Monday, January 21, 2008

Tanforan Cottages

I’ve passed these tiny houses dozens of times on my walks around Delores Park but never with camera in hand. It’s amazing how much more I see, now that I have a camera. I’ve been taking photos of all sorts of old houses and trying to find out their history. I certainly struck the jackpot on these two.

In the early 1850s Toribio Tanforan, an early Mexican era settler erected a pair of matching cottages on Dolores Street, north of 16th Street. Set on a very large lot, they served originally as farmhouses for him and his family. They are among the oldest houses surviving in San Francisco.

The "Tanforan Cottages," so called because members of the family of Toribio Tanforan occupied them from 1896 to 1945, are simple frame structures with modified late Classical Revival facades. Though very nearly identical in appearance, they were not constructed at the same time; 214 Dolores is said to have been built a little before 1853, 220 not long after that date. This dating is questionable, though, as the first substantiated date is 1866, when Revilo Wells, owner of 214, had water piped in. There is still a small carriage house behind 220 Dolores--occupied as late as 1940 by one of the Tanforan carriages. The large gardens of these houses have been well maintained and contain many specimens of turn-of-the-century San Francisco taste in flora (Olmsted and Watkins 1969,

Toribio Tanforan was actually from Chile and passed away in 1884. His wife (called his relict in the SF Morning Call) passed away a few months later. He was only 54 and his wife 52 which gave me a real understanding of 19th century life-spans –unless they died in one o the numerous epidemics that swept through SF before the city had a reliable system for providing clean water and disposing of sewage.

They must have been a wealthy and influential family because they didn’t lose their land during the Gold Rush, as did so many Spanish land grant families. The fact that they kept their property during the skyrocketing rents of Gold Rush San Francisco also speaks to their prosperity as well as the fact that the Tanforan Racktrack (located on the former site of Rancho Buri Buri, a Spanish land grant farm), was named after Toribio. During the Gold Rush, small buildings in the Portsmith Square area were renting for $6000 a month and one building on the square rented for $150 a day, proving that high rents are nothing new in SF. The family survived fires and vigilante groups, corrupt mayors and even an unpaved Delores St as I found an image from the 1860’s which shows that the area that we now know as Delores St. was an unpaved mess, muddy during the winter and dusty during the summer.

In the 1860’s, SF had its first amusement park just two blocks away. Located at 16th and Valencia, it was called “The Willows” and its prize exhibit was a Emu. That inspired one of Bret Harte’s early verses (not very well known but maybe better so).

“O say, have you seen the Willows so great,
So charming and rurally true,
A singular bird, with the manner absurd,
Which they call the Australian Emu?”

Well, maybe you had to be there.

In the 1860s, the population had bloomed up to 56,000 and Kearny St. was the city’s chief shopping center. Horse drawn cars went up and down Market St. and for the fee of a whole .5 cents (maybe high for the time); you could ride all the way to the Ferry Building. The Tanforan family wouldn’t have had to use public transportation; after all, they had their own carriage and a building to house it in. The city had its first newspaper, the San Francisco Call Bulletin, its first theatre (The Jenny Lind), and the city had grown from a motley collection of tents and shacks to mid-sized city. They even had paved streets in the downtown area and a succession of officials, some corrupt and some not. Some were efficient and some....were not. Obviously, some things never change.


Various on-line data bases for San Francisco

The Great Quake: 1906-2006: A city walker steps back 100 years

Tom Graham, Special to the Chronicle, Sunday, April 16, 2006

Oscar Lewis, San Francisco, Mission to Metropolis.

“Here Today” SF Architectural Heritage, JR League of San Francisco

1 comment:

Nancy Ewart said...

Posting for my friend Linda who does not have an account:

Absolutely fascinating! I love tidbits about what SF was like in the old days. I have a book with old maps of major cities. One published in 1859 for SF shows the Mission Delores area as all farm land. Another published in 1864 shows the same area already blocked out in city blocks. Development of the area must have happened very quickly.