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SFCentric History: THE 1850S TANFORAN COTTAGES IN THE MISSION

Photo: David Sawyer/Flickr

The Mission is the oldest neighborhood in San Francisco. With that distinction, comes antique architecture and notable addresses. Such is the case of the Tanforan cottages at 214 and 220 Dolores St. These homes belonged to Toribio Tanforan and his family and are two of only about 10 buildings of the 1850s still around today in San Francisco.

The name Tanforan may sound familiar to you, because of the Tanforan Shopping Center in San Bruno. In 1868, Chilean native Toribio Tanforan was granted the title to the land where the mall now stands, according to the Daily Alta California. Tanforan Park or Racetrack, a thoroughbred horse racing track, opened there in 1899; in 1942, it was the Tanforan Assembly Center, one of 17 “civilian assembly centers” created to temporarily detain Japanese-Americans during WWII. But in 1821, Tanforan was the surname given to newborn Toribio (also referenced as Torivio).    

Photo: San Francisco Call

Toribio Tanforan was a gaucho from Chile (some say Peru), a skilled horsemen, a Spanish Grandee, rancher, and also a cattle dealer, according to the 1890 San Francisco City Directory. The Tanforans arrived in California in the 1840s; and Toribio, wed Maria de los Angeles Valencia, whose family also owned land in San Francisco. Together they had several children (one source says 13), including Mary, Julia Bodkin, Juanita, William, Francisco, Ramon “Chico,” Sophia, and Rosa.

The Tanforans lived in both the Presidio and the Mission. The home in the Mission was an adobe near 16th. They then moved to Landers near Mission Street. Tanforan’s wife was the grandchild of Jose Antonio Sanchez, owner of the Mexican land grant Rancho Buri Buri.  Before Tanforan took control of the land in what was to be San Bruno, Toribio also was a grantee of a lot at Mission Dolores  He took possession of the lot in 1846 (this land was originally part of the 1836 Mexican Grant to Francisco Guerrero) and that is where the Tanforan Cottages stand today.

Although many have credited the Tanforan Cottages as being the oldest residential structures in The Mission, it was reported by Mission Local that the house at 1266 Hampshire may very well hold that title. If so, the Classical Revival-style redwood cottages, built in 1853 (#214), and 1854 (#220) would be the second and third oldest. It is believed the structures were built as farm houses, and even housed a carriage house that the Tanforan family stored their carriage in until 1940. What is known is that the construction of the Mission Plank Road in 1851 led to residential building near Mission Dolores.

Paul de Auls owned both houses in 1859, and in 1866, Revilo Wells, then owner of 214, had water piped into the building (there was a well on the property, which got its water via a stream that flowed nearby from Buena Vista). In 1871, the Koenig brothers were surveying and living in #214, leaving in 1875. From 1876 to 1905, members of the Morgan family lived in both of the houses. Florist James Boland, who was listed as living the residences in 1896, married Mary Tanforan.

Photo: October 27, 1891 San Francisco Call

The Tanforan Cottages were occupied by the Tanforan family from 1896 to 1945.

Toribio and Maria didn’t live in the houses themselves, however. The 1890 Directory shows they lived at 14 Dearborn Place, on Wells Avenue (or Street), and in 1895, there was a Tanforan residence at 606 20th Street. The cottages were daughter Mary’s, and were handed down between the Tanforan sisters until 1952, when the cottages were sold separately. In the 1930s and ‘40s, #214 were rented to people outside of the Tanforan family, including Dr. and Mrs. Hugh Baker, who ended up buying the property.

Photo: February 29, 1908 Sacramento Union

Toribio Tanforan died on April 4, 1884 at the age of 54, and is buried in Mission Dolores Cemetery Mary died the same year, at 52 (their gravestone at Mission Dolores erroneously states the year of their death at 1882).

Photo: Jamie Baker/FIND A GRAVE

214 and 220 Dolores were designated San Francisco landmarks on January 4, 1975. The structures are also listed in the California Register and the National Register of Historic Places. Currently, the cottages are owned by nonprofit organizations. In 1995, The Dolores Street Baptist Church purchased 220 Dolores Street and remodeled it. It became a home for homeless men and women living with AIDS (the program separated from the church and became nonprofit Dolores Street Community Services). What was known as the Hope House is now The Richard M. Cohen Residence (Cohen was a neighborhood resident who died of AIDS and provided a significant amount to the renovation project through his estate).

In 2002, Gelfand Partners Architects remodeled 214 Dolores for Baker Places Residential Treatment Services, who now owns the house. Although both cottages are owned by nonprofit organizations, remodeling appeared to only be done to provide more space for occupants or for modernization purposes. The two homes still have their charm, and key details. This includes a small carriage house located behind 220 Dolores, which as late as 1940 was occupied by one of the Tanforan carriages. And the outside door of said carriage house on Alert Alley, that was left intact. Or the gardens of both houses, which still have examples of flora popular in turn-of-the-century San Francisco. Both 214 and 220 Dolores still look like relics of a time now gone, an antique style amongst the modern condos springing up like metal and glass rockets. But they stand there proud, as an example of San Francisco architecture, its history, and its determination to hold on to what makes it so unique today.

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V. Alexandra de F. Szoenyi

V. Alexandra de F. Szoenyi

V. Alexandra de F. Szoenyi is one of those rare born-and-raised San Franciscans (unicorn status). She is the Style & Culture, SF Editor for Hip Latina, and writer for several publications on fashion, art, culture and all things San Francisco. Alex aims to educate everyone (including natives) on anything you could possibly want to learn about the best city in the world. Follow her at @SFCentric and @TheItFactorBrand.

  • Elizabeth Creely

    That was a very satisfying read. 😊

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