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San Francisco Landmark #206: Howard and 26th Street Cottages
5 March 2004
(Click Photo to Zoom)
San Francisco Landmark #206
Howard and 26th Street Cottages
1487-1499 South Van Ness
3274-3294 26th Street
84-96 Virgil
Built 1905

This residential complex, architect unknown, consists of two eight-unit woodframe Craftsman buildings with a carefully scaled interior courtyard. It is the only example of attached Craftsman row housing in San Francisco. Although row housing was prevalent throughout San Francisco in the late 19th century, most houses were in the Italianate, Stick, or Queen Anne styles.

The Craftsman movement in the United States was inspired by the British Arts and Crafts philosophy led by William Morris: artist, writer, designer, socialist.

Promoters of the American Craftsman movement rejected Victorian ornamentation in favor of naturalness and simplicity. Although Craftsman architecture and philosophy became very popular in the East Bay, and especially Berkeley at the turn of the century, few Craftsman houses were built in San Francisco before 1910.

The cottages at Howard and 26th Streets are an unusual American example of Craftsman houses built for the urban working class, rather than the suburban middle class. Unlike the parent English Arts and Crafts movement, which espoused a socialist, working-class philosophy, the American Craftsman movement idealized the middle class. According to David Gebhard in California Design 1910, "the cornerstone of the Craftsman movement was a strong belief in a universal middle class which would spread itself out horizontally on the landscape."

The canonical Craftsman house, as it was promoted in Stickley's Craftsman magazine, was a single story, detached, middle-class house, preferably located in a suburban or rural setting. Craftsman city houses did exist, but they were generally designed for lots which were surrounded by a garden or wooded area. Few if any immigrant working class families could afford to live in the suburbs, far from the docks and factories where they made their living; nor could they afford the "simple" exquisite hand workmanship that Craftsman houses incorporated.

From City Planning Commission Resolution 13559 dated August 19, 1993.

In the earliest days of San Francisco, the Mission District was separate from the city of Yerba Buena, but the increase in population quickly spilled into the Mission District. In 1863 the San Jose-San Francisco railway opened, and a station was built at 25th and Valencia. In 1870, horsedrawn carriages ran out to 26th and Folsom for the San Francisco recreational grounds, where baseball games were played. At that time the Mission was still considered a distinct, almost suburban area, and it developed its own theaters, zoos, gardens, race tracks, etc.

In the 1870's, a number of wealthy families built their mansions on fashionable Howard Street (which is now South Van Ness Avenue), probably owing to the appeal of the sunny weather and easy transportation to the center of the City. Two of these houses are San Francisco Landmarks: The Stone House and the Havens Mansion.

From 1870 to 1900, as the population of the Mission grew from 23,000 to 36,000, developers began building flats for middle and working class families. By the late 19th century, the prominent people had moved to other areas of the City with finer views, such as Pacific Heights and Nob Hill. The invention of the cable car in 1873 allowed for development of those previously inaccessible hilly areas.

The Mission District had become an area for new working-class immigrants, and had changed from a suburban area to a densely populated urban area. The population, mostly families, was mostly foreign-born or of foreign parentage, with Irish and German the largest groups.

Because the southern part of the Mission was spared in the 1906 Earthquake and Fire and demand for housing was huge, the Craftsman units on 26th and Howard were probably rented as soon as they became available in 1906.

According to the 1910 Census, the average number of residents per unit was four, and all units were occupied by families except one.

Most occupants were born in the United States, but only three out of seventeen adults were born to American citizens. There was no predominant ethnic group; parents of residents came from England, Australia, Germany, Ireland, and Italy.

Professions included railroad clerk, policeman, machinist, seamstress in a shirt factory, theater usher, sheet iron worker in pipe line company, teamster with draying company, accountant with the gas and electric company.

None of the wives had a profession outside the home. The first available records for the buildings were published in 1907. Voter registration records and City Directories show that in 1907 the Swett family lived in the unit at 3294 26th Street (comer Howard).

In 1907, Helen Swett, a divorced mother of four, lived in the unit at 3294 26th Street. Swett was born in California, and so were her children. However, her mother and father were both born in Italy. Her oldest son worked as a machinist in an elevator company, her next oldest son as a shipping clerk in a flour mill, and her youngest son as an electrician in a piano house. Her daughter was a stenographer in an insurance company.

In addition to her four children, Helen Swett provided rooms for two lodgers: John Wilson, an engineer in a marine company who was born in Scotland, and William Schafer, a musician in a band who was born in Germany.

Other original residents include John J. Mullin and his family at 2991 Howard. Mullin was born in New Jersey but his mother and father were from Ireland. He worked as a policeman, and lived in the unit with his wife and three sons. The two older sons worked as a tinner for a can company and a stenographer for the railroad.

In 1905 when the units were erected residents had several choices of convenient transportation. There were street cars which stopped at Howard and 26th, Mission and 26th, Folsom and 26th, and Valencia and 26th. Blue collar workers had easy access to the waterfront, foundries, breweries, and warehouses. Although we now think of 26th and So. Van Ness as being the core of the Mission, until the 1920's the area around Howard and 26th Street was referred to as the "Outer Mission District." In fact, Howard Street was not extended from 26th to Army until December, 1923. In the 1920's and 1930's the Mission had special status as a working class neighborhood, and even had its own special accent. Outside of work there was never any real need to leave the neighborhood, since Mission Street was a major shopping area in San Francisco.

After World War II, the Mission became predominantly Latino. However, the City directory of 1953 indicates only one family out of 16 as Latino in the two buildings. An interview with Lorraine Godfrey, who lived wi lh her husband Wallace at 84 Virgil from 1948-1953, reveals that in the early 1950's the units were inhabited exclusively by families. At that time professions included truck driver for Bob Ostrow meats, baker for Blum's, meatcutter, seaman, office secretary, insurance salesman for AAA, policeman, shipping clerk, etc.

Mrs. Godfrey asserts that So. Van Ness and 26th was "a very nice neighborhood," where she could leave the windows open, and walk at night down Mission Street. There was a strong sense of community in the units.

Today [1993], residents of the building are still employed in blue collar trades, and the sense of community is still there.

From City Planning Commission Resolution 13559 dated August 19, 1993.

San Francisco Street Trees

Consider Highclere Castle (Downton Abbey). Lovely building.

Consider the Taj Mahal, the Doge's Palace, the Parthenon, the Lincoln Memorial, the Sagrada Familia, the Winter Palace of the Tsar, the Hagia Sophia, San Francisco's own City Hall and Opera House and Legion of Honor.

Lovely buildings, all. Essential to their appeal is that they stand unobstructed to be admired from any angle and at any distance.

Over the past twenty years or so, many of San Francisco's most distinctive buildings have gone into hiding behind ill-considered street trees. Except for the Spreckels Mansion Spite Hedge which clearly flips the bird to San Francisco, most of these trees were planted in good faith to beautify the streetscape, filter the air, increase property values; but like the cute SPCA puppy who grows up to be a two hundred pound mastiff, many of our street trees would be more at home in the country than the city.

Here is a short list of some striking San Francisco buildings which I wish were more clearly visible. I'm sure the Hop-On Hop-Off tourists would enjoy them too. They can see an ineptly pruned ficus or an ailing plane tree anywhere.

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