Historic Rousseau Homes Could Get Landmark Status

By Thomas K. Pendergast

In 1932, the country was going through the worst of the

Great Depression: with millions of people being unemployed and

thousands standing in soup kitchen food lines.

In San Francisco, money for building-large scale projects, like

hotels, office buildings and apartment houses, had almost dried

up, so two brothers in real estate development, Arthur and Oliver

Rousseau, turned their attention to building single-family homes

in the Sunset District, much of which at the time was still covered

with sand dunes.


Photo by Thomas K. Pendergast

While Arthur focused on raising money and running the family business, Marian Realty, Oliver designed fanciful and opulent homes for middle-class buyers. Together, they built fewer than 200 homes and within three years their business had

gone bankrupt, but the homes they built influenced many San

Francisco architects who built after them. They were among the

first to make built-in garages standard and they popularized

central patios, for example.


Today, 93 of their “Rousseau” homes – concentrated within city

blocks on 33rd, 34th and 35th avenues, between Kirkham and

Lawton streets – are under consideration for historic landmark status.

“The proposed Rousseau’ Boulevard Tract Landmark

District Designation is intended to preserve the unique San

Francisco version of storybook-style architecture of this tract,”

said Gina Simi, communications manager for the SF Planning

Department. “The landmark designation ordinance is intended to

provide clarity to both property owners and future (Planning

Department) staff. Property owners will help tailor the landmark

designation ordinance to determine which types of alterations

would require additional review.


“Property owners were asked to rate the value they place on original and-or

compatible materials and design in order to help (the Planning Department) determine

which building features are most important to each property

owner. This information will be used to guide future discussions

and revisions to the landmark designation ordinance that will

ultimately help determine a consistent design review process for

the district,” Simi said.


During the 2012-2013 Sunset District Historic and Cultural

Resource Survey, the Rousseaus’ Boulevard Tract was identified as

a potential historic district and the Historic Preservation

Commission (HPC) adopted the Sunset survey findings on Sept.

18, 2013. The architecture of this district is described as “whimsical

and detailed,” representing a uniquely Bay Area version of

storybook-style architecture. Also along the blocks where the

Rousseaus are constructed are Tudor Revival, French,

Mediterranean, Spanish Colonial and Monterey Revival houses.

In a 2004 San Francisco Chronicle article, David Weinstein described the interiors

of some of the homes. “Inside the homes on 34th to 36th avenues, plans are nearly

identical. Main living areas are above the garage. You walk up a

flight of steps – beneath a medallion entry if the home is

French, an arch if it’s Spanish – and enter a foyer large enough

for the residents to use for their piano,” Weinstein said.

“You can turn right, into the living area, or proceed straight to

the bedrooms using a curved hallway. Separating living and

sleeping areas, and serving as the home’s fulcrum, is a center patio

open to the air and often freeform in shape. Many people use

it as a garden or children’s play area. Smaller Rousseaus on 33rd

lack the patio.


“The living room, which faces the street, is often sunk two steps

below the dining room. Arched doorways separate living and

dining areas. The doorways may have low, wrought-iron fences.

A breakfast room has a built-in hutch, the kitchen an alcove for

the stove,” Weinstein continued. “Downstairs is a two- or

three-car garage and a finished ‘social hall,’ with wet bar; many

have been converted into mother-in- law rooms.

Rousseau homes in the neighborhood have exposed

structural steel beams in the garages. Owners say they’re

found only in true Rousseaus, and are indicative of well-built

homes,” Weinstein said. According to Simi, there are

benefits to being in an historic district.

“If Rousseaus’ Boulevard Tract is designated by the Board

of Supervisors as a landmark district, property owners would be

eligible to apply for a Mills Act contract,” Simi said. “The Mills

Act Program provides a potential reduction in property taxes,

which is intended to help off-set the cost of maintaining and preserving

their historic property.

“There will be at least one more neighborhood meeting

(date T.B.D.) to discuss the draft landmark designation and ordinance.

Planning staff expects to present the proposed landmark

designation to the Historic Preservation Commission in May

or June,” Simi said.


Storybook-style houses feature towers, turrets, columns and

colonnades, along with mullioned casement windows,

arched or half-round doors, stucco siding and ornate hardware or

lighting fixtures. Along with bungalow and ranch-style houses, the storybook

style originated in California. It was the brainchild of returning

WW I veterans, who had discovered the charms of French and

English residential architecture.


Photo by Thomas K. Pendergast

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