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The View from a Window on 30th Street
By Kathy Dalle-Molle
Thanks to a unique birthday gift from his son-in-law, Neil Mosher knows more about the history of his Noe Valley home than most people know about their own family's roots.
The gift: a 310-page treatise on 411 30th Street -- the house Mosher has called home since 1995. The manuscript traces the development of Upper Noe Valley from the goat and cow pastures of the 1850s to the urban crossroads of today. But more importantly, the book includes photos and tales from the long parade of owners and renters -- more than 50 people -- who have lived at 411 30th Street since the two-story, flat-front Victorian was first erected in 1877. (The house was likely built by contractor John Nelson and his teenage son Fernando, who later earned a reputation as one of San Francisco's most prolific builders.)
Titled "411 30th Street," the manuscript also chronicles events on nearby Church and Sanchez streets, along with the settlement of the Fairmount District in the 1870s and the notorious 1914 murder of George Gray, a Pacific Heights millionaire and co-owner of Gray Brothers' Quarry at 30th and Castro.
"The murder was a really fascinating part of my research," says manuscript author Christian Ard. "Gray Brothers had been at odds with the neighborhood for quite a while because dust from crushed rock was seeping into homes and damaging furniture. Later, when they started rock-blasting, children and adults in the neighborhood were injured by the debris. One neighbor even suffered a broken arm and sprained ankle. At the time, the City Attorney called the Grays 'constant law breakers.'"
Perhaps as a foreshadowing of the neighborhood's future activism, a group of residents formed the 29th and Castro Club and lobbied to end the operation of the hazardous quarry. Unfortunately, they met with little success.
Then, in 1914, Joseph LoCoco, a 26-year-old former employee, shot Gray on the quarry grounds after Gray repeatedly refused to pay him his wages.
LoCoco had quit his job due to heart trouble, and because of Gray's stalling on his back pay, his family had not eaten for two days and were facing eviction from their Potrero Hill apartment. After he shot and killed Gray, LoCoco gasped, "God, forgive me." Following a sensational, closely watched trial in April 1915, the jury found LoCoco not guilty by reason of temporary insanity.
Ard began his research on the Gray murder and other Upper Noe events in March 1996 after an off-the-cuff suggestion from Carol Bakker, Mosher's girlfriend, who co-owns 411 30th Street.
"We were just sitting around at Neil and Carol's on a Sunday afternoon," recalls Ard, "and Carol suggested the book as a present for Neil's birthday in August."
Ard, who currently works as a computer troubleshooter at Charles Schwab & Co., had always been drawn to historical research. Previously, he had assisted author Cari Beauchamp in researching a biography of legendary screenwriter Frances Marion, who wrote Stella Dallas, Dinner at Eight, and Camille. He had also looked into the background of his own 92-year-old home, located in San Francisco's Ingleside District.
So when Bakker pitched the Noe Valley house history idea, he quickly became interested, spending much of his spare time digging through old city directories and voting records, and scanning the Internet in search of the names and current whereabouts of former owners, tenants, and their surviving family members.
He sent out close to 50 letters of inquiry and made at least as many phone calls. Almost everyone he contacted was thrilled to speak with him about their time at 411 30th Street. Many even sent him their family's fading snapshots.
Ard also spent countless hours in the History Room of the Main Library, poring over newspapers, photos, and various other documents to uncover the lives of the residents of 411 30th Street, beginning with the family of Irish seaman John Higgins and his wife Julia. The Higgins and their seven children are the first known residents of the house.
"By the time I was finished with the project, I was on a first-name basis with all the librarians who worked in the History Room," Ard laughs.
Interestingly, for current Noe Valley residents, Ard's research proves that as much as times change, they also remain the same. In 1896, only 20 neighborhood residents had a phone -- quite a difference from today's phone-obsessed culture. But even in 1896, Noe Valley had a homeless population. Residents often complained to the city that the local transients were drinking beer, playing cards, and causing fires and other property damage in the neighborhood. Eventually the neighbors petitioned the Board of Supervisors for increased police protection.
Like most projects of this nature, Ard's historical study grew and grew...and grew some more. Originally Ard thought it would take him five months to research and write the manuscript, but when his father-in-law's birthday rolled around in August 1996, all Ard had to show for his trouble was a gigantic pile of papers filled with notes and leads.
Instead of a book, Ard gave Mosher a print of a turn-of-the-century photograph of 30th Street near Noe, which he'd discovered at the California Historical Society. Mosher loved the photograph, and Ard promised that the book would be finished in time for his next birthday.
