Category Archives: History

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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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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Crimes Of Yesteryear: Sutro Forest Kidnapping, Masked Highwaymen, More Cowbell

Hoodline, 4/16/15


via San Francisco History Center

Our last look back at crime in the Inner Sunset focused on the grisly axe murder of butcher Egbert Annand, who died in his 9th Avenue shop at the hands of his delivery boy. Today, a roundup of stories from the meaner (and in many cases, unpaved) streets of the Inner Sunset from the early 20th century.

On July 23rd, 1905, The San Francisco Call reported that sisters Anne and Rose Flex appeared in Police Court. Anne was charged with “disturbing the peace of the Sunset district by ringing cow bells at late and unusual hours.” According to the report, this wasn’t the first trip to court for the Flex family, which “has been in the Police Courts before, charged with murdering sleep in the Sunset district.”

Rose Flex appeared to serve as her sister’s attorney, a legal strategy that was not well received by presiding Judge Fritz. After sister Rose “gave a sample of how she could argue,” he shouted for his bailiff to shut her down, stopping “what promised to be for the record a long distance oration in the Police Court.”

A different Police Court judge issued a warrant for the arrest of jeweler Joseph Gillis on January 5th, 1908. According to May McMurry of 1240 4th Ave., Gillis pawned a gold watch and a gold stick pin she had left with him for repairs.

Gillis was charged with felony embezzlement; adjusted for inflation, the $107.50 in goods he allegedly stole would be worth about $2,850 in 2015.

The San Francisco Call, 8/12/12

On August 12th, 1912, The Call reported that 12-year-old Jerome Crevas of 1708 Irving St. managed to escape from an “isolated shack” in Sutro Forest where two men and a woman held him hostage for several hours.

Crevas, the son of “one of the wealthiest Mexican merchants in Guaymas,” was playing in front of St. Anne’s Church at 14th & Irving on a Saturday afternoon when, “in full view of many people, a large, gray automobile pulled up to the curb.” A “well-dressed, middle-aged man” tossed Jerome in the rear of the vehicle before spiriting him past the almshouse (now Laguna Honda hospital) and “through the gate into Sutro forest.”

The kidnappers brought Jerome “to a lonely little shack hidden in a hollow” and locked him inside a small room. Once he realized that his captors left him alone, the boy crept through a window. “After an hour’s laborious walking,” Jerome emerged east of the present-day UCSF Parnassus campus, “ran down to the park police station and reported the kidnaping.”

Police visited the crime scene and verified Jerome’s story, but we weren’t able to find any follow-up reporting about the kidnap investigation.

The Call, 12/4/13

On December 4th, 1913, the Sunset Improvement Club voted to create a committee to urge SFPD Chief White to step up police protection in what was then a rapidly-developing neighborhood that lobbied actively for better public services.

The organization, an influential group of affluent homeowners and merchants, was spurred to action by “six holdups two in broad daylight, last Friday evening, all within a radius of several blocks.” One of the robbery victims was Rev W.L. Stidger of Calvary Methodist Church. At the time of publication, SFPD detectives were still gathering “indefinite clews to the three masked highwayman who have committed six saloon holdups and two shootings” in the prior week.

via SF History Center

Finally, a happy ending: the June 9th, 1950 edition of the The San Francisco News-Call Bulletin reported the good news that 2-year-old Linda Durand of 1737 Clayton St. was reunited with her mother at Park Station after police discovered her “wandering around at Haight and Clayton sts.” In the photo, Linda “tries on a policeman’s star, under Patrolman Brian McDonnell’s approving gaze.”

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