First & Female
Meet San Francisco’s first-wave feminist housing mogul, Grace Perego, in six acts.
Helen Grace Greenwood Yager stands up, cradling her three-month-old son Jackson. She’s 28, her patrician features brushed with the haze of new parenthood. She raises her right hand and swears to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help her god. It’s 1913.
The whole mess comes spilling out, splashing into the Chronicle the next day. She was 17 when she married William in their home state of Kansas, and they traveled west in the dawn of the new century. William ran a construction firm, Helen Grace helped with the building sales. It was modest, but successful.
Eventually, William started taking work trips up and down the coast: Portland, Seattle, Los Angeles. And on these trips, he was — apparently — in the habit of traveling with another woman, whom he introduced as his wife. Right around the time Jackson was born, the other woman finally spurned his advances, and William confessed everything.
The gavel comes down, and Helen Grace walks out of the courtroom with Jackson and an alimony. It’s enough to cover rent and then some. She drops the “Helen,” and some time over the next year or two, she returns to the real estate business.
The iconic plunging strings which open Renée Geyer’s cover of “It’s a Man’s World” vibrate anachronistically overhead, as Grace Perego emerges — backlit, in slow motion — from billowing clouds of steam off a locomotive. Lace brocade and ostrich feathers. Tonight, she’s closing the sale on an under-construction apartment building on Clay and Polk. Three stories of scaffolding and iron girders glimmer in the streetlights. It’s 1922.
After the divorce, she started out catch-as-catch-can: brokering small flats and flipping farmland in Santa Rosa. During her short-lived second marriage to Capt. Fordyce L. Perego, they pooled their funds so she could swing larger properties. In the Chronicle, these sales are credited to “F.L. Perego and wf” — but we all know what’s up. Fordyce ships off to Manilla.
She finally got her name on the door with a partnership: Kincanon & Perego. She handles sales, prolific builder John Kincanon handles the construction. They put up a factory or two, but small apartments are their bread-and-butter. At this point, a woman in real estate is a rare bird: They comprise only 2% of professional realtors in 1910 and 6% in 1920. The numbers are probably even lower for builders, but I don’t have the stats. She was the first (and for many years, only) woman in the San Francisco Builders’ Exchange, and a founding member (as well as Secretary-Treasurer) of its sister group, the Home Builders’ Association.
Slowly but surely, it’s all coming together. And if she can land tonight’s sale, that’s one more step on the way. Step by step, and she’ll be operating in the same
league as any man in the game. Step by step, and she can drop the partner entirely, and move forward however she pleases, no questions asked. She strides across the road toward the prospective buyers, ready to close the deal. Ready to take the next step.
A round of applause and some curious murmurs greet Grace Perego as she ascends to the speaker’s podium at the 20th annual NAREB convention in Seattle. The swampy August air hangs thick in the room. It’s 1927.
She clears her throat and begins:
The speech that follows is a 1,500-word celebration of women operating all across the housing industries: From Mrs. MacAdams (the first woman to own an incorporated real estate business in SF and owner/operator of Nob Hill’s luxurious Brocklebank Apartments) to Miss Alice Jackson (Pacific Coast division manager of the mighty Standard Sanitary Manufacturing Company — purveyors of that most humble and necessary of porcelain fixtures).
Perego is now in an excellent position to speak on the topic: last year, she finally made the jump and opened her own real estate office at 160 Sutter. An accompanying article in San Francisco’s “The Business Woman” casually mentions that it’s “said to be the only real estate office in San Francisco operated [ed: exclusively] by women, occupying a downtown ground floor office.”
And she’s not the only one: The California REA’s Women’s Division was founded in 1924 — over a decade before the formation of the national Women’s Council in 1938. NAREB allowed its Boards to handle admission at the local level, and many did not permit women to join (either explicitly or by custom). Though California’s Boards had generally welcomed women, when Perego was elected chairman of the REA’s Resolutions Committee in 1926, she decided to put a ring on it by introducing “a resolution to the effect that all Real Estate Boards shall extend the courtesy of membership to all eligible brokers, regardless of sex, and accord the same considerations to those who are members.”