But by August 1997, the book was still not completed. To keep Mosher's appetite whetted, Ard tracked down in a used rec-ord store in the Haight a 78-rpm recording by jazz pianist Frankie Ellis, who lived with his parents and two sisters at 411 30th Street from 1903 to 1905. By the time Ellis and his family moved in, 411 30th Street had been transformed into two flats by then-owner William Cavanaugh, a carpenter who built streetcars for the Market Street Railway Company. The Cavanaugh family lived in the upstairs flat, the Ellises in the downstairs one.
At the time he lived in Noe Valley, Frankie Ellis, then in his early teens, studied piano and earned money by teaching music. As an adult, he became part of the five-piece Art Hickman Jazz Band. Later, he directed the orchestras for the St. Francis Hotel and the Cliff House. He also played with the Paul Whiteman Band, and formed his own band, Frank Ellis and his Californians. Ellis died in 1949.
By August 1998, Ard had completed the research and writing of "411 30th Street," and he presented the manuscript to a very pleased and very impressed Mosher on his birthday.
"It was just incredible to read everything Christian had uncovered about the house," says Mosher, a member of the San Francisco Historical Society. "I'm very interested in history. I read a lot of history and I was a history major in college, but I've never done research on a house. I don't know if I'd even know where to start in finding everything that Christian did."
Mosher was particularly intrigued by Frank and Josephine Fazzio, the couple who purchased 411 30th Street in 1921 and lived with their four daughters in the downstairs flat. Frank Fazzio, a bootblack, began a family tradition of making wine in the cellar of the home. Fifty-five-gallon casks sat on slatted benches, and a vat was located in the cellar's back corner across from the same furnace that still heats the house today.
Each year, two tons of grapes, selected by Josephine Fazzio, arrived by rail from Napa Valley. Although Josephine didn't drink wine, "she was able to tell the perfect sugar content of a grape by its taste," reports Ard. "When Frank toiled at winemaking, Josephine would sit with him and salt olives."
Ard continues: "Frank's upstairs tenant, John Kelly, was a frequent late-night visitor to the cellar, and as the wine loosened the screws at the back of their tongues, the Irishman and the Italian came to know each other. The family still tells about the nights that John and Frank would walk back from the cellar along the side walkway, each holding the other steady, arm in arm, singing some forgotten song."
Frank Fazzio died at the age of 75 in 1938, and Fazzio daughter Margaret returned home with her husband, Peter Marucco, and their children, Robert and Marie, to live with Josephine. During this time, the look and feel of 411 30th Street was changed forever when contractor J.A. Cotton removed the rounded, classical Victorian ornaments from the front of the house and applied a thick coat of stucco. Cost: $360.
After Josephine, to whom Ard dedicated the book, died in the house in 1953, the Maruccos moved out and other relatives moved in. Many other residents, including Pickle Family Circus co-founder Cecilia MacKinnon and her family, came to inhabit the two units at 411 30th Street in the ensuing 40 years, until Mosher and Bakker purchased the building in February 1995. Says Mosher, "Knowing about all this history has really brought our house to life."
The fall after Ard finished the manuscript, he organized an afternoon gathering for former residents and family members at Mosher and Bakker's home.
"I spoke with a lot of people for the book and so many of them wanted to see the place again. It had been decades since they'd been to the house," says Ard.
About 15 people, most of whom still live in San Francisco or neighboring cities, came by to talk about old times and pick up a copy of Ard's manuscript. One former tenant, Robert Marucco, a grandson of Frank and Josephine Fazzio who lived at 411 30th Street from the late 1930s to the mid-1950s, even brought a gift for the house -- Frank's 100-year-old iron vise, used in his workshop.
"It took three of us to carry it from the trunk of Bob's car to the house," says Ard, who notes that the vise now sits on a bench in Mosher's basement after an absence of more than 40 years.
"The party was such a kick," adds Mosher. "People had some great stories to share. Some of the men who came told us about when their relatives installed the original furnace or poured the concrete sidewalk. Bob Marucco told us how in 1928 his grandfather spent $100 to fix the front stairs and add a garage, and how in 1932 he paid $200 to have workers remove the house's gabled roof and replace it with a flat tar and gravel roof. It was just incredible everything people remembered about the house."
Discovering the roots of his house has made Mosher an even bigger fan of Noe Valley. "When I was looking for a house, I wanted one with this special kind of history," he explains, "and I knew I could find it in Noe Valley. I really appreciate the small-town atmosphere here."
As for Ard, he is happy his research conjured up so many fond memories. "I was very lucky that this house had such an exceptional history. It makes the entire book interesting. Most houses probably have a much more mundane history, I'd think. Of course, this is the only one I've really dug into deeply."
Copies of "411 30th Street" can be obtained for $17 by phoning Christian Ard at 415-586-7401, or by writing to him at P.O. Box 190621, San Francisco, CA 94119.