San Francisco Apartment Association
SFAA Magazine Archives

December 2001


Glen Park — The Architecture and Social History

by Christopher P. Verplanck

Unlike many of the neighborhoods profiled so far in this series, Glen Park maintains a relatively low profile. For those who live there, including the author, Glen Park’s obscurity is just fine. With that said however, Glen Park is undeniably a neighborhood with an intriguing history, as well as a beautiful natural and built environment. Like many neighborhoods in San Francisco, Glen Park is in part defined by topography. The dominant geographical feature of the area is Glen Canyon, a natural canyon approximately 500 feet deep that extends south from Portola Drive to the intersection of Elk and Chenery Streets in Glen Park. Most of the canyon proper is now a city park but the steep topography extends into the residential neighborhood as well. Due to the rough topography throughout much of the neighborhood, many of the streets of Glen Park are not laid out in grid fashion. Although the grid of Horner’s Addition (Noe and Eureka Valleys) was extended southward into Glen Park during the nineteenth century, these streets only existed on paper. When it became apparent that the San Miguel Hills were too steep to bridge, only parts of two streets from the dominant grid, Castro and Diamond, were retained. Most of the remaining streets of modern-day Glen Park were laid out in the 1890s by Baldwin & Howell Company to follow the existing contours of the steep hillsides. Other sections of the neighborhood were plotted in a grid fashion by other real estate companies. We generally consider the boundaries of Glen Park to be Joost Street to the south, Roanoke and Moffit Streets to the east, Diamond Heights Boulevard to the north and Elk Street to the west.

Glen Park

Originally part of Jose de Jesus Noe’s Rancho San Miguel, Glen Park remained wild throughout most of the nineteenth century. Glen Canyon, one of the most prominent geological features in the southern part of the city, was explored by the Spanish and Mexicans and prospected for gold by the Forty-Niners. Noe ran cattle on his Rancho San Miguel, and successive landowners continued in the same tradition. By the 1870s, several major dairies had relocated from Cow Hollow to the lands of the former San Miguel Rancho. The first recorded, non-agricultural use in the area was a gunpowder and dynamite factory named Giant Powder Company, which was located in Glen Canyon. For good reason gunpowder manufacturing was banned from taking place within the built-up portions of San Francisco, but Glen Canyon was isolated enough for such a business. Tragically, concerns about gunpowder manufacturing were well founded; in 1869 the Giant Powder works blew up in what came to be known as the Glen Canyon or the Rock Gulch Explosion.

What is now Glen Park was too remote from downtown (although the Southern Pacific San Jose line had passed just south of the district since 1861) to make speculative residential development feasible before the 1890s. Several homesteads related to the dairy operations, nevertheless, began to appear in the 1870s on early coast and geodetic maps. These early dwellings typically included a variety of rural outbuildings including barns, tank houses and windmills. In addition to the dairies concentrated on the hillsides, there were also several smaller farms that raised hogs, chickens and vegetables for urban markets. Since there were no graded roads in Glen Park, many of the earliest houses did not align with the street patterns later imposed in the 1890s. The oldest known residence in Glen Park is located at 657 Chenery, next door to the Glen Park Library. This tiny gable-roofed cottage, which is set back about twenty feet from the street, was built in 1872 by a dairyman named William Tietz (historical photo of 657 Chenery). Another early settler in what is now Glen Park was a man named Theodore Verhoeven. He built a residence on the corner of Chenery and Carrie Streets for his family in the early 1880s. When Chenery Street was graded after the 1906 earthquake, Verhoeven had to rebuild his house about thirty feet back from its former location because it was directly in the street. During the earliest phase of the neighborhood’s history, Glen Park was popularly known as Little Switzerland, due to its scenic landscape and the presence of Swiss-owned dairies.

As was the case in the story of most residential neighborhoods in Victorian San Francisco, cheap and efficient mass transit was necessary before large-scale development could take place. In the story of Glen Park, transit first appeared in 1890 with the incorporation of the San Francisco & San Mateo Railroad Co. (SF & SM Railway). This first electric-powered interurban trolley line in San Francisco was a tool in a shrewd marketing ploy developed by three German immigrant brothers: Behrend, Isaac and Fabian Joost. The Joost brothers owned a large tract of land in what they euphemistically named Sunnyside. Realizing that their land was essentially worthless until they could get people to it, they started their own streetcar line. On December 23, 1890, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors granted the requisite franchise to the brothers. Tracks were laid from the Embarcadero to the San Mateo County Line during the end of July 1891. The train line officially opened on April 27, 1892. The route started near the Union Ferry Depot at the foot of Market Street. It headed south and west via Steuart, Harrison, Fourteenth, Guerrero and San Jose Streets to Thirtieth Street. At this point, passengers transferred to another trolley to continue their journey south to San Mateo. From Thirtieth Street, the route climbed up Chenery Street and descended down the hill into Glen Park at Diamond Street. The route swung east along Diamond Street where it passed over Glen Canyon Creek, on a trestle 50 feet high, and then continued south along San Jose Avenue to the county line (photo of Glen Park Creek Trestle). The SF & SM powerhouse and car barn were located just outside the boundaries of Glen Park, at the corner of Sunnyside (now Monterey) and Circular Avenue.

