Noe Valley Voice May 2004

Noe Valley's Little House on the Prairie

Historic Discovery Sparks Battle Between Developer and Preservationists

By Corrie M. Anders

The little house at 39 Chattanooga Street is anything but a raving beauty. The narrow front porch is weak, with saggy and buckling boards. Strips of cracking white paint expose the aged exterior walls. A rotting picket fence attempts to guard the overgrown flower garden in the large front yard.

But the gable-roofed cottage with a false-front parapet--the kind gunmen with rifles crouched behind in old cowboy movies--harbors a Victorian secret: it may be one of the oldest residences in Noe Valley, and perhaps in all of San Francisco.

The recent discovery of the home's 135-year-old pedigree has kindled a fight between a Noe Valley builder and neighborhood preservationists.

Demolition Request Triggers Inquiry

Our 21st-century story dates back to May of 2002, when John Williams, a resident of Elizabeth Street, purchased the 986-square-foot, two-bedroom cottage for $681,000. That October, Williams sent nearby residents a letter informing them of his plan to tear down the small house and replace it with a much larger two-unit building. He restated his aims later, in a meeting with about 10 residents at the Edison School cafeteria.

But when Williams applied for permission to bring in the bulldozers in December of that year, he automatically triggered a historical review under the California Environmental Quality Act. (The CEQA statute has been on the books since 1970, but it was only two years ago that the San Francisco Planning Department began to emphasize the historical aspect of the environmental review.)

His tear-down request wound its way through the Planning Department and eventually came to the attention of planner Moses Corrette, who, coincidentally, was already aware of the Chattanooga house.

"I used to live right around the corner," Corrette says. "I watched that building go on the market."

Corrette's personal observations told him that the two-story cottage was built long before the turn of the 19th century. For one thing, the house has a central entrance and hallway, which is typical of homes dating from the 1850s and 1860s. Further, the two-story structure is set back 15 feet from the street, and the bottom floor sits well below grade--two clues that it was built before Chattanooga Street was graded in the 1870s, according to Corrette.

Upon checking old land maps, Corrette discovered that a structure at 39 Chattanooga appears on an 1869 U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey map, but not on an 1857 one. Corrette concluded that the cottage probably dates from the 1860s but it could have been built as early as 1858.

Corrette says that of the 70,000 buildings standing in San Francisco today, fewer than 50 go back to the 1850s and 1860s. Of those oldtimers, only about two dozen are houses similar to the Chattanooga cottage.

Neighbors Rally to Protect Cottage

Corrette's conclusions provided just the ammunition the neighbors needed to fight the demolition and reconstruction plan.

"This is Noe Valley's 'Little House on the Prairie,'" says playwright Charlie Varon, who has lived in an apartment building next door to the cottage for 10 years. "It seemed like a little unassuming house. And then to find out it is as old as it is sort of changed how I look at the neighborhood and at history.

"It leads you to imagine who was this person who built the house," Varon continues. "[Was it] someone who wanted some peace, a family who wanted some fresh air and a place to raise chickens and goats, or someone for whom being in the countryside was more important than having a fashionable address?"

The home's historical character also resonated with nearby Liberty Hill resident Megan Smith, a member of San Francisco's Victorian Alliance.

"It's only 10 years from the Gold Rush. That's why [the house] is worth saving," says Smith.

Smith and Varon set out to rally local activists to stop Williams' project.

"Those plans were so outrageous," says Varon. "He [Williams] wanted to tear down the house and build a monster. What he wanted to do is not respectful to one of the oldest buildings in the city."

Owner Surprised by Building's Vintage

The builder says he was stunned to learn about the home's historical heritage.

"I've worked in the neighborhood a long time and on a lot of older buildings," says Williams, who's been in the construction industry for 25 years. "My take on it was, it did seem old, but it [didn't] have any obvious historical aspects to it."

But prodded by neighbors and City Planning, Williams dropped his demolition plans late last year. He also offered to keep much of the existing structure and construct the new residences behind it.

Williams' latest blueprint shows plans to raise the cottage up to expose the ground floor and move the building a few feet closer to Chattanooga Street. Behind the cottage, Williams hopes to add on a two-bedroom, 1,608-square-foot unit; a three-bedroom, 2,470-square-foot unit; and a two-car garage.

Mix of 1800s, 1900s, and...

The modified design, the fifth Williams says he has come up with, still doesn't satisfy some neighbors and preservationists. They say they want the cottage retained in its current incarnation.

Architect F. Joseph Butler of the Little House Committee, a citywide ad hoc group that works to preserve architecturally important buildings, calls Williams' plan "demolition by alteration."

"At the end of the project, there would no longer be a house from the 1860s or possibly the 1850s," Butler says. "There'd be a 2004 house with some pieces of a building from the 1800s."

Neighbors have raised their objections with letters to the Planning Department and two petition drives--one to keep the building from being demolished and a current one to preserve the building in its entirety.

They also have retained Sue Hestor, a preservation advocate who is one of San Francisco's more prominent land-use attorneys.

"It's like consuming the building into a larger structure and taking away its context," Hestor says of Williams' vision to combine the old and the new.

Ironically, Williams says the cottage is already "full of contradictions," because a 1920s remodel did away with some of its Victoriana.

Williams says neither the building's facade, the front porch, nor most of the windows are from day one. "The siding is original," he says.

Still, Williams says, "we'll preserve the entire structure." And according to him, the cottage's historical ambiance won't be affected because his proposed new housing will not be visible to passersby.

Latest Plans Under Review

Over the past year, Williams has met several times with Planning Department staff to work through their concerns. He says his architect is tinkering with "the last issue the department has raised," about exits at the rear of the proposed additions.

"Once we have that squared away, we should have a proposal which is in line with what the Planning Department would like to see," says Williams. The proposal will be submitted to the Planning Commission, which could approve the project if there are no objections, or hold public hearings if there are protests.

Neighbors and preservationists have made it clear that they will object.

"We're in a position to say there are other values besides money; other values besides building the biggest project you can build to squeeze the most dollars out of it," says Varon. "That's not what makes a great neighborhood, and that's not what makes a great city."

And so, until the Planning Commission rules, the cottage sits on Chattanooga Street--an antique relic that both sides covet as a modern-day treasure.