Monthly Archives: January 2016

Meet The Russ Family, 1022 Stanyan Street’s First Owners

Hoodline, 5/23/151022stanyanyeah

The 4-bedroom, 2,900 square foot Victorian mansion at 1022 Stanyan Street is getting a remodel, so we took a look into its history. The story turns out to include pre-Gold Rush settlers, the development of the Financial District, a prominent local family, and charges of treachery against the government.

1022 Stanyan Street in the1907 Block Book (via SFPL)
Emanuel Charles Christian Russ was a German immigrant who came to prominence after building the city’s first hotel and thirty shacks at the corner of Pine and Montgomery using wooden bunks he purchased from a ship moored in the bay. Nine months after his family’s arrival, gold was discovered in the Sierras. Several of his sons left to seek their fortune, but the elder Russ “remained in the city, knowing there were harvests to be reaped at home, in city real estate,” according to Tales of San Francisco.
After an 1852 fire reduced the Russ House and surrounding shacks to cinders, Russ built the American Hotel on the same location, as well as a family mansion at Sixth and Harrison, south of Market. He quickly became one of the city’s largest landowners and established the Russ Estate Co. Today, the Russ Building stands on the site of the old hotel; built in 1927, the 31-story building claimed to be the tallest edifice west of Chicago for 30 years.
5/1/06, San Francisco Chronicle
According to a 1907 Block Book, the land under 1022 Stanyan was owned by Emanuel’s grandson, Robert R. Russ, a notary and secretary of Russ Estate Co. That year, he and his wife Lottie moved from 3111 24th Street to their new home on Stanyan.
To get to his office at 32 Montgomery, Russ used one of the new streetcar lines that reached Stanyan, but a September 1907 article reported that a gang of pickpockets relieved him of $300 in gold while he rode home on a crowded car. It’s unknown whether the experience put Russ off public transit forever, but in 1909, his wife Lottie posed behind the wheel of their new 1910 Packard Model L for a Chronicle article. According to newspaper accounts, Russ had a sincere need for speed – he was a member of the Bay City Wheelmen cycling club, as well as several automotive societies.
9/5/07, San Francisco Chronicle
As a descendent one of the city’s wealthiest families, Russ’ doings were frequently reported upon: a successful hunting trip with friends to Humboldt County, gala events for private clubs and socialite weddings gave reporters plenty of reasons to spill ink, but in 1919, the Russ name stopped appearing on the Society page and became hard news.
Trading With The Enemy
After World War I ended in November 1918, the US government prosecuted a number of cases involving the conduct of allegedly disloyal Americans, generally for providing aid and comfort to the enemy. On June 18, 1919, Russ turned himself into US Marshals before being indicted “on charges of violating the ‘trading-with-the-enemy’ act,” reported the Chronicle. According to the government, Russ and others used a Swedish intermediary to transmit funds to heirs of his father’s estate back in Germany.
On July 9, Russ entered a plea of not guilty, along with co-defendants C.O. Swanberg, president of the Portola Cafe Company, and Henry W, Westphal, president of the Merchant’s Ice and Cold Storage Co. The trial generated several linear feet of headlines; at one point, Russ’ attorney accused the prosecutor of offering his client immunity if he turned state’s witness against his friends. The prosecutor “vehemently denied that he had made such a statement,” the Chronicle reported.
On February 25, 1920, Russ, Swanberg and Westphal were acquitted of all charges, with the judge ruling that the men acted in good faith to help “suffering relatives who were caught in Germany at the outbreak of the war.” The Chronicle reports the defense entered letters into evidence from Westphal’s German relatives that described “grave danger from starvation” and other bleak conditions facing Russ’s relatives in the old country.
2/26/20, San Francisco Chronicle
The trial didn’t appear to negatively impact Russ’ business or reputation; advertisements and legal notices indicate that he carried on his work at Russ Estate Co. during his trial. After his acquittal, news accounts show that he was active in local cycling and automotive circles, and even wrote the Chronicle to complain about the outcome of a heavyweight boxing match.
Robert R. Russ died on September 28, 1934. According to his death notice in the Chronicle, “his passing severs one of the very few remaining links directly connecting present day San Francisco with the foundation of the city in the days before the discovery of gold in 1849.”