In terms of revenues, the SF & SM was never a moneymaker due to its sparsely populated route. Nevertheless, fare revenues were not the point; operating a streetcar line at a loss was well worth it if land along the route could be sold at a handsome profit. Even before the SF & SM began operating, speculators had begun snapping up large tracts of land along the route. In addition to the Joost Brothers’ Sunnyside tract, other tracts included the Thirtieth & Mission Homestead Association, Fairmount Terrace and Baldwin & Howell’s Glen Park Terrace. Baldwin & Howell were one of San Francisco’s largest real estate developers and they marketed the Glen Park Terrace for its owners and one of San Francisco’s biggest landholders, the Crocker Estate.

For some years after the subdivision of Glen Park Terrace, Glen Canyon became a popular picnic destination for urban San Franciscans. Attractions included Glen Canyon itself as well as a recreation hall called Morro Castle that opened in 1898. Baldwin & Howell aimed to drum up land sales by building a small amusement park in the Canyon so they would lure prospective buyers with free balloon rides and tightrope walkers. Nevertheless, sales did not take off. There were still open tracts closer to downtown and the amenities offered in Glen Park Terrace were minimal at best. The ungraded streets were narrow and there were no sewers or water service. A fire insurance map made for the area in 1899 shows only scattered residential development with only four or five houses on each block. The intersection of Chenery and Diamond Streets, the heart of downtown Glen Park today, had only a handful of buildings. The most important one was a two-story Eastlake style saloon and residence that still exists today at 701-703 Chenery (see photo below). This building, originally featuring a large tank house and stables, was built in the early 1890s and is the oldest surviving commercial building in Glen Park.

Glen Park

Before long, the first land boom in Glen Park Terrace began. Between 1905 and 1907, Umbsden Realty Company took over marketing the tract. The 1906 earthquake and fire, as in other outlying districts of San Francisco, brought in an influx of earthquake refugees. Hundreds of temporary earthquake shacks were constructed in the canyon mouth and on open ground between houses. Many of these refugees ended up purchasing inexpensive lots from Umbsden Realty. Advertisements in the Saturday real estate sections of local papers regularly exhorted San Franciscan renters to venture out to Glen Park to purchase a lot for $500 and either build for themselves or commission a cottage from Umbsden Realty for “only 10% and $10 a month.” Due to its remote location and lack of city services, Glen Park Terrace was marketed to working-class people, many of whom were Irish or German laborers living in the Mission District. The photographs in the advertisements depict the small gable-roofed, bay-windowed cottages that are still common in Glen Park. Surviving cottages built by Umbsden Realty include 52 and 54 Surrey (part of a row of six identical cottages —see photo below). Although buying into Glen Park was cheap, residents of the neighborhood would have to put up with relatively primitive conditions for decades. They did not receive municipal water service or sewers for many years. In response, residents soon began taking matters into their own hands. After the 1906 earthquake, the newly formed Glen Park Improvement Club secured a common water supply by organizing a work crew to build a pipeline from a water tank on the hills above the neighborhood. Local residents J. O’Donnell, W. Scott, H. Shattuck, F. Moran and J. McLaughlin formed a volunteer fire department in 1908 and built a firehouse at 2440 Diamond Street.

Between 1906 and 1913, commercial development along Diamond Street remained severely constrained due to the presence of the Glen Canyon gully and SF & SM trestle. One of Glen Park’s most important early businesses, A. F. Dissmeyer’s Enterprise Steam Beer Saloon, opened in a new building at 702 Chenery, just north of the trestle. This building survives, although heavily altered, on the northwest corner of Diamond and Chenery. Up until the First World War, Glen Park continued to be a popular destination for working-class homebuyers. Many of the cottages built on speculation were constructed in pairs or in rows of up to a half-dozen. Cottages constructed during this era were generally small and simply finished, but others were relatively elaborate including the Queen Anne cottage at 9 Surrey Street that was built in 1905. These early “Glen Park” cottages were typically one-and-a-half stories with gable roofs. If constructed on the uphill slope, they often included a garage and an entry stair. The facades were very consistent in their arrangement, with either a single bay window and an entry or a pair of bay windows flanking a central entry such as 54 Arbor Street. Other important post-quake buildings include Glen Park Grammar School, constructed in 1912 as a concrete Mission Revival style structure.

