he had saved them from being discarded in the early 1980s.

The photos are from the San Francisco Assessor’s Office and were all taken in 1951. WNP explains:

The Assessor’s Office periodically photographed buildings around the city for property tax purposes. The photos are documentary in nature and were taken without regard to the scenes on the street. As a result, in addition to showing the buildings, other things were recorded too, such as parked cars and people going about their daily lives. We think these make for an excellent view into what life was like on our streets over 60 years ago.

The WNP team has created a new website just for the photo collection at 1951.outsidelands.org, that includes a handy Google Map that allows you to see where the photos are across the city.

There are many in the Richmond District, a few of which we’ve included here. As is the case with San Francisco, some things have changed a lot, while others not so much. Check out the map – you may see a slice of life from your very own block in 1951.

Thanks to the Western Neighborhoods Project for digitizing and sharing the 4×5 inch negatives, which will also be donated to the San Francisco History Center at the San Francisco Public Library, adding to its large collection of Assessor’s negatives.

Into local history? The WNP is a non-profit and always welcomes donations and new members (they have an awesome quarterly newsletter).

Sarah B.

522 35th Avenue, 1951. Courtesy of Western Neighborhoods Project

594 18th Avenue, 1951. Courtesy of Western Neighborhoods Project

5717 California, 1951. Courtesy of Western Neighborhoods Project

Still a BofA! 3701 Balboa, 1951. Courtesy of Western Neighborhoods Project

673 26th Avenue, 1951. Courtesy of Western Neighborhoods Project

35 27th Avenue, 1951. Courtesy of Western Neighborhoods Project

120 Clement Street, 1951. Courtesy of Western Neighborhoods Project

5:14 am | Posted under History, Real Estate | 10 comments