Note: I took down a lot of old, irrelevant stuff at ye olde blogge, but decided to really start fresh here.
This is the story of long-lost lovers reuniting through space and time. I absolutely guarantee it, and if this story disappoints, I will come to your house and buy back the 10 minutes you spend reading it.
Firstly, let me put this out there: My hobby is researching historical buildings. Some people play tennis, some collect jazz records. I look up previous occupants of a building and sometimes I look at their marriage records or read their obituaries in the newspaper archives. I have insatiable curiosity, and love discovering stories and narratives of people.
So, when my organization moved office spaces two years ago (I work for Greenpeace, an environmental campaigning organization), I knew had hours of research to conduct and map out. During our first visit, I asked the broker what it had been before and he wasn’t too sure, though immediately prior to us the building was inhabited was an interior design firm serving the hotel industry (verified by the over-wrought gold fixtures in the bathrooms). The brokers pitched it as a “creative tech space,” most likely because the building has no windows – just skylights — so they thought it would appeal to the “post-factory” crowd. Creative is a misnomer, though: the interior office space is a cacophony of drywall of varying heights and angles, puzzling frosted interior windows to peer into low-ceilinged conference rooms, and a mysterious second floor bay window looking out over the entire front interior that can only be described as “panopticon.” I took bets as to what our building was before it was an office; answers ranged from ‘pencil factory’ to ‘Winchester Mystery House’ to ‘prison.’ We were off to a good start with lots of research questions flowing!
This building sits on a peculiar wedge of Mission Street, across from the SF Planning Department and just adjacent to a street we affectionately call Poop Alley. To be fair, there isn’t just poop in the alley; there’s also moldy jeans, plastic nerdles from Tap Plastic, a VHS tape collection of children’s songs, pig heads, the list goes on. Actually, I have more to say about Poop Alley and its history, but I’ll save it (there’s a lot coming up, I need to pace myself!)
To fully appreciate the building’s location, I think we should spend some time on how this wedge street came to be. The peninsula that is now San Francisco was first home to the Ohlone (yeah, back that far), and was colonized by the Spanish in 1776 (although: that’s still not that long ago!), with the establishment of first the Presidio and then Mission Dolores. Mexico gained independence from Spain in 1821, and this little tip of peninsula, called Yerba Buena, was, along with the rest of Alto California, governed by Jose Castro (namesake of the Castro District, where I now live). The first emigrants arrived via wagon in California in 1841, slowly trickling in, and as the Mexican-American War brewed eastward, Jose Castro ordered all foreigners out of California. Samuel Brannan’s ship from New York carrying mostly Mormon settlers arrived at Yerba Buena at 1846, effectively tripling the population (just between 250 and 400 people!) and establishing a town center at Portsmouth Square. The Americans, pissed at Castro’s proclamation, threw a giant tantrum, sparked the Bear Flag Revolt, and finally raised the US flag. The US was busy chopping Texas off from Mexico, and didn’t get around to enforcing the conquest with statehood until the G O L D R U S H happened, when everyone lost their fool minds and soon 36,000 inhabitants were crowded into San Francisco. (If all of this history is new to you, you best back it up to the library and do some reading on whose ground we are living).
San Francisco is essentially built on sand and crab shells and shipwrecks. I mean, not the whole thing, but the edges where water met wharf, which were later swallowed up by the rotting hulls of ships whose crews had abandoned them, who were sunk, or who were turned into hotels and later were covered by sewage and mud and gold dust and bricks. The United States was gripped by a manic, feverish Manifest Destiny, drunk with empire-building, and the promise of gold was not just a beacon but a magnet. The transcontinental railroad had yet to be built, and young men – and they were mostly men, but of course some women, too – arrived by the shipload. They were on the adventure of their lives, and this would of course, cost the lives of others.
Settlers decimated the indigenous population with their quest for new energy and profit. From 150,000 in California before 1849 to less than 30,000 by 1870; those that weren’t enslaved or killed outright died of diseases for which they had no natural immunity for. But the empire mind saw dollar signs underneath the rushing waters and buried in the hillsides. And so shiploads of speculators arrived in Yerba Buena Cove streaming out into Portsmouth Square to provision themselves before heading to the foothills. When rains came, the streets were covered in a knee-deep mud that was thick enough to suck grown men under and studded with lost items like boot brushes and pistols. San Francisco was buying, selling, trading, speculating, scheming, scamming, dreaming, braying with a thunderous bravado of people who had come to be a part of the boom. As Jas McCabe reflected in 1870, “The loud voices of the eager seller and as-eager buyer—the laugh of reckless joy—the bold accents of successful speculation. . . . Fortunes were won and lost, upon that green cloth, in a twinkling of an eye. . . . The heated brain was never allowed to cool.”