Many different ethnic groups moved to Glen Park throughout the first quarter of the twentieth century, including large numbers of Irish and Germans and smaller numbers of Norwegians, Swedes, English and Scots. The ethnic origins of Glen Park’s residents were reflected in the churches built adjacent to the neighborhood such as a Lutheran church on Joost Avenue and St. John’s Catholic Church on St. Mary’s Street. Residents worked at many different occupations. Some worked in local industries including the John Honold Tannery on Bosworth Street, a cattle yard on the corner of Mission and Richland Streets, and the W. S. Ray Manufacturing Company, a manufacturer of stoves and ranges. Others worked as streetcar conductors, shipyard workers on the Central Waterfront or in the industries of the South of Market. Access to downtown improved after the City and County of San Francisco’s new Municipal Railway acquired the perennially troubled SF & SM Railway in 1916. The acquisition of the SF & SM resulted in the institution of long-neglected safety measures and the resolution of labor disputes that had long wracked the company. Safety concerns were especially important. Before 1916, SF & SM streetcar brakes would frequently fail on the Chenery Street hill at Roanoke Street. From there the cars would build up speed and leap the tracks at Diamond Street, frequently killing passengers and plowing into businesses. The Municipal Railway #26 line replaced the SF & SM route by 1920, and the old timber trestle on Diamond Street was removed and the gully filled, creating a large chunk of developable land. During the 1910s and 1920s several important businesses were started in Glen Park’s business district, including Straub’s Refreshment Parlor at 673 Chenery and Glen Park Nickelodeon (an early movie theater) at 2780 Diamond Street.

Glen Park

As private automobiles became increasingly popular, the Public Works Department began to improve streets throughout San Francisco. In Glen Park, the steep dirt roads of the neighborhood were dusty and rutted in the summer and muddy and nearly impassable in the winter. Paving of streets in Glen Park began in 1922, and the Diamond Street block between Bosworth and Chenery became the first section to be finished. The widening of Bernal Cut in 1928 improved vehicular access to Glen Park and other neighborhoods in southeast San Francisco. When completed, the new roadway allowed direct access from the Mission District to Glen Park and points south via San Jose Avenue. Two bridges (at Miguel and Highland Streets) were constructed as part of this project, connecting Glen Park to Bernal Heights.

Improved access led to more residential development. During the 1910s and 1920s, the narrow streets of Glen Park were augmented with larger Arts and Crafts and Mission, Spanish Colonial and Mediterranean Revival dwellings. New residents, some of whom were more affluent, constructed larger two-story Arts and Crafts residences on some of the remaining, undeveloped parcels, such as the attractive dwelling at 2 Van Buren Street. This house is archetypal of the Arts and Crafts style with exposed rafter ends, struts and distinctive double-hung windows that have multi-paned upper sashes. Some speculators purchased frontages of 100 or 150 feet, and they constructed rows of Arts and Crafts style residences. One of the largest clusters is a row of houses with identical floor plans built around 1919 on the south side of the 700 block of Chenery Street (see photo). The Spanish Colonial and Mediterranean Revival styles were also popular in Glen Park during the late 1910s and 1920s. As Glen Park’s business district expanded east along Chenery and south along Diamond during this period, several large Mission Revival style commercial buildings were erected, including the finely detailed structure at 666-668 Chenery. This building is a particularly fine example of the Mission Revival style, with its sculpted parapet roof, Spanish tile roof cladding and wrought iron balconies. Several dozen Mediterranean Revival dwellings were constructed as well. An excellent example is the dwelling at 46-48 Wilder, with its Moorish corner turret, Spanish tile roof and decorative tile work. The decade of the 1920s witnessed the largest amount of construction in Glen Park, including the neighborhood’s first large apartment house, a seven-unit building at 201 Roanoke Street.

Glen Park

The 1929 Stock Market Crash almost brought privately funded construction to a halt in Glen Park, San Francisco and the rest of the nation. Very little building occurred in the neighborhood, with the exception of the reconstruction of Glen Park School in the Streamline Moderne style in 1934. Nonetheless, the 1930s witnessed the fulfillment of long-neglected improvements to the infrastructure and civic amenities in the neighborhood. During this decade, the city acquired the still-privately held Glen Park Recreation Area, and a new clubhouse was constructed on the site in 1938. A new baseball field added to the attractiveness of this new park. Fraternal and workingmen’s organizations such as the South of Market Boys or the Hibernians found the park especially attractive for cookouts, footraces and other festivities. Another major accomplishment in the 1930s was the extension of Bosworth Street to connect with the new O’Shaughnessy Boulevard. Together, these streets provided a circuitous but relatively direct route to the western part of town. During the Second World War, little private-market development occurred in Glen Park due to building restrictions. A large low-income housing project for war workers was proposed and supported by the Glen Park Community Club and the Merchants Association, but was never constructed.