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Taking Stock Of The Planned Kirkham Heights Redevelopment

Hoodline, 5/2/15


On Thursday, the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research (SPUR) nonprofit organized a tour of Kirkham Heights, an 86-unit apartment complex in the Inner Sunset that was built in 1950.

The plan has been generating intense local debate after it was announced last fall and as outreach rolled out over the winter. We decided to tag along to hear about the latest, and to see if we could talk to nearby residents. Here’s what we came away with.

Representatives of site owner Westlake Urban walked attendees through the 6.35-acre property to visualize proposals for transforming it into a 460-unit development without significantly increasing its footprint. The tour was co-presented by the San Francisco Housing Action Coalition.

Kirkham Heights “was built for people who drove up to their homes and drove out,” said Naomi Porat, co-founder of project development management firm Transform Urban. “Now, we’re reorienting it toward community.” The project is still in its early stages; pending environmental reviews and city approval, construction is at least two years away.
Today, the development is built into a steep hillside that abuts the west slope of the Mt. Sutro Open Space Preserve. Participants who walked or biked up the hill for Thursday’s tour showed clear signs of exertion; plans call for the hill to be substantially graded to promote walkability and make it ADA-compliant.
During the tour, Gaye Quinn of Westlake Urban shared an anecdote about a resident who’d once broken her leg and and had to scoot up stairs backwards. “We’re transforming a site that is not wheelchair-accessible, where people cannot age in place, to a site that will be completely wheelchair-accessible,” said Porat.
Carports are a major architectural feature at Kirkham Heights, but the new site will have .5 parking spaces per unit. “It’s not just about having less parking, but all of the programmatic elements that are part of being able to make less parking work,” said Porat. The developer plans to add secure bike storage along with bike- and car-sharing services.

“What I’ve talked about are transportation management programs that include delivery services, farm-to table-services and all the things that would be needed to minimize needing a car,” said Porat.
“A modern lifestyle is fine,” said Maria Wabl, a Kirkham Heights neighbor for 27 years who we talked to as we were poking around the site. “But I think you have to be realistic at the same time. If you have a family up there, let’s say just with one kid, how can you only have half a car?” Wabl said converting carports into enclosed garages would be more practical. “I think you should work with what you have, and if you have buildings that are pretty solid, invest some money into those.”
Wabl expressed concerns that boosting housing density would worsen existing traffic and public transit problems and said some of the proposals, like large community terraces, just aren’t practical. “I don’t think people want plazas, they want a cozy space in the back where they might sit on a bench and have their privacy. I personally don’t think that will be of great advantage for the neighborhood.”
Porat said the redeveloped site will “have balconies and also rooftop space,” but that most of the open space would be communal. “There’s stoops that come right out into the street similar to how these Edwardians in the Inner Sunset are designed.” Streetscaping inside the reimagined complex would complement the work that UCSF is doing on nearby Parnassus Ave., she added.

Visualizing the changes during the tour. Photo by Walter Thompson.
Post-renovation, residents could drive in or enter the complex via private elevators or a ridgeline stairway with public art installations like the Hidden Garden Steps. Disabled residents will be “able to go up to the forest in a wheelchair through the elevator system,” said Porat.
Wabl, who’s discussed the project with some Kirkham Heights residents and nearby homeowners, remains skeptical. “They’re only saying that because of what they want to build. That’s the only thing they can offer; outdoor space.” Neighborhood reaction to the renovation plans “is really mixed,” said Wabl. “People feel that we need more housing, but they believe the developer because they’re building it up so much with the rent control.”
Current Kirkham Heights residents will have the option of a renting a new unit at the same rate for the apartment they have now, said Porat. “We’re looking at phasing the development so people could potentially stay on site,” she said. “We’re also looking at relocating them temporarily and bringing them back.” Transitional housing has yet to be identified, but “hopefully, we could find something close by in the neighborhood,” said Porat.
Wabl told Hoodline that people living in rent-controlled units won’t know how large their new homes might be, or where they’d be located. Although Westlake Urban hasn’t indicated how much the new units will cost, Wabl said she doubted that anyone “with a salary under $80,000 to $90,000 will be able to afford the units.”
In keeping with city mandates, 12% of the new units “need to be affordable at 55% of AMI (Area Median Income), so we’re doing that for the net new units,” Porat said, noting that “having a mixed community in terms of income, age and all other dimensions” is a project goal. According to the Mayor’s Office of Housing, 55% of San Francisco’s AMI is $39,250 for a 1-person household and $44,850 for two people.
Wabl said she believed the redevelopment plans would largely benefit “the young ones making a lot of money that don’t have a family, work in the city and can afford to take cabs all the time. That’s the new lifestyle,” she said. “That’s okay, but is it realistic?”

