SFCentric History: The Oldest Surviving Buildings in 7 San Francisco Neighborhoods
San Francisco is an old, iron safe filled with gold, glory, disaster, and secrets. SFCentric History is a column, by SF writer V. Alexandra de F. Szoenyi, that digs in the vaults of local history and shares the sensational people, places, and things that rocked San Francisco.
One of the indicators that San Francisco is an old, old city, is the prevalence of beautiful old houses, bars, and other types of buildings. You may have driven by one–or all–of these structures and wondered about its history. For this week’s installment of SFCentric History, I take a look at the oldest surviving buildings in seven different San Francisco neighborhoods, and reveal a little about each one.
Pretty much everyone knows that Mission Dolores is a super-old building–arguably the oldest in the city, in fact. Misión San Francisco de Asís was founded on June 29, 1776, in a tule arbor, becoming the sixth mission built in California by Franciscan missionaries. It is also the state’s oldest original intact mission. The current structure was built from 1782 to 1791, and is one of only two places in the city that still has a cemetery (the other is at the Presidio). Mission Dolores is called such because it was located near a stream of water called Arroyo de los Dolores (Creek of Sorrows). Address: 3321 16th Street
St. Francis of Assisi was built in 1849 (established June of ‘49) as a wooden shack by Army personnel. It was constructed for churchgoers who didn’t want to travel three and a half miles to Mission Dolores, which only offered preaching and ministry in Spanish, and services that didn’t follow a regular schedule. An adobe church replaced the wooden shack and was consecrated in 1851. St. Francis was heavily damaged in the 1906 earthquake. The brick walls remained intact, however, and construction on the church was completed in 1909. Address: 610 Vallejo Street
The Presidio Officers’ Club is the other building that many believe is the oldest surviving structure in San Francisco. Portions of the original adobe walls may date as far back as 1776. The officers’ club started as a fortified location of New Spain, then was passed on to Mexico, and then to the United States. Adobe walls from the 1790s were part of the front wings of the building when the Army rebuilt the structure around 1847. Address: 50 Moraga Avenue
Photo: Geezers’ Gallery
What is known as the Belli Building was built in 1849 or 1850. Although destroyed by fire in 1851, it was immediately rebuilt, using the old foundations and walls. The building’s foundation was the original raft of planks in the mud, of what was then Yerba Buena Cove.
The building’s first incarnation was as Langerman’s Tobacco and Segar Warehouse, later becoming the Melodeon Theatre. In the 1860s, commission merchants and an auctioneer occupied the space, before it became Turkish baths during the 1870s. In the 1880’s a medical establishment that practiced hydrotherapy, continued to operate the baths. From the 1920’s on, it was a paper warehouse and also a garment factory. The Belli name came in when renowned attorney Melvin Belli bought the building in 1959 and used it as law offices for his firm. The structure suffered damage in the 1989 earthquake. It was later gutted and remodeled; today the historical landmark (#9) is the Landmark 9 residences, with façades intact. Address: 722 Montgomery Street
Abner Phelps House
Considered the oldest unaltered residence in San Francisco, the Abner Phelps house was built in 1850 (maybe 1851). Phelps was a colonel in the Mexican-American war, and a lawyer. According to his great-granddaughter, he bought the Gothic Revival structure in New Orleans in 1850 and had it shipped in sections to SF to help his wife’s homesickness. The house has been moved twice. Once in the 1890s to reposition it on the land, and again in 1904, when it was moved to its present location. It was originally at 329 Divisadero Street, and is now at 1111 Oak Street.
Photo: NoeHill in San Francisco
Built in 1853 (other accounts say 1860), the Leale House was originally the main house for a 25-acre dairy farm. Captain Leale, a ferry boat captain, bought the house in 1883. He added a nautically-furnished study in the back garden, made to look like a pilot house.The house also has an Italianate false front, that was added when the front was remodeled. Address: 2475 Pacific Avenue
Before becoming the Sigmund Stern Recreation Grove, the Trocadero was a rowdy roadhouse, where gambling, dancing, and fights took place. It was opened in 1892, and was one of the first houses built in the city west of Twin Peaks. The land was part of the rancho of the Greene family, and had a beer garden, boating pavilion, deer park, and what was considered to be the best trout pond in California. George Greene planted the first eucalyptus seeds at the Trocadero around 1871. In 1931, Rosalie Stern bought the land on which the Trocadero stood, naming the area Sigmund Stern Grove after her late husband. It was donated to the city, so it could be used only for “recreation–music, dramatics, and pageantry.”