For people living on the edge of the western frontier, we San Franciscans sure do love history. Or, at least, we pretend to. In the mid-20th century, while Los Angelenos were taking to the highways, subsisting on newfangled diets of burgers and fried apple pies, San Francisco offered a faux-European experience, a place to travel by cable car, sip cappuccinos and argue about poetry. To this day, antique and vintage-clothing stores crop up regularly in almost every neighborhood, and all manner of historical societies abound, from the Gay and Lesbian Historical Society to the St. Francis Hook & Ladder Society (dedicated to preserving firefighting apparatus).
But nowhere is our affection (some might say affectation) for being in touch with the past so evident as in our passion for old houses.
Tim Kelley, a tugboat captain and former member of the merchant marine, made this observation one day as he was walking through Noe Valley with his son, then a graduate student in history. “I thought, there are all these people buying these old homes with this huge premium because there’s something vaguely historical about them, but they don’t know anything about them,” Kelley tells me, his salty, Boston-inflected voice underscoring the irony of it all.
So Kelley decided to start a part-time business. If these nostalgia-steeped homeowners shelled out hundreds of thousands of dollars on buildings with brick foundations and rotting window sashes, they might be willing to spend another few hundred to actually learn about their home’s history and former inhabitants.
That was 11 years ago, and Kelley, now a 60-year-old retired sailor who has spent much of his adult life at sea, has since researched the histories of more than 500 houses, joining the ranks of a select group of “house genealogists” across the country. During the real estate heyday of the last eight years, the house-history business was especially hopping: Young new homeowners would order up their dwelling’s biography as soon as escrow closed. In the process, the self-made historian (Kelley has a B.A. in literature but no formal training in history) has become a professional. Qualifying under federal standards, he now consults for environmental-impact reports for large projects that require historical analysis. He’s also president of the San Francisco Landmarks Preservation Advisory Board, the city group that designates new historical landmarks and reviews alterations to existing landmarks.
Thus, the former man of the sea has become the Sherlock Holmes of old houses, ferreting history out of the city’s catastrophe-torn past. “It’s sort of a jigsaw puzzle,” he said. “Unlike many other places, you have to piece together the history through different sources.”
To create a house history, which runs about $350 and takes about three weeks to complete, Kelley scours the census reports from past decades, reads local newspapers and publications, investigates city records for the property and sometimes even crawls through the attic in search of remnants of an earthquake shack. Some more involved projects have led him to family genealogies and interviews with former residents about their childhood memories of the house.
Over the years, he said, he’s uncovered some intriguing bits of San Francisco’s lost history.
Kelley recalls one structure built on what was at the time the border of the city’s inhabited area, what he calls the “edge ofcivilization,” on Presidio Avenue near Sacramento Street. It turned out that William Randolph Hearst had had it built as the grand prize of a promotional contest at the beginning of his reign at the San Francisco Examiner: The house was promised to the person who could guess the city’s population according to the 1890 census.
True to the spirit of our city of surreal estate, the winner of the contest never lived in the house; he flipped it for a profit. It was then sold over and over until a developer jacked it up and turned it into a two-floor fourplex. “It was kind of ironic,” said Kelley. “It was designed as ‘ye olde little home,’ but it was never used that way. But once you read the description of the house for the contest – its art-glass windows and mantlepieces – you can see the difference between the flats.”
While investigating a house on Guerrero Street near 19th Street, Kelley discovered interesting lore about a woman once known as the city’s “abortion queen.” “She offered illegal abortions in the 1940s,” he said. “She was known for running good, clean, well-regulated operations, but it was a business to her.”
The house he was investigating was not her home, which was also located on Guerrero Street, but a large Victorian whose ownership she managed to conceal through a blind trust. “The house had been carved up into little rooms,” he said. “So we thought it might have been used as part of her operations, perhaps as recovery rooms.”
Pat Brown, the city’s district attorney from 1943 to 1950, finally put her out of business. “There was a big raid on her clinic on Fillmore Street, and she fled to her home in the Mission,” Kelley said. “When a couple of cops who she knew really well tried to arrest her, she supposedly pulled up a floorboard and offered them a pile of cash to let her slip out of town.” The police didn’t accept the bribe, and the woman went to jail.
Perhaps the most interesting information Kelley has discovered in his research involves the ways people masked the truth from their loved ones. “In the census records, people offered a lot of very personal information,” he said. Sometimes, Kelley adds, a woman would reveal that she had been concealing the paternity of a child. Or the census would reveal that people had been lying about their ages. “Sometimes a woman would become widowed and then she would suddenly gain five years,” Kelley said. “Like, she’d been lying about her age to her husband, and then, when he died, she stopped. Men did it, too.”
But what the house historian seems to appreciate most are the mythic auras so many people have attached to their homes. “I couldn’t count the number of people who think that Janis Joplin lived in their house,” he said, adding that the three most oft-heard misconceptions are that a house was moved after the 1906 earthquake and fire, that it used to be a bordello and that Joplin lived there at one time.
“I tell them that, statistically, the most likely is number two.”
Kelley is also amused by the number of owners of Victorians who assume that the fancy details on their houses are something other than mass-manufactured, proto-tract home materials: “People think the moldings were carved by Old World craftsmen.”
Listening to Kelley, it’s evident that he’s tapped into a vein that pulses through the homeowner’s fantasy life. In the inhabitant’s mind, the house has a soul, and Kelley’s work offers that person the historical Ouija board for getting to know it. It’s this place between the house as functional object and the house as fantasy that has always intrigued me – that makes so many of us such suckers for the surreal estate game.
Despite his own appreciation for history, Kelley seems to have escaped such ghostly figments. He lives quite happily in Glen Park in a “junior five” – a little stucco five-room house from 1949. Does he want to live in a Victorian? “It’s not on my immediate list of things to do,” Kelley said, noting that in his work with the landmark-preservation board, owners of Victorians often petition him to allow them to remodel their homes.
“They want to tear down walls, put in windows, because Victorians are dark, and people live differently now,” he said. “They want to live in a Victorian, but they want to live in a modernized Victorian.”
Victorians, of course, are not the only homes with histories – or mythologies. “I’ve been told that Johnny Cash lived in my house,” Kelley said. He doesn’t know for sure. He’s never bothered to write the history of his own home.
Carol Lloyd’s Surreal Estate column appears every Tuesday on sfgate.com. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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