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The Sunset District Improvement Club: A Rocky Start, But Quick Success

Hoodline, 4/22/15


6th and Judah, 1926 (via San Francisco History Center)

The first meeting of the Sunset District Improvement Club probably didn’t go as its organizers intended. Although the neighborhood association quickly became an influential voice in city politics, history suggests that it was borne from controversy and neighborhood discord.

The San Francisco Call, 9/1/1985

In 1895, the Sunset District was lacking in population and political clout. The Sunset Tunnel wouldn’t open until 1928, and the growing population west of Twin Peaks and south of the dairy farms in the Haight had two pressing demands: creation of a networked sewage system, and improved streetcar service to connect them to downtown. According to local history archive Outside Lands, the new club needed a name to set itself apart from the “already established South Side Improvement Club, which was made up of absentee millionaire real estate speculators and land developers.”

Organizers of the meeting put their best face forward: the La Grande Hall at the corner of H Street (Lincoln Way in 2015) and 9th Avenue “had been newly whitewashed and adorned with flags, bunting and magic-lanterns,” reported the September 1 San Francisco Call. “Attendance was not large, despite the fact that about 800 invitations were issued and a special train provided.” In all, the four-car train carried only 14 passengers.

Club president W.H Jones introduced Sunset resident Thomas U. Sweeney to explain his “plan for sewering this district,” but Sweeney wasn’t in the room. A committee appointed to retrieve him “returned in a few minutes and reported that Mr. Sweeney had gone to bed and refused to get up.”

George T. Gaden, a representative of Mayor Adolph Sutro, tried to speak up, but was shouted down by Jones, who ruled him out of order. Gaden pressed on, which led Jones to preemptively adjourn the meeting, shouting “that there should be no discussion of the railroad question while he presided.”

Gaden kept gabbing about the railroad question, “a cause of bad feeling between the Ashbury Heights and Sunset Valley people.” The conflict? Sunset Valley compromised with streetcar operator Southern Pacific to run cars every half-hour, but the Ashbury contingent “had stood for 15 minutes’ car service.”

The Call, 6/27/1896

By June of the following year, the Sunset Improvement Club had established itself; the June 27, 1896 edition of The Call reports that the association was back at the La Grande Hall celebrating a big win: the Board of Supervisors appropriated $11,000 (about $308,000 in 2015 dollars) to grade the district “bounded by H and D Streets (Lincoln and Fulton) and Seventh and Twentieth avenues.”

Several supervisors were in attendance for “an excellent literary and musical programme,” which included “‘Give Us Light in Sunset District,’ in which the need of electric-lights in the vicinity was poetically set forth.” The following February, Supervisors voted to extend streetlights from H to K (Lincoln to Kirkham) and from 12th to 16th avenues.

The Call, 12/10/1896

Emboldened by political success and steady increases in land values, the club’s next major proposal was to extend 19th Avenue from H Avenue to Ocean Avenue, creating “a level and scenic route” that would connect Golden Gate Park with Ingleside Racetrack, two of the city’s most popular recreation destinations. The Call reported that the roadway would be “secure from the rolling-sand nuisance” that can still close Great Highway today.

Creating this “belt line” would quickly boost property values in the Outside Lands, noted The Call, and “it would increase the attractiveness of San Francisco by adding to its picturesque drives.”

When the city’s charter changed to permit at-large voting for supervisors in 1900, neighborhood associations became more active and were regularly reported on post-earthquake, with The Call publishing associations’ scheduled meeting times and minutes.

The Sunset District Improvement Club continued to play a key role in attracting infrastructure investment and improving services for area residents into the 20th century. As more neighborhoods developed, new associations split off to serve the interests of their constituencies, eventually leaving the parent organization with far less power. Today, Inner Sunset Park Neighbors, Sunset Heights Association of Responsible People, and other organizations continue the tradition.

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