Noe Valley Voice April 2008

Florence's Family Album

On the Street Where We Live

Editor's Note: Florence Holub first wrote this column for the Voice in March 1996, but many landmarks in the 3600 block of 21st Street, such as "Sunny Jim's" hilltop cottage at Sanchez Street, still exist today.

Our block of 21st Street rises abruptly, almost perpendicularly, from Church Street to the top of the hill at Sanchez. This hilltop, known as Dolores Heights (more recently Sanchez Hilltop, or Battle Mountain, as our Rumors columnist likes to call it!) was designated for preservation in the Urban Design Plan of 1971.

Because of its unique visual form and character, Dolores Heights is one of the areas that makes San Francisco famous throughout the world. With its interplay of architecture, steep terrain, scenic
vistas, and abundant landscaping, our hill stands out above the rest.

My man Leo and I noted these qualities back in 1957, when we first drove up the hill on our way to visit a lot we had purchased on nearby Cumberland Street -- just south of 19th Street between Noe and Sanchez -- where we planned to build.

On one of these trips, we noticed a For Sale sign on the brown shingled house that we now live in, and any plans we had for the Cumberland lot were scrapped forever!

Our house, in comparison to many of our neighbors' homes, is plain and unadorned. But we share the same breathtaking view of the city, and we are surrounded by many distinctive houses, each with their own personality.

Some of the structures that we found appealing when we first moved here are even more attractive now, as a result of the tender loving care they have received from their owners. One of my favorites is the fine home where Don Stroh and Nick Jarrett live.

When I first saw their house, which was built around 1860, it was sturdy but austere, with pink ice plant growing where the garage is now. It was built by a ship's carpenter, so every detail of the cabinetry inside the house is meticulously shipshape.

Thirty years ago it was purchased by a family with three delightful children and an imaginative mother who quickly added a touch of individuality to the house, in the form of a cast concrete horse head that hung jutting out above the front door.

Each day as Ted and Rhea, our commercial artist neighbors, walked up and down the street on the way to their downtown studio, they noted the head and wondered if its rear quarters were suspended over the back door!

Not so, but a miniature barn was constructed in the side yard as a playhouse for the children. That's where all the small fry in the area congregated (including our young son) until, alas, the family moved away just a few years later.

Don and Nick have lived there ever since. Their double lot was eventually subdivided, and a modern house now stands where the playhouse once was. They have endowed their abode with elegant flower urns, and they've also added a real necessity -- a garage!

Across the street from Don and Nick's, a fascinating and unusual house with a Mediterranean flavor sits at the rear of the lot, behind a charming garden. I was told that the man who built it was a dentist -- a widower with a growing daughter to raise. Because he worked away from home, he cooked dinner in the back of his office in the Mission District, then carried it home in a pot at the end of the day.

The garage and stairway leading up to the garden level show the remarkable workmanship he was capable of. Undoubtedly it was his expertise in mixing materials for fillings and making metal bridgework that inspired the large-scale, cast-cement garage and the ornate metal railings that grace the facade. The family now living there has made improvements, yet retained the original charming style.

Most of the information about the neighborhood was offered to me by our friendly next-door neighbor Helen Hughes Helfrich, who was born and lived out her life in the Hughes family home. This Victorian house stands tall above an enormous retaining wall made of dark, glazed, bubbly brick. Helen used to say that the old armory down in the Mission was built with bricks left over from her house. They do look alike.

Wendy, who now lives in Helen's house, has in her own way done wonderful things throughout the home and garden. The facade has never looked better, wearing a fresh coat of white paint with gold accents highlighting the gingerbread motif.

Another of our neighbors, Dr. Jerome Goldstein, lives in a large Victorian that he has remodeled and brought up to code. In addition, he and his partner, Tom Taylor, are responsible for the spectacular annual decoration of the giant "Christmas tree" that stands in their yard. Every December, throngs of people come to view it and have their picture taken beneath it.

Next door to Jerome and Tom sits a low, modern structure with a beautiful garden leading to a front entry covered with lush red bougainvillea. The man who once owned it was a musician turned gardener for the city. Consequent-ly, the landscaping is so professional that over the years garden clubs have visited it, and uninvited admirers often crane their necks to see over the gate.

A big, beautifully kept Spanish-style casa has always been the showcase on our block, with its lovely tile roof, and wrought-iron balconies and fencing. Once owned by the late Janet and Guido Pera, it is now the home of their son, Angus, and his bride Mariann.

Next door to the Peras' is the house where the Kley couple used to live. When they first moved in, they were often disturbed at night by noisy automobiles arriving and departing in front of the old three-story dwelling across the street from them. They wondered why so many taxis and big black Cadillacs frequented such a shabby building. One day they found out, when they read in the morning paper that police had conducted a successful raid and apprehension of persons operating a "house of ill fame" on their street!

The building has since been remodeled inside and out, and is now the picture of respectability.

The house that the Kleys lived in, and the one next to it, were well built but rather ordinary looking from the street. Subsequent owners, however, added one story to each building, which provided much more interesting facades, not unlike those of the four homes that will be built on the large lot at the top of the hill, at the southwest corner of 21st and Sanchez.

Last month, the Planning Commission gave its final approval for this new development, which will replace an old farmhouse. The contractor will soon proceed with construction, despite opposition from a minority contingent, while a grateful, silent majority heaves a sigh of relief!

As a member of that majority, it is my opinion that although the opposition was well-meaning, they did not have
a leg to stand on-- a figure of speech that almost became a reality when one determined woman climbed a tree that was being cut down and kicked at
the buzz saw! (See Voice archives at

I was one of a group of 16 people, composed mainly of architects, landscape architects, and residents, who in 1980 created the Special Use District designation for Dolores Heights, which sets out specific requirements designed to halt the threat of unbridled development, yet permit appropriate growth.

The four new houses will conform to these requirements, and I believe they will be compatible and worthy companions for the two edifices across the street.

At the northeast corner of 21st and Sanchez stands the grand mansion built in 1930 by Mayor James "Sunny Jim" Rolph. Rolph entertained guests in the top-floor dining hall, then treated them to the sparkling, panoramic view of our beautiful city from the adjoining deck.

When Rolph became governor, he gave the house to his son, James Rolph III, who lived there with his wife until the attempted kidnapping of their infant forced them to move to a safer, less
isolated area.

For decades the Salaman family has owned the property, and at this time [1996] their son Frank lives there.

Across the street on the southeast corner, a large lot concealed by massive cement walls harbors a charming manor with a veranda (formerly a small farmhouse) that overlooks a flowering garden of exotic plants and large evergreen trees. It is hard to believe this exists in the middle of the city!

The most recent and delightful change on our block has been the resurfacing of the street with smooth pavement the color of soft gray suede.

Next we can look forward to the completion of the underground wiring project. For a long time my man Leo has nursed a grudge against the overhead wires, which have come between him and the perfect photograph!

Now, after a 20-year wait, his prayers are being answered. Workmen have already begun the process of burying electrical and telephone wires beneath the sidewalk. Soon we shall have an unobstructed view.

As you can see, our street and our hill continue to look better with each passing year. You really must come up and see us some time.