Development

Local Author and Historian Wrote the Book on SF’s Residence Parks

“Garden Neighborhoods of San Francisco, the Development of Residence Parks, 1905-1924” 

By Richard Brandi

It’s not well known but during the early 20th century dozens of neighborhoods were planned with picturesque streets, landscaping, detached houses and setbacks to convey the feeling of living in a park – rare in San Francisco. 

The goal was to provide a feeling of tranquility and greenery in an otherwise noisy and bleak city. Called residence parks, most were built on the west side of San Francisco, in the Richmond, Sunset, and a cluster around West Portal. But they also were envisioned on the slopes of Twin Peaks, the Marina, Ingleside, the Outer Mission, Lake Merced and even Visitation Valley. They ranged in size from as few as 30 houses to more than 650.  

Location and sizes of the residence parks planned or launched from 1905 to 1924. The map boundaries of the residence parks are approximate. Map by Kushal Lachhwani, 2019.

Between 1905 and 1924, at least 36 residence parks popped up, such as the well-known St. Francis Wood, Forest Hill and Seacliff neighborhoods. A few were designed for the middle and working classes, but most were designed for white-collar professionals such as bank presidents, salesmen and doctors – not the super wealthy. Lot sales came with deed restrictions that limited how owners could use their land in order to maintain the park-like feeling, i.e., setbacks, and no commercial or multiple family uses. The deeds also excluded Blacks and Asians until the U.S. Supreme Court declared them unenforceable in 1948. Racial discrimination was not unique to residence parks but was widespread in San Francisco, the rest of California, and much of the nation.  

Sea Cliff Avenue looking toward the Golden Gate before the bridge was built. The photo is undated, but the house on the left (308 Sea Cliff Ave.) was constructed in 1922. Courtesy of the Sonoma County Library Digital Collections.

Building a residence park was more difficult and costly than a typical subdivision. The developer paid for paved streets and sidewalks, utilities (often underground), entry gates, public statuary, and landscaping and supervised designs and enforced the restrictions. Originally, the lot buyer was responsible for finding an architect and building their house. But this proved impractical, so developers hired architects to design custom houses or stock plans. Eventually, developers financed the purchase of lots and offered construction financing or even created their own construction companies to reduce building times and costs. 

Windsor Terrace in 1921 with few houses built. The road at the bottom of the hill is Seventh Avenue which becomes Laguna Honda Boulevard (to the left). Visible halfway up the hill is the rear driveway for cars. Lawton Street runs up the hill. Source: OpenSFHistory wnp 26.001.

The professional real estate developers, such as Baldwin & Howell, relied on engineers, landscapers, and architects, while family-run developers, such as Fernando Nelson & Sons, did the work themselves and tried to imitate the professionals with varying degrees of success. Amateur developers, including a sewing machine salesman, cattle rancher, and haberdasher, did the best they could. All had to navigate the disruptions caused by WWI, a recession, inflation of the early 1920s, the boom of the roaring ’20s, and the Depression of the 1930s. Some projects were never started, some were only partially realized while others achieved their goals. 

Parkway Terrace houses on 29th Avenue designed by Frank Nelson. Photo by Richard Brandi, 2019. 

Nonetheless, the result is many distinctive neighborhoods containing about 7,500 houses, almost all designed by architects, unusual then and now, when most houses are designed by contractors or builders. The Spanish Colonial revival style predominates, along with other Mediterranean, English and northern European styles, as well as the Arts and Crafts and Craftsman styles.  

Richard Brandi is a frequent contributor to the Western Neighborhoods Project where he was a board member for 20 years. 

“Well-written, well-researched, interesting to read, it tells an essential and basic piece of the story of San Francisco’s architectural history. What did we do without it?” – Michael R. Corbett, architectural historian.

“This is a most impressive project and quite unprecedented in the detailed treatment of developers and developments for any U.S. city. I’ve seen books on one or two subdivisions or suburbs, but few things as comprehensive about the city-building process in one era. So, congratulations on that. It will be a real contribution to both Bay Area history and urban studies.” – Richard Walker, professor emeritus, University of California, Berkeley.

“It abounds with fresh and interesting material, and it represents a new way of looking at 20th century residential development in the U.S. city. Your approach could become essential reading for students of the 20th century city. The residential parks that are your focus are not suburbs in the ways such places are normally considered, and they are not the standard, scattered, small-scale speculative enterprises that merge into the grid. They are something in between and, for San Francisco, at least, comprise a very substantial component of the city’s residential fabric.” – Richard Longstreth, professor and director, Graduate Program in Historic Preservation, George Washington University.

Available in local book stores and online at www.barnesandnoble.com/w/garden-neighborhoods-of-san-francisco-richard-brandi/1136928940?ean=9781476641485

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