That said, plenty of people did want to cool down And, like so many of us, people wanted to cool down in to the Mission. It was sunny, there was a verdant creek with soft willows, and birds chirped joyously along the creek. It was difficult to get to the Mission, though; the paths wended from Yerba Buena Cove across a giant bog, and the sand hills of SOMA constantly blew sand and reed grass across the bog. It’s like everyone fleeing from Karl the Fog at 4 pm in Dolores Park + the family’s backyard swimming pool in “Poltergeist” + sideways sandstorms on Tatooine. This all equals entrepreneur opportunity! In 1851, an enterprising gentleman named Charles Wilson built the San Francisco Mission Plank Road; it followed the 3.5 miles from the ferry building to Mission Dolores. The toll was 25 cents for a horse and buggy, 75 cents for 2 horses, and $1 for a horse team. It is rather astounding to compare that to the Muni fare when I moved here in 1996 – also one dollar!!
Building the Mission Plank Road was difficult. True to its name, it was built of planks, all of which had to be laid to support horses and buggies. Our office building on Mission Street (remember? that’s how we got on this topic) sits, as I said, on a wedge, right at the point where the road turned from its parallel with Market and headed southwards towards the Mission Dolores.
Here the plank road needed to cross the wetlands of Mission Bay (sidebar: you have to just read this, this, this, and probably this too for more about how underwater the Mission was through this period of time, and where the creeks, lakes and lagoons probably were; really, lots of mysteries and maps stuffed in those links). So, the pile drivers for the plank road started to hammer in 40’ pilings but because the marsh was just peat with sand on top, the logs just sunk down. They tried again, putting another 40’ log on top, and it sunk also. They realized that this was a huge subterranean lake, and after a lot of frustration, had to crisscross logs on top of the peat to build up the road. The logs over the peat never stopped shaking as the buggies roared over them.
In 1858, the city bought Mission Plank Road from the private toll operator and macadamized it. The Mission was always a lovely place for people in the city to go on the weekend. Reports throughout the 1850s and beyond report that the Mission, ‘out in the country,’ was a pleasant place filled with idlers gamblers, pretty women and babies. As San Francisco grew, the Mission would be a place to go watch bears fight lions, drink beer in outdoor gardens, play baseball (at what’s now Garfield Park), or roll around with a shirtwaisted lover over on Red Rock Hill (what is now Diamond Heights). The San Francisco & San Jose Railroad (the first railroad to connect the two cities) was built in 1863, weaving a similar southeast path through the Mission (note that it had a passenger depot at Valencia and 25th, across from Clooney’s Pub, the exact intersection where I used to live, about which I wrote extensively a few years ago).
So the part of Mission where our office building is where the Mission Plank Road curved around from its parallel with Market, turning towards the Mission Dolores. The earliest map I found of the block where our office is shows the area in 1899. It is different than how the buildings are arranged now, as they appear to be houses (or boarding houses), but shockingly, the building footprint in the 1899 Sanborn fire insurance map shows a staircase in the exact location where a staircase is in ours.
Remember I talked about star-crossed lovers? It gets even better. But, wait, hold onto your crab shells for awhile longer.
Before I get into who lived in our building, I want to talk about who didn’t live there. William Muhlner and his wife Cordelia. I originally just used our current address and looked in city directories, and uncovered an entire lurid family history of this German family. Muhlner died of a dramatic heart attack at the opening of the Turn Verein (a German social club) and their son Louis shot his girlfriend Jennie (dead!) in her house after he saw another suitor wearing the diamond studs he’d given her. The Muhlners lived all around the area of Mission, Valencia, Market, Fell. Looking at other neighbors, it’s easy to see that this was in part a German neighborhood (but is that why we have a Zeitgeist, Werkstatt and Scwarz Sausage/Engelhart Gourmet Foods all in such close vacinity??). (Also, some great Burritivision maps over at Burrito Justice and dissertation of the area in 1889 and 1905).
Anyway, I was into the Muhlners for about a month before realizing the city had changed the addresses at some point. Another building also at 1661 Mission in 1912 called Old Hickory Supply Co (also not our building) sold things like furniture, fruit trees, and hares.
So, using the time appropriate address rather than our current one, I re-searched (har har) the city directories and found inhabitants with that address, this time starting as early as 1877. There was a painter, a collector, several widows, a tinner, and several other occupations over the years. I got drawn into a particular story of a miner who lived in the house, Herbert Averell, and noticed that there were a number of these Averells living in addresses all around the neighborhood throughout the late 1800s. I dug in a bit deeper and started uncovering the story of Anson Averell and Sarah Brooks Haskell Averell.
