Noe Valley Voice November 2003

Florence's Family Album:
A Moving Memory

By Florence Holub

In this tale originally published in our November 1993 issue, Florence Holub describes the geographically unstable home her family once lived in on Foerster Street.

In the winter of every year, when it begins to rain incessantly, I feel a bit uneasy, remembering the events of 1936 that shook our family household to its very foundation.

Eleven years earlier, when I was 6 years old, our parents had left Chattanooga Street in Noe Valley and acquired an old house in a more rural neighborhood so that my two brothers and I could play outside, free from the dangers of city traffic. Our new home was located in the Sunnyside District, at the then-unpaved end of Foerster Street.

The first time we inspected the interior of the house, we could not help but notice some large, circular stains on the upstairs floors, which led us to believe (since it was the Prohibition Era) that bootleggers had once distilled and stored their barrels of illegal alcohol on the premises. Nevertheless, the house, and the sparsely developed area surrounding it, proved to be a wonderful place to rear farm-bred children. (We were originally from Idaho.)

In the spring, there were green grassy hills and babbling brooks to explore, and gorgeous fields of wildflowers to be plucked. In the fall, the green slopes turned gold and were sprinkled with patches of brilliant red, forming a landscape that was unlike anything we'd ever seen.

The first autumn in our new house, the red shiny leaves were so inviting that I gathered an armful to bring to my mother. On the way home, an alarmed neighbor boy stopped me and gave me a lecture about the perils of embracing that particular plant, which was poison oak! Naturally, I cast my bouquet away immediately, but not soon enough. The next day, my arms were itching and swollen, and my face had ballooned to twice its size. In the following weeks, I continued to appreciate those glorious colors, but from a safer vantage point.

For years, living in the Sunnyside was much like living in the country, until the growing city of San Francisco began construction of a new traffic artery from Portola Drive to Monterey Boulevard. Teresita Boulevard, as the new street was called, wound around the hills for 12 undeveloped blocks, then descended to Foerster Street. There it passed our house, to connect with Monterey.

A great deal of earth had to be moved to provide space for two traffic lanes, with a sidewalk on each side. By the time the digging was done, the front door of our house stood 25 feet higher than the street!

Fortunately, my father was an energetic carpenter who loved his work. Immediately he began building forms and mixing cement until he had filled in the gap between the street and our house with usable living space (which eventually became a rumpus room above a garage that opened to the street). He finished it off with a stucco facade and cast-plaster accents, which made it look like a new home, much to my mother's delight.

But only a few years later, after the final mortgage payment had been made, the rains came--and came relentlessly. The downpour was so heavy that a mud bed apparently formed beneath the house. We had no idea of the extent of the ooze, however, until the evening when--as fate would have it--my mother just happened to be giving a dinner party.

The guests of honor were Florence Krieg, a genteel lady with whom my mother worked at Best Foods, Inc., and George Newman, a favorite cousin from Berkeley, who often spent the night with us when he was attending union meetings in San Francisco. (It was before the Bay Bridge was built.)

For the occasion, my mother had set a fine table, with a white brocade cloth setting off the expensive china that had been a gift from friends in honor of my parents' 25th wedding anniversary. As we all sat around the table enjoying the soup and anticipating the courses to come, we suddenly felt a terrible jolt, accompanied by a deep groan. We were silently frozen with fear until we realized it was over, whatever it was.

Probably because the impact felt nothing like an earthquake--there was no shimmying--the jolt was alarming. My father and Cousin George ran downstairs to inspect the underpinnings of the house, but returned to report that they had found nothing out of order, so we could all relax. However, as the dinner progressed, each course was punctuated by additional creaks and groans.

The dinner guests grew increasingly nervous, nibbling but barely tasting the food. When the evening was finally over, we crawled into our beds, completely exhausted, and tried to sleep.

In the morning, as everyone rushed off to work and school, we noticed that the sidewalk had buckled slightly. And when we arrived home in the afternoon, the situation had gotten much worse, with water spewing from a broken pipe and the smell of escaping gas filling the air. The house had also crept several feet forward during the day, having been pushed off its now squishy foundation by a mountain of mud at the rear of the property.

The city inspector had been there, condemning the place and posting a notice prohibiting habitation of an unsafe building. Then the utility company men came to shut off our service because of the broken pipes.

My mother and I didn't know what to do, so when a kind neighbor invited us to spend the night, we gladly accepted. But first we went to the dining room closet where the treasured china was kept, and my mother wrapped every piece, carefully stacking them in a wash basket, which we carried with us to our neighbor's house.

My father and brothers refused to abandon the homestead, however, and insisted on sleeping the night in their own beds.

Early the following morning, my father called upon Hanson House Movers to shore up the structure until the damage could be assessed. After they did so--by propping up and bracing the house, which had moved even further down the hill--they gave my folks the bad news: the home they had worked 10 years to own was probably worthless. In fact, the only offer my parents received was to tear it down, for a sum almost as high as the original price of the house.

Naturally, my mother was terribly disheartened, but my father, with his unfailing optimism, comforted her. "Don't worry, we'll get out of this," he promised.

Over the next week, my father tinkered with various solutions, refusing to give up in defeat. Each night after he took off his thinking cap, he would take out one of his musical instruments and play an old melody from our Finnish homeland. Miraculously, his cares would disappear.

It was on such a night that the editor of the local Swedish paper, Vestkusten, came to interview him.

The story that appeared in the paper, "Here's a House That Thinks It's a Bobsled," had a lighthearted slant, with the editor stating that he found his lodge brother, John Mickelson, engrossed in making music, "like Nero fiddling while Rome burned."

But my dad appreciated the good-humored attention!

The old Call Bulletin also featured a story, which attracted a stream of curious onlookers--so many, in fact, that a policeman had to be assigned to direct the traffic that clogged the one remaining lane in front of our house. Some folks brought their lunches to munch on, as they sat all day waiting for action.

Meanwhile, our family came and went as usual, except that the house we went in and out of now sat in the middle of the street.

As my father searched for an answer to our financial crisis, the price of nearby lots skyrocketed. Fortunately for us, a kind-hearted neighbor offered to sell his level lot, located only one block away, for a fair price.

I did not see the actual relocation of our house. But one day after school, when I arrived at the spot where our house should have been, I discovered it had been moved to the slanting street in front of the lot it would soon occupy. There it stood, on blocks, until a new foundation was poured several weeks later.

I remember coming home late one evening, climbing up a ladder to the back door, then walking uphill through the rooms--with the curtains hanging out toward me at a 30-degree angle--and dizzily ascending the stairs to my bed and sleep. When I awoke in the morning, I discovered that as I slept, my bed had slid down to the lower, opposite side of the room.

I was a senior at Balboa High School when all of this happened, so when our yearbook came out, showing photographs of all of the graduates, I was not surprised to find my photo accompanied by this caption: "A touch of the artistic in my fingertips, a sense of rhythm in my feet, and strangest of all, my house is in the middle of the street."

At about the same time that the yearbook went to press in November of 1936, our family had cause to give thanks. Owing to my father's industry, after only nine months, our displaced manor had been secured to a new foundation and remodeled inside and out.

We Mickelsons, along with a dozen happy relatives, were able to celebrate Thanksgiving with an enormous turkey dinner, served on my mother's fine china, in our now absolutely stable home.