By SUSAN GALLEYMORE
It’s easy to pass them by without a second glance — a pair of small, green wooden shacks sitting side by side at the Fifth Street Marina in Oakland, Calif.
But these nondescript dwellings are noteworthy, because they’re among the last surviving examples of more than 5,600 temporary homes thrown up in haste as winter approached in the aftermath of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.
Trucked to the marina on Oakland’s estuary from San Francisco in 2006, the two buildings are among only 28 "earthquake shacks" thought to exist today — stark reminders of the horrors of the quake, which, according to some estimates, not only killed more than 3,000, but left 225,000 homeless.
The April 18 quake ruptured pipes used to deliver water to the city from 20 miles away. Fires raged for three days. According to statistics compiled by the U.S. Geological Survey, the earthquake and fire destroyed 28,000 buildings and caused an estimated $400 million in damage — about $9.6 billion in today’s dollars.
The earthquake shacks are also a testament to the resilience and spirit of innovation exhibited by the quake’s survivors.
With many of the city’s residents still homeless as winter approached, San Francisco Park Superintendent John McLaren designed pup-tent-like wood structures for the San Francisco Relief Corp., the U.S. Army and union carpenters to build.
According to National Park Service accounts and historians, 5,610 cottages were constructed in 11 camps around the city between September 1906 and March 1907, housing a peak population of 16,500 people.
The "refugee shacks" had walls of wide California redwood boards, floors of fir, and roofs shingled with cedar. All exteriors were painted the same park-bench green to blend into public parks where they were placed.
The city charged rent of $2 per month that also counted toward the Relief Corp.’s purchase price of $100 or less per shack.
As life became more organized and the camps began closing in August 1907, some new owners used horses to haul their dwellings to new city locations.
Many of the shacks that still exist today might have simply disappeared if not for Jane Cryan, who discovered a small cottage for rent on 24th Avenue and Lincoln Way while attending City College of San Francisco in the 1980s.
As recounted by Steve Mowles in a City College publication, etc. magazine, Cryan fell in love with the 500-square-foot cottage, which had been constructed by combining three earthquake shacks.
She became so thoroughly involved with the history of the cottage and other quaint homes built out of earthquake shacks that Cryan founded the now-defunct Society for the Preservation and Appreciation of San Francisco’s Refugee Shacks.
In a survey she conducted during the mid-1980s, Cryan discovered that "upward of 70 shack sites" remained, with the largest collection of surviving earthquake cottages — 21 in a single area — in Bernal Heights.
She also learned that many property owners were afraid that if the buildings were designated as historic, their right to improve or redevelop them might be restricted. Cryan told Mowles that as a result, many shacks were demolished in the 1980s and 1990s.
But interest in preserving the shacks grew, and on the 80th anniversary of the earthquake, then-Mayor Dianne Feinstein declared "Earthquake and Fire Refugee Cottage Day in San Francisco."
When Mowles wrote about Cryan in 2006, the majority of the surviving San Francisco "earthquake shacks" were still being used as residences. Before the cottages were registered and protected as historical structures, several would often be cobbled together into a single structure to create a wider footprint, and then remodeled — as was the case with the cottage Cryan rented.
For those interested in visiting earthquake shack sites in San Francisco, three shacks were combined at 1227 24th Ave. Next door, two shacks are located together at 1227A 24th Ave. Other sites with two shacks include 30 Niantic St., 74 Lobos St., 20 Newman St. and 43 Carver St.
In August, 2003 Cryan heard from Woody La Bounty of a San Francisco-based nonprofit, The Western Neighborhoods Project, which was trying to save four shacks on Kirkham Street and 47th Avenue (The group has amassed an extensive collection of photographs from the era, an other historic material, including a personal account of grandparents who met in a "refugee camp").
The earthquake shacks now on display at the Fifth Street Marina in Oakland were donated by The Western Neighborhoods Project to another nonprofit, the Fifth Avenue Institute, after Fifth Avenue Point property owner J. W. Silveira agreed to restore them for reuse.
The two 140-square-foot, "Type A" cottages currently on display were transported by truck "as is." A larger, "Type B" cottage — 14 feet wide and 18 feet deep — was deconstructed for the trip and will be reconstructed.
Boat builder Charlie Weber, who lives at the Fifth Street Marina, said he was thrilled to accompany the historic shacks on their trip from San Francisco six years ago. The three structures are destined to become the marina’s community meeting space and an interpretive center on the history of the Oakland waterfront.
The project includes planning, design and especially milled lumber, and is expected to take two years of volunteer work and cost about $15,000.