But anyways, let’s return to the Auditorium in Seattle, where Grace is finishing her speech. Leaning against the back wall, a stringer for the New York Times — two days unshaven, bent cigarette — cracks a smile as he’s jotting down notes for his article,
When she drops the mic, it lands with a satisfying thud. In the audience, men gape slack-jawed while women rise for a standing ovation — and the August air notches up another few degrees.
Gentle waves lap the hulls of pleasure craft in the Marina, in the purple moments just before dawn. Around the corner on Casa Way, electric light warms a second-floor bay window, where Grace Perego is rolling a blank page into her black Underwood. She’s been working all night. She’s exhausted. It’s 1934.
The Great Depression hangs like a miasmic cloud over the world. It has decimated the ranks of women realtors; they won’t return to their 1920s levels until the mid-50s.
As the market spiraled into chaos and new construction slowed to a trickle, owners of distressed properties were increasingly coming to Grace for advice. So she reached out simultaneously to the UC System and the precursor to the SFAA, to propose that she teach a new extension course: “Apartment House Ownership and Management.” After four years of teaching, she’s now putting the course down into a book.
Across 327 pages, she guides the reader through the ins-and-outs of the task at hand, from inspecting the foundation and roofing; to advice on a charming demeanor while showing an apartment; to relevant housing laws and ready-made form letters; all the way down to the “Stain Removal Chart,” with instructions for lifting tar, blood, or candle-grease from wood, marble, or white cotton. Her style is straightforward and assertive. She writes with the experience of (as noted in the book’s forward) running a 23-person brokerage, and having expended approximately $4,750,000 in real estate over the last twenty years.
A quiet knock at the half-open door shakes Grace from her accidental reverie at the typewriter’s blank page. Ms. Effie Twilly, Grace’s live-in housekeeper, enters with a cup of coffee. Grace reclines and gratefully accepts.
Effie walks to the window and brushes aside the curtain, she watches the light glitter off the waves as the sun crests the as-yet-unspanned caissons of the Golden Gate Bridge. Her features are fair — or dark, or lovely, or plain. We don’t know. There are no photographs. No newspaper clippings. She is an immigrant housekeeper, the sort of person often ignored or forgotten by the keepers of history.
She exists only as an entry in the 1930 census: Sheet 14A, line 23. And here, watching the sunrise.
Moonlight traces the enormous steel barrels of the 16-inch guns at Ft. Funston. Harbor Defense men stand under stacked tons of bunker concrete, bundled in wool against the salt wind and the chill of September. Everything pointing out to sea. Watching. Waiting. It’s 1943.
Across the spiraling dunes, over the untouched emerald of Twin Peaks, and into the cascading streets in the south of Nob Hill... we find the Mary Elizabeth Inn on Bush, a residential hotel for single women founded by Lizzie Glide in 1914. And through its brass doors, down a curving flight of stairs, we find Grace Perego giving a presentation up on a waist-high stage in a small auditorium. She has her sleeves rolled up, pipe fittings in one hand and a wrench in the other. Tonight’s presentation comes courtesy of the AWVS.
Earlier this month, she began a series of 20-some-odd articles in the Chronicle’s Home And Garden section, detailing everything a woman might need to know to become “Mrs. Fix-It” while “the plumber is working in the shipyard and the man of the house is off to war.”
In these articles, Perego gives instructions for identifying and repairing termite damage, and she takes readers step-by-step through splicing and soldering frayed wires. She advises that particular care must be taken in the maintenance of electric irons — private industry will produce no new models “for the duration.” Two cartoon shoppers in the adjacent Safeway ad banter helpfully about rationing tickets.
The women in the audience: Homemakers. Factory workers. Women with leaking radiators and blown fuses. Women with rain seeping under the door. Blue Star mothers. Gold Star wives. The totality of war permeates reality.
The sound of bending steel and smell of grinding rubber swirl in the air as a tow truck struggles to drag a seafoam green sedan backward up a tiny road on Twin Peaks. In the driver’s seat of the sedan, Grace Perego has her jaw clenched, the wheel sideways, and both feet on the brake. Surrounding them: a crowd of neighbors and newshounds, policemen and looky-loos, and schoolyard Baby Boomers armed with “atomic-ray guns.” Welcome to the Battle of Crown Terrace. It’s a gorgeous spring day in 1952.