Glen Park

Most of Glen Park had been built out by the Depression, although several remote streets at the top of the hill remained largely undeveloped due to their distance from public transit as well as the continued presence of the Good Brothers Dairy. Between the end of the Second World War and the construction of Diamond Heights in 1967, the only area of significant residential construction was the FHA-funded tract built in 1949 along the upper portions of Moffit, Sussex and Farnum Streets. This tract consisted of a type common of postwar housing often referred to as a Junior Five, a standardized plan designed according to FHA guidelines. The typical Junior Five has a garage and entry vestibule on the first floor and a living room, kitchen, bathroom and two bedrooms on the second floor. The facade was very simple, usually clad in stucco with restrained Moderne or Period Revival detailing. The Galli Brothers, Henry Doelger and other merchant builders constructed Junior Five housing in the remaining undeveloped tracts in San Francisco, especially in the Excelsior and the Sunset Districts. A pair of Junior Five houses on Moffit Street (see photo above) illustrates this widespread housing type. Glen Park faced several problems during the postwar period due to the tremendous population growth that impacted many urban areas nationwide. In the Bay Area, suburbs sprang up in San Mateo County as San Franciscans and others purchased single-family dwellings there on large landscaped lots. In order to commute to jobs in San Francisco, the new suburbanites overwhelmingly elected to drive private automobiles instead of taking trains as in the past. Vehicular traffic consequently exploded and during the 1950s the state’s Department of Highways began constructing hundreds of freeways. Despite its small size and densely woven urban fabric, San Francisco was not spared. Thousands of houses and businesses were sacrificed for the construction of the Central Freeway, the Embarcadero Freeway and others. San Franciscans, however, were not content to sit still and watch their city destroyed for the convenience of suburbanites. In the mid-1950s, a revolt of significant proportions broke out. Glen Park became an epicenter of the Freeway Revolt when the state’s Highway Department unveiled plans in 1958 to build the so-called Crosstown Freeway right through the center of Glen Park. The freeway was designed to link up the proposed Southern Freeway (Interstate 280) with the Golden Gate Bridge. The route would have plowed right through Glen Canyon before tunneling under Portola Drive toward Seventh Avenue. The Crosstown Freeway would have destroyed 120 homes and thirteen businesses in Glen Park. Although many observers believed that the residents of Glen Park did not have the political clout or financial wherewithal to defend their “village,” Glen Park prevailed and plans for the freeway were eventually dropped. However, Glen Park was not out of the grip of traffic engineers yet. Bosworth Street was widened to four lanes six years later, resulting in the demolition of buildings along its eastern side and the introduction of a substantial amount of vehicular traffic into what had been a quiet neighborhood. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, Glen Park also lost a substantial part of its business district to the construction of the Southern Freeway and the Glen Park BART Station.

Glen Park also underwent significant changes to its physical fabric and demographic makeup throughout the mid-1960s and early-1970s. While much of southeastern San Francisco experienced rapid ethnic transition during the late 1960s, Glen Park remained an overwhelminglywhite community with many longtime Irish and German-American residents. During the late 1960s, the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency initiated a period of transition after condemning the Good Brothers’ Dairy and constructing a new neighborhood called Diamond Heights on the hill above Glen Park. Part of this massive project included the development of hundreds of units of mixed and low-income housing on the remaining vacant parcels of land on the higher streets of Glen Park. Although there was some initial tension as minority groups moved into Glen Park, the community did not experience the same degree of white flight experienced by other adjacent neighborhoods. The new housing was successfully integrated into the landscape and the existing community. As a result, Glen Park has evolved within the past thirty years into a thriving, multi-ethnic community. The overarching qualities of natural beauty, small town atmosphere and good public transportation have encouraged longtime residents to remain and have enticed new families to settle there. The success of Glen Park in attracting new residents has been a major factor in its increasing lack of affordability. The neighborhood’s attractiveness, combined with its location on Interstate 280, has made it a popular destination for well-paid high technology professionals in the South Bay who want to live in San Francisco. This group pushed the housing prices even further during the 1990s, making it well nigh impossible for working and middle-class residents to buy homes in Glen Park. While Glen Park has slowly evolved from a humble yet picturesque working-class community into the increasingly affluent community that we see today, the author hopes that it manages to retain its distinctive characteristics defined by small cottages, lushly landscaped yards, towering eucalyptus groves and a cozy village-like atmosphere.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoint of the SFAA or the SF Apartment Magazine. Christopher P. Verplanck is the Architectural Historian with Page and Turnball Architects. © Copyright 2001.