Noe Valley Voice October 2002

Florence's Family Album

Reminiscences by Florence Holub

The Brown Shingled House

Editor's Note: In this essay originally published in the March 1990 Voice, Florence Holub describes how she and her husband Leo purchased their home on 21st Street, which had been built shortly after the 1906 earthquake.

We live in a brown shingled house perched high on a quiet street on one of Noe Valley's hills, with a breathtaking view of downtown San Francisco and the Bay. We were fortunate enough to stumble upon it in 1956, just when our small rented cottage was bulging at the seams. Out on a Sunday excursion, we first noticed the house because of the large "For Sale" sign, and since it looked roomy enough for our growing family, we set out in hot pursuit.

The realtor handling the property showed us through at the same time that another couple was intently examining every detail of the spotless old abode, which came with a beautifully landscaped garden, terraced and partially contained by decaying wooden retaining walls. It was a "fixer-upper," but in spite of the imperfections, for us it was a case of love at first sight. We put down a deposit to hold it, but we also learned that the house would not be immediately available because the elderly owner had died intestate (without a will). The entire estate had to go through probate court before the house could be sold.

We waited impatiently for three months while the lovely garden wilted, until the hearing was finally scheduled.

On that momentous day, my husband Leo, his mother, and I sat in court waiting, with some anxiety, because the same young couple who had inspected the house on the day we did was also there.

The realtor had urged us not to let the bidding get out of hand, so when the starting price was announced, the other couple raised it by $25. Leo followed by staunchly raising it $100. The slightly shaken lady again raised it $25, and Leo quickly countered with another hundred.

The chamber grew silent with tension as the fervent bidding spiraled upward-- her $25 raises to Leo's $100s, until it passed far beyond what I thought was our absolute limit. At this point, the lady succumbed and slowly sat down. I was staggered by the amount of additional cash we were committed to come up with, and which we didn't have, until Leo's mother shot me a smile that telegraphed a windfall--she would cover for us! At just under $10,000, the final price tag wasn't exactly a bargain (for those days), but we were ecstatic. The house was truly ours.

There was a special air about the place from the beginning, one of warmth and unpretentiousness that still prevails. Perhaps this was given to the house by the Fishers, the family who built it.

The Fisher family, who were African-American, bought the lot on 21st Street (then unpaved) and in 1907 built a new home for themselves just after and because of the 1906 earthquake and fire. Here they lived until the six children grew up and left, and until the mother's and then the father's long lives ended.

In the years that followed, we learned about the Fishers from their good neighbor and ours, Helen Hughes Helfrich. She told us that Mr. Fisher had worked at two jobs in order to raise and educate their children, and that they all had received fine schooling.

Elizabeth Fisher, the oldest daughter, married a University of California star athlete, Walter Gordon--the first black All-American football player and a brilliant lawyer who in 1955 was appointed governor of the Virgin Islands by President Eisenhower. We even saw them once on television. Elizabeth was wearing a long white formal gown and graciously moving about at the inaugural ball in Washington, D.C. Because she had at one time dropped in on us when she was visiting the old neighborhood, we felt we knew her and were proud.

Mr. Fisher had been a deacon in his church, and every Sunday he attended services wearing a small pink Cécile Brünner rose in his lapel--a rose from a bush that still blooms profusely in our garden. From the first time we saw the garden, we knew Mr. Fisher had tended it with loving care. He had filled it with small flowers of every shape and color--masses of pelargonium and clumps of daisies, roses, peonies, and daphne--as well as fruit trees and green shrubs bordering the property line. These plantings have grown tall in the last 30 years, giving a feeling of infinite greenery, like having the country in the middle of the city. But whereas Mr. Fisher's garden had an English ordered quality, ours is wild and overgrown. We call it Darwin's garden, for the survival of the fittest!

There were a few objects left in the house when we bought it, items that we have become attached to--a painting of a sleeping infant, a rocking chair of carved oak that once had a cane seat (now replaced with a padded red velvet disk, but still in good rocking order), and some words of wisdom, scripted and hand-decorated, that hang framed in our hallway: "A quiet home...vines of our own planting ... a few books of inspiration ... a few friends ... a hundred innocent pleasures ... a simple philosophy of trust, hope, and love."

Nice words to live by.

This house was constructed before strict building codes came into being, so it was built on a shallow brick foundation. We always knew that it was rather insecure, because when our little dog ran across the living room, the whole house shook. In 1988, we engaged a construction company to frame and pour a new concrete and steel foundation, and then to bolt our house to it. The cost was three times the original purchase price of our home, but the repair was fortuitous, because when the quake of '89 struck, our brown shingled house shook violently but held fast, while we thanked God, the construction company, and the Fisher family who built it.