Noe Valley Voice July-August 2008

Florence's Family Album

Meanderings on Art, Victorians, and TV

Editor's Note: In this essay, first published in the June 1996 Voice, Florence Holub dabbles in the history of one of Noe Valley's most photogenic blocks.

On our Dolores Heights hill, a row of charming cottages between Castro and Noe on 21st Street never fails to capture my attention as I walk to and from the 24-Divisadero bus line. Because the cottages are situated close to the sidewalk, their delightfully patterned facades are easy to admire.

The first house sits about a hundred yards from Castro Street and is followed by a dozen carbon copies marching up the slope of 21st Street. Each two-story house is identical: from the peak of the roof to the ornate post at the sidewalk entry.

On the top half of the facade of each house, there are wood shingles applied three different ways. On the lower portion, narrow tongue-and-groove siding completes the design. In addition, a pair of lovely, feathery, carved wood decorations frames the small porch at the doorway. I have often wondered who the creator was, but it was only recently that John Barbey of the Liberty Hill Neighborhood Association kindly enlightened me.

His research has determined that in 1903 and 1904, Isaac Anderson built the 15 Queen Anne cottages from 3816 to 3856 21st Street. Mr. Anderson must have been as busy as the designs he created on the facades, for he is listed not only as the builder but as architect, carpenter, and general contractor!

Three of these abodes have been rad-ically altered, but the remaining 12, all in mint condition at 92 years of age [in 1996], retain their original design. Each house, however, has a character of its own, shown through variations in color scheme and garden style. Some gardens are bricked, some are landscaped, and one is a jungle of lush greenery so thick you can barely see the house.

I have noticed over the years how each house takes on the unique personality of its inhabitants. You get a sense of this as you walk by, since the homes are located on the sunny side of the street and much of the household activity occurs in the small front garden area.

At one home you might see children playing. At another, the owner is out gardening. At yet another, the resident can be seen relaxing with a book or simply basking in the sunshine.

I once stopped and talked to a man who was out sunning his red-tailed hawk. That was a real treat. My son Eric, a toddler at the time, was very interested in that bird!

These days one of the houses has achieved minor celebrity status. The one at number 3824 was chosen to be a setting for the television series Nash Bridges, starring Don Johnson and Cheech Marin. (The Voice did a story about this in our April 1996 edition.)

Maybe it was picked because it is the only one in the group that has a garage -- and even it is a tight squeeze, judging from the scoop modeling on the sidewalk (to enable the car's crankcase to clear the lip of the driveway).

The first week of May, I was strolling by as usual when I stopped to watch part of the filming and do some sketches of the block. That reminded me of an incident from a while ago.

In the late '50s when our youngest son, Eric again, was attending play school at the Eureka Valley Recreation Center, we regularly passed by the row of cottages as we walked to the center. One day, upon returning home, I hit on the idea of an art project for Eric inspired by the houses we had just observed.

Using cutouts from color charts and wallpaper books, we constructed a series of shapes like the little Victorians. I arranged the paper houses in a line for Eric to glue down on poster board while I prepared dinner, thinking that he could later add windows and with crayons create the gardens in front.

When I stopped cooking to inspect his progress, I was astonished at what he had done. Instead of being in a line, the houses were all up in the air, upside down, and pointing in every direction.

"What happened?" I asked.

Our unruffled 3-year-old explained tersely: "A tomic ekplosion."

At his tender age, Eric was already acquainted with the destructive power of the A-bomb. He got this information, no doubt, from television.

This is only one example of the impression that the media can leave upon an uncluttered mind. I saw an even more illuminating example years later, when I observed a teenager who was a patient at Laguna Honda Hospital, in the same section where my brother Warde spent his last years.

This young man, whom I will call Hal, had been severely injured in an automobile accident as an infant, and was left paralyzed and unable to communicate. He had to be lifted between his bed and his wheelchair, for he was able only to move jerkily, like a baby. I had never seen him smile.

Because most of the other patients were elderly, Hal was given a private room where he watched television most of the day. Each afternoon as I passed his doorway, I could hear the sounds of the PBS children's program Sesame Street, teaching the kiddies their letters and numbers in an entertaining manner: "And now, brought to you by the Number 4 -- 1, 2, 3, FOUR rabbits!..."

Once a week the nurses and aides made a point of bringing Hal out into the ward whenever a bingo game was being played, so he could be in the company of other wheelchair patients. He was always given a game board, and the nurses made the moves for him.

One day, however, no one was free to help Hal, so he sat there looking silently at the board as the numbers were being called out. Then suddenly he began to jerk about, grunting and yelping to the best of his ability.

Gary, the caller, went over to see what Hal was acting up about, and was amazed but delighted when he saw that he had a bingo! Without a bit of supervision or schooling except for television, Hal had learned his numbers well enough to play bingo and win a prize -- a chocolate chip cookie, which he ate with relish.

From that day on, Hal was given every opportunity to develop his skills--swimming, physical therapy, and excursions to the park, beach, or restaurants.

One day as Hal was being wheeled off with a group of patients about his own age, I got a glimpse of his face. He was smiling from ear to ear!

The events I have recounted suggest that television can be a wonderful tool for teaching, but, sadly, the med-ium is too often used merely to sell merchandise.

This brings my thoughts back to the television series Nash Bridges, which my man Leo and I are trying to watch on Friday nights, hoping to see our neighborhood on film.

On the first episode of the show, the interior of the house on 21st Street came through nicely but far too rapidly. On the second episode, the shot of the now-gone farmhouse at the corner of 21st and Sanchez went by so quickly that we did not recognize it.

And when we thought we had identified the detectives' headquarters as the domed interior of the downtown Emporium, we learned that this setting was not filmed in San Francisco but in Oakland!

Although this exciting series is well done, and its amiable star Mr. Johnson speaks highly of our city, the show goes by much too fast for my taste. And the commercials are so long and drawn out, they almost put us to sleep.

If the action could be slowed down to match the commercials, we could appreciate not only the plot, but the shots of our neighborhood in the background.

Until then, I guess we will just have to settle for the real thing!