Sarah seems to have moved to San Francisco at some point in her young adulthood. She was originally from Massachusetts but had moved with her father, perhaps from Chicago. Her dad may have been a bookkeeper, and they are both listed at 232 Kearney in 1863. Captain Averell was a steamship operator, going from Front Street Wharf up to Sacramento, daily, until 1854 when he became the proprietor of Quincy market on the corner of Kearny and Pacific, at 232 Kearney. Sarah Haskell and Captain Anson Averell were married on November 9 (my birthday!!) 1860 and would go on to have 10 children between 1861 and 1881.
Real estate listings in the San Francisco Call show that a Louis Hilmer sold Anson Averell the lot where our office is, for $20,000 in 1866. Water tap records for the Spring Valley Water Company show that Sarah B Averill (note: her name is spelled different in many documents) had the buildings tapped in 1870. They weren’t ever listed as living here, but as others were, they were probably landlords.
Anson Averell seemed to end up being a real estate broker, and a painting of the Averell’s house in Petaluma is apparently in the Smithsonian, donated by one of his daughters (this is where things get creepy, right? His immediate descendants could be reading this blog. I have some very weird hesitations about my hobby sometimes). Anyway, after Anson passed away in Petaluma in 1887, Sarah’s name started showing up in directories for 1637 Mission, until 1901 when she moved to Scott street. At times Anson, Albert, Walter and Herbert Averell lived with her. She had two daughters, who perhaps lived elsewhere but appeared in society pages (tea parties! Vacationing in Guerneville!).
Elizabeth N. Averell, the eldest daughter, married lawyer Frederick Harper in 1896, in an autumn wedding (the article notes that the church was filled with asters). Her younger sister Eleanor was the maid of honor. This younger Eleanor Averell, the youngest daughter of a pioneer San Franciscan, may have met a few dashing gentlemen at the wedding, like maybe a William Hutchinson who was the best man. At any rate, she eventually married James Sather Hutchinson.
James Sather Hutchinson was a dashing young man. He had graduated from Berkeley and then went to Harvard Law, he returned to his hometown of San Francisco and began practicing law, but his passion always remained in the Sierra mountains, where he backpacked and explored every year. In 1908, his professor James LeConte and another alpinist, he pioneered the route from Yosemite to King’s Canyon (about today’s John Muir Trail). At some point, his companions and explorers, including his pal John Muir, decided to form a club for people who want to enjoy and protect mountains and wilderness. A club for people in love with the Sierra mountains. And so James Sather Hutchinson became a charter member of the Sierra Club.
Eleanor Upton Averell who, at the turn of the century lived in or at least visited her elderly mother in a building that now houses Greenpeace, married a man who co-founded the Sierra Club. He later became a director and served as Vice President in 1958. If you are not familiar with the Sierra Club and/or Greenpeace, you may not grasp the significance beyond the fact that both groups are pretty granola. Some of the folks who made the first Greenpeace voyage – sailing to the middle of a nuclear test zone near the island of Amchitka on a small fishing boat – were Sierra Club members, though the Sierra Club declined to get involved or support the action. Greenpeace and the Sierra Club have worked closely together through the years, with lots of former staff overlap. And, of course, Greepeace and the Sierra Club both formed to preserve our environment and ensure that our earth is a sustainable, vibrant home for years to come.
There are a lot more stories inside and about that building. There is the undiscovered history of the building and all of the other inhabitants – all complicated, complex, unique people living their lives in their time – and of course there are the histories that don’t make it into the city directories and block lot maps and newspaper articles – especially those who fought the conquest quietly, or who were ruined by the rising inequality, sunk by the wreckless capitalism.
At Greenpeace today, in this very building, we are aware of all of the ways in which these histories and stories overlap, and as we seek solutions for urgent environmental crises, we try to remember whose land we are on, who has been fighting for justice for millenia, and whose stories become the default narrative. Our founding story of San Francisco is complicated, with both triumphs of human creativity but also the dark oppressive side of boom and bust economies. But amidst the empire, we can still find love stories. We can imagine Eleanor and James Sather Hutchinson nuzzling each other in the Sierras before returning to the wedge shaped triangle of Mission street to bring her mother some pomegranates and cassia berries and tea. What would they say if they could see the next 150 years? What would we say? And what will we say about our time here in San Francisco? Because it’s built on crab shells and shipwrecks, and you either sail out with the tide or get buried under the muck.