But to explain this whole debacle, we have to backtrack to 1947, when Congress introduced the Housing and Rent Act (which rolled back the wartime restrictions on construction, and set the stage for the midcentury’s suburban proliferation and racially fraught “urban renewal” projects).
With visions of “Sold!” signs swinging in their dreams, the NAREB Women’s Council held a competition for “best building plans.” Here, we find Grace beaming with her prize-winning model in the Apartment category... before we dissolve forward to 1950, where Perego has constructed six of these buildings (54 units in total) along Graystone Terrace, on the east side of Twin Peaks.
As these were situated on a terraced hillside, Perego had installed a small, steep ramp to connect the uppermost units’ carports to Twin Peak Blvd. But after a spate of bad weather left this ramp impassable, she connected the carport lane to the adjacent Crown Terrace — whose residents (“Crown Terracites” a’la the Chronicle) said their cozy fifteen-foot road couldn’t handle the extra traffic. And more pertinently: they claimed it was privately owned, whereas Perego claimed it had been conditionally accepted as public in 1930.
The storm was brewing: The Terracites blocked the connection with a stone wall, and Perego had it bulldozed. Twice. The situation exploded into open warfare (and onto the front page) on April 26, when she drove through Crown Terrace to inspect the damage on her apartments’ ramp. Upon leaving, she found the Terracites had parked in the road, blocking her way out.
Furious, she got out of the car. The Terracites demanded she close the carport connection permanently. She refused. When she returned, she found her tires — mysteriously — airless. Her son Jackson (now working as her assistant) came to pick her up.
The sedan sat motionless through sunrises and sunsets. Superstar lawyer Jake Ehrlich stepped onto the scene for the Terracites, with his trademark cowboys boots and endless swagger. Compromises were proposed and rejected. The city waited with bated breath.
And with a shriek of bending metal we return to Crown Terrace on that gorgeous spring day, where, after hours of fruitless negotiation, all decorum has been abandoned. The police direct the tow truck, and haul Jackson off after he sits down to block it. The Terracites string a chain across the connection. The Chron runs a full-page photo spread, “Mrs. Stay-Put Perego Budged.”
For a month, suits and counter-suits fly across the courtroom. Finally, Presiding Superior Judge William T. Sweigert arrives to inspect the road in person, along with a “jabbering retinue of four lawyers.” The next morning, his lusciously penned pronouncement put the matter squarely in the hands of the Terracites... whose once-again sleepy little lane remains — to this very day — impassable to auto traffic.
You look resplendent in ermine and pearls as you climb aboard the 37 at Castro, where the enormous rainbow flag waves triumphant in the heavens. The bus winds up the mountain, and you disembark at Crestline, where you recognize the half-crumbling wall and bold maroon of the Vista Francisco sign. But instead of walking to the Peaks, you cross the street and follow Burnett around the bend, where you notice a little cul-de-sac to your right.
You’re standing at the entrance to Perego Heights, Grace’s last major apartment project in San Francisco, built over a few years, starting in 1959. Perhaps wary of further publicity after the Crown Terrace fiasco, her public record begins to fade — an advertisement for this apartment complex in March of 1967 is the last time her name appears in the Chronicle. They ran no obituary when she passed in 1973.
Some records indicate that she might have retired to Healdsburg, where she had summered for many years. The record of her passing, in Sonoma, indicates that late in life she probably married fellow midcentury developer Thomas D. Harney. But like I said, the details are hazy.
So that’s the story, for now, anyways. Right there on the corner of Burnett and Perego, you pop a bottle of André and raise a toast: “To California’s First Woman Builder!”
Note: The NAREB [National Assoc. of Real Estate *Boards] discussed in this article is the precursor to the present-day NAR (1972 name change), not the present-day NAREB [National Assoc. of Real Estate *Brokers], which was founded in 1947 to counter discriminatory industry practices.
Devin Smith is a musician, writer, and process-oriented visual artist. He lives in Vista San Francisco.