By Jonathan Farrell
This past March, the sale of the Mondrian-inspired painted house along the Great Highway reached $1,495,000. Among those who rolled their eyes and shook their heads was local historian Lorri Ungaretti, author of San Francisco’s Sunset District in the Images of America series by Arcadia Publishing.
Ungaretti finds it ironic that a simple two-bedroom, one-bathroom home that just sold for more than a million dollars is the norm in an area that was only sand dunes and later a working, class-middle class neighborhood.
Growing up right across the street from Abraham Lincoln High School, Ungaretti did not really know all of the intricate details of the area until she began doing research and talking to people.
“I consider the people who lived out here pioneers,” Ungaretti said.
“What most people don’t understand she said is that the ‘Outside Lands’ – was everything west of downtown and not really part of the City. It took a lot of time and effort for it to be officially included. Much of the west side of San Francisco was just ignored,” Ungaretti said. “This is part of the reason why there was not much written down about the area until recently.”
She sees the west side as part of a “quiet evolution,” a history just as important as the Gold Rush.
“No one was writing about the Sunset,” Ungaretti said.
When she started working as a walking tour guide, Ungaretti realized that if she wanted to provide detailed information to people, she would have to do the research and write it.
Her 2012 book, “Stories in The Sand,” was a result of her previous books that she put together for Arcadia Publishing. All of her books were the result of what she discovered about the Sunset and Richmond districts.
Ungaretti said she is very grateful she was able to publish about the history of San Francisco’s west side thanks to the help of nonprofits, like the Sunset Parkside Education and Action Committee (SPEAK), Parents Education Network, Western Neighborhoods Project and others in the community.
“I got a grant from SPEAK to help pay for photo permissions for two of my Arcadia books,” she said.
Regardless of the obstacles there was lots of serendipity to help her along the way.
“I learned so many things and continue to learn about the neighborhood,” she said.
Ungaretti was surprised to learn that long ago there was a chicken ranch out in the avenues, between 17th and 18th avenues and between Noriega and Ortega streets.
Where Larsen Park is today that was another swath of land that Larsen owned. “He owned a lot of land,” said Ungaretti. He donated much to the City.
According to the Outside Lands website, Larsen’s first venture into real estate was in 1888, when he bought one block in the Sunset at an auction. He continued to buy land in the area, and by 1910 he owned 14 entire city blocks and lots that totaled about nine more blocks. At this time, all of the land was sand dunes. Few of the streets were cut through and accessibility was difficult.
Larsen also donated land at the southern edge of Golden Gate Heights. at Golden Gate Heights Park (or “Larsen’s Peak”), which rises 725 feet above sea level, one of the city’s tallest hills.
At the turn of the 20th century, before the 1906 earthquake, Larsen supplied fresh eggs and other staples to the Tivoli Restaurant downtown, which Larsen also owned.
“It was open 24 hours a day,” when the Barbary Coast was host to crowds of people seeking all night entertainment. “His fresh eggs would be delivered every morning right from the ranch, so patrons could have breakfast,” Ungaretti said.
Along with Larsen’s Ranch there was also a dairy farm. It was located at what was then 4306 Point Lobos. From archives and news clippings dating back to the late 19th century, Ungaretti learned that the Richmond dairy was owned by Christian Ruhland and associate Carl Zimmermann.
She mentioned that without the generosity of pioneers like Larson, Rosalie Meyer Stern (the widow of Sigmund Stern of Stern Grove), Helene Strybing, (Strybing Arboretum), Adolph Sutro and others, much of what residents enjoy about the Sunset and Richmond districts today would not be here.
Since the dot-com boom of the 1990s, the west side of the City has undergone a transformation.
Working with the Western Neighborhoods Project, Ungaretti has been able to document the Sunset and Richmond like never before. Founder and coordinator of Western Neighborhoods Project, Woody LaBounty said, “Yes, it’s true. There wasn’t much written about the history of the west side of town. Lorri has served on the board of the Western Neighborhoods Project and has worked diligently over the past 15 years to preserve and share the Sunset’s history.”
Ungaretti has written several articles that can be found on the Western Neighborhoods Project’s website, outsidelands.org. They include “Soap Box Derby on Sunset,” “Abraham Lincoln High School” and “Blackie, the Horse that Swam the Bay.”