Noe Valley Voice October 1997

The Lost World of Neo-Sanchez

By Richard Lee Merritt

It was in the summer of 1955 that we first saw "Neo-Sanchez." We were very seriously looking for a house to buy. But since we were ignorant outlanders -- I was from Montana, my wife Gertrude from New York -- it took fortune and accident to lead us to Noe Valley.

Our first year and a half in San Francisco, we lived in an apartment on 17th Street near Stanyan. During that time, we must have looked at 30 or 40 houses, even putting down earnest money in a couple of cases -- one on Stanyan and one on States Street. But we always got cold feet and extricated ourselves at the last minute.

Though we didn't realize it, this was the golden age for house hunters, especially those interested in decaying Victorians. Generally, Victorians were held in low esteem, and builders were replacing them wholesale with those flat-fronted, functional apartment houses that still mar the symmetry of many of our older blocks. Since the 1920s people had been razing them or hiding their gingerbread under asbestos shingles or stucco. In the Western Addition, San Francisco was engaged in a Saturnalia of self-destruction called urban renewal, in which over 100 blocks of blighted, slum-bound Victorians met their end.

My wife and I were poor, each with a tiny salary. Our apartment cost $65 a month. But I was young (32), willing, and able to do many of the necessary things to improve an old house. I could garden, carpenter, paint, putty, and learn. If we were to improve our station in life, we had to buy a house and harness my rampant energies!

We decided we must have four basic things: a garden, a garage, a fireplace, and a view. We didn't have a set location, though. The only neighborhood we knew was our pre-hippie Haight- Ashbury. And if anyone had told us the real estate we were surveying was in Noe Valley, we would have asked, "Where's the valley?"

Among the many houses we looked at was one on Sanchez Street near Jersey -- a Stick-style, square-bay Victorian. The price was fair (within our $7,000 to $12,000 range), but there was no view, and the house needed much more than just paint.

When we did comparisons during our house hunting, we would refer to houses by their street names -- thus, the Hoffman, the Woodland, the Ashbury, and the Sanchez house. But one day a realtor took us back over to Sanchez Street, this time near the top of the very steep hill between Hill and 22nd streets.

This second Sanchez house seized our attention, most particularly because the asking price was a rock-bottom $7,000, the lowest we had found in our search. But confusion arose, since now there were two Sanchez houses!

For the sake of clarity I dredged up a couple of dependable Greek prefixes. I told my wife that the first Sanchez house would be known as Paleo-Sanchez (old), and the second as Neo-Sanchez (new).

Neo-Sanchez was one of a row of quadruplets built on a high ridge on the east side of the street. From the rear windows, it had a spectacular pano-ramic view of downtown, the Bay Bridge, and Mount Diablo. Morning sun poured in those same windows. Moreover, the dormer windows on the front captured the last rays of the evening sun when Twin Peaks cast a long shadow over houses further west.

The quadruplets, which might vaguely be described as craftsman bungalows San Francisco­style, were definitely post-Victorian, probably early Model-T (c. 1910). Each was built over a street-level garage and had a roof sloping toward the street. Neo-Sanchez also had a solid concrete basement, probably built on bedrock, since there were some impressive natural rock outcroppings a hundred feet down the hill.

I scarcely recall the garden. But I think it was precipitous, falling away toward Church Street. Nevertheless, it got lots of sun and might have been developed with a series of terraces and retaining walls such as farmers built on mountainsides in China and Provence. A Sherpa would have helped there.

Inside, Neo-Sanchez had a fireplace and well-proportioned rooms, but the greatest feature was its superb, ridge-top location. With our books, Oriental rugs, and distinctive Salvation Army furniture -- not to mention our impeccable taste and ingenuity -- how could we fail to make this an enviable retreat?

We looked at the house twice, then asked a friend whom we considered an expert in such matters to evaluate the structure. Because the ceiling over the stairway was badly stained from a leaky roof and the wallpaper hung in shreds, our friend pronounced it "a disaster."

However, the lady next door at 861 Sanchez, who happened to be the owner of Neo-Sanchez, invited us over to see her house. A twin of Neo-Sanchez, it was beautifully painted and in good condition. "This is what it will be like after you've done the repairs!"

We weighed the pros and cons, and at last decided to try to buy Neo-Sanchez despite our friend's admonitions. Then financial difficulties arose. Although we had $2,000 for the down payment, the bank balked at lending first mortgage money until the roof was replaced. We could not afford both the down payment and the roof costs. This problem could have been overcome, but we were not sophisticated enough -- nor our realtor enterprising enough -- to know how to procure the extra few hundred dollars that a new roof would have cost in those good old days. The bank turned us down.

So we didn't buy Neo-Sanchez after all. Instead, the following autumn we found and bought our manse on 23rd Street between Hoffman and Grand View. Our new old house was a true 1897 Victorian with no garage. But it had a garden, a fireplace, and a poor man's view of the South Bay. It cost $8,800, but the roof didn't leak, and the former owner obligingly gave us a second mortgage.

Today, after 42 years, I love it dearly (my wife died in 1971). I've grown fond of its redwood tree and roses; its crown cornices and medallions; its wealth of stained glass; its roomy nooks and crannies. I'm not above talking to it, caressing its redwood wainscots, or congratulating it on its hundredth birthday.

However, I still muse about the hands of fate, and how some obscure bank official decreed that we were not to inhabit Neo-Sanchez.

If you live on Sanchez Hill and happen to see an elderly man shuffling along, staring intently at the details in a pageant of charming houses, please know that he's not planning a break-in. He's just an old friend, come down eight blocks o'er hill and dale to visit the "road not taken."

Richard Lee Merritt, although retired from his 23-year career as a librarian for the San Francisco Examiner, has not retired his love of the written word. More than 3,000 books fill the nooks and crannies of his three-story Victorian, two of which are novels he has written himself.