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By Florence Holub
In this column, reprinted from the April 1996 issue, Florence Holub traces the development of Dolores Heights and the hard work of neighbors to create a special use district.
The first feet to tread the hills of our valley were undoubtedly those of the Miwok Indians. I picture them searching the grassy slopes for the same small but deliciously sweet wild strawberries my brothers and I picked during the summer months when we were children.
José Noe, the man whose name we honor, also may have climbed to the heights to get a bird's-eye view of his rancho, which covered 4,400 acres stretching south from 16th Street and west from Valencia. He acquired the property as a land grant from the last Mexican governor of California in 1846.
Eight years later, following the discovery of gold and the arrival of shiploads of settlers, Noe sold his land to brothers John and William Horner, whose company built a large share of the earliest houses in Noe Valley.
In the 1880s, one of the first houses to go up on our hill, in the neighborhood we now call Dolores Heights, was a stately mansion built by Adolph Scheerer. Scheerer was one of San Francisco's more successful contractors, but he built his mansion at 450 Liberty Street (between Sanchez and Noe) the hard way.
The construction materials had to be shipped from the East Coast around Cape Horn, the southernmost tip of South America. Once they arrived here, the supplies had to be hauled up the face of an almost perpendicular slope using mules and chains.
When the house was completed, though, it must have been a grand place, both inside and out. In addition to the spacious rooms and fabulous views, the estate reportedly had an extensive garden, with many fountains and statues sprinkled among the trees and flowers.
The old building--but not the statuary--was still standing when we moved to our house on 21st Street in the 1950s. But about 10 years later, the property went up for sale.
It was then that my man Leo and I met Audrey Rodgers, a neighbor on 21st Street who was fighting to preserve the fine old landmark building.
In her 40s at the time, Audrey was a brilliant, energetic woman who left an indelible imprint on the hill. She was a housewife with two children. She also was a U.C. graduate with degrees in zoology and landscape architecture.
Audrey was amazing in other ways as well. She had an Irish terrier named Shaw (for George Bernard Shaw) whose fur she combed and saved. Then she had it spun into yarn, from which she knitted a beautiful sweater for her husband!
Her neighbors were so inspired by Audrey's passion and intelligence that we gladly pitched in to save the Scheerer mansion, which had great historical and architectural value. I remember painting a watercolor of the building to bolster Audrey's eloquent appeal before the San Francisco Planning Commission. Sadly, despite our efforts, the Scheerer house was torn down. However, due to Audrey's tireless negotiations with the developer, what might have been a series of stuccoed boxes in the middle of the 400 block of Liberty Street was transformed into an excellent example of modern housing.
The row of wood-shingled, brick-faced houses--each with bay windows, decks, and garages--was oriented to take advantage of a magnificent view of the city and bay. Also incorporated into the design was an intimate communal square, a tiny park with benches and flowers situated beneath two towering evergreens.
This lovely landscaped spot is only one of the places on the hill that shows Audrey's "fingerprints."
One year during summer vacation, when her young son Tim needed a challenging project, she suggested he clear the overgrown patch of vines and debris around the stairway at 20th and Sanchez streets. The spot was in dire need of attention, so Tim (now a doctor in Santa Barbara) agreeably spent his vacation vigorously weeding, hoeing, shoveling, and planting the green ground cover that has survived to this day.
Audrey was the first person to apply for underground wiring--and thus the removal of unsightly telephone poles--on her block of 21st Street between Noe and Sanchez.
But her most important legacy was the creation of the Dolores Heights Special Use District, a set of zoning rules designed to protect the environment and the unique mix of Victorian, Tudor, and modern dwellings on our hilltop.
In the late '70s, much to our chagrin, the Planning Department suddenly and inexplicably cut the neighborhood's backyard requirements in half. Audrey and I knew what that meant: if we didn't act fast, Dolores Heights would soon be highrises and condos.
We met to discuss the best strategy, and then Leo happened to put his hands on a 1971 report prepared by Planning Director Paul Jacobs. The report said Dolores Heights was one of several architecturally significant neighborhoods in the city that should be singled out for preservation.
Audrey and I formed a committee and, with the assistance of a number of local architects, drew up a set of building restrictions and boundaries for the special use district. (It runs loosely from 19th to 22nd and Church to Noe.)
For two years, we worked with the city, urging adoption of our plan. Audrey was the brains and I was the feet, running back and forth between the neighborhood and City Hall.
Finally in 1980, our special district was approved at a Board of Supervisors meeting. (Ours was the second one in the city, after Pacific Heights.) After the meeting, I went home to a sleepless night, during which I repeatedly awoke, exclaiming to myself, "We did it!"
The next day, still flush with victory, I went with my neighbors Janet Pera and Rhea Kley down to the Noe Valley Bar & Grill. We ordered a carafe of wine and toasted each other with many more rounds of "We did it!"
When I got home, I found a note in my mailbox, left by Audrey on her way to work, proclaiming, "We did it!"
Over the years, one of Audrey's goals was to fix up the public easement along the west side of Sanchez from Hill to 21st Street. For decades, the scruffy embankment had been a home for weeds and litter.
During the '60s, the "hippies" used the place as a campground for their vans. That would have been acceptable, had it not been for the garbage and other unhygienic refuse they left behind for the residents to clean up.
The untended area also served as a lovers' lane. One gray-haired older couple used to visit the spot on a regular basis each week. They would park their house trailer, then go into the enclosed living space in back. After a half an hour, they would emerge, get into the cab, and drive away. Over a six-month period, the neighbors became friendly with them, exchanging greetings as they came and went. One day, however, a resident who worked in a doctor's office thought she recognized the woman as a former patient. She could not refrain from asking, "Weren't you a patient of Dr. So-and-so?" Hastily and wordlessly, the couple climbed into the cab of their vehicle and departed. They were never seen again.
(I can't resist telling a story about another set of visitors to our lookout. One day, a resident I will refer to as Mr. Nosy was walking his dog in the area when he came upon two men engaged in an intimate exchange in the back of their station wagon. Mr. Nosy was peeking through the window when Ms. M.H.O.B.--Minds Her Own Business--came around the corner. "For shame, Mr. Nosy! This is an invasion of privacy." He retorted defensively, "I just wanted to see how they do it," and then continued his walk with his more discreet companion.)
Nowadays , the embankment is sprinkled with flowers and cardboard tombstones, planted in protest over the housing development to be built on the southwest corner of 21st and Sanchez.
But Audrey's dream was to clean and landscape the spot, just like her son Tim had done to a similar plot 20 years before. Unfortunately, two months prior to starting the project, Audrey went into the hospital for minor surgery and failed to come out of the anesthesia. She died on Aug. 26, 1994, at the age of 71.
Audrey's wishes have not been forgotten, however. Her daughter, Janice Rodgers Braken, who lives in Connecticut, has commissioned a landscape architect to design plantings for the easement. and a sculptor who will carve a redwood bench, to be installed at the corner of Sanchez and 21st streets.
The bench will be a place for weary pedestrians who have just scaled the slope to sit and appreciate the magnificent view. It will also be a fitting memorial to a remarkable woman, Audrey Penn Rodgers, whose vision, integrity, and dedication have served and preserved the well-loved neighborhood called Dolores Heights.