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Excelsior Heritage Night – Register Now!

Jan24th

The Art Deco facade of the Italian American Social Club at 25 Russia Avenue in the Excelsior.

The Heritage in the Neighborhoods program will kick off in the Excelsior District with a free and open public gathering on March 25, 2020, 6:30 PM at the Italian American Social Club of San Francisco (25 Russia Avenue). Register Now!

The downstairs bar at the Italian American Social Club, courtesy of the Club’s website.

Come learn about the Excelsior’s architectural and cultural history, and progress on creating the district’s first City Landmark. Add your vote for the Excelsior’s most important buildings, and find out how you can help celebrate and defend this neighborhood’s unique heritage.

Presented in partnership with the Victorian Alliance of San Francisco, Excelsior Action Group, and the Western Neighborhoods Project/OpenSFHistory.org, with participation from the San Francisco Planning Department.

Light refreshments will be served, and we encourage you to stay on for a classic Italian meal at the IASCSF’s restaurant, a neighborhood gathering place for over 80 years.

*This event is free, but please register so we can keep track of our room capacity.

Register button

If you have any thoughts, ideas, and questions as we plan this program, please reach out to Kerri Young at kyoung@sfheritage.org or call 415-441-3000 x22. We welcome interest and participation from anyone and everyone for this exciting program!

A New City Landmark Rises in the Excelsior

Feb3rd

Photo by David Bricker, Heritage Archives | Royal Baking Co. building at 4769-4773 Mission Street, taken November 1990.

A version of this story appears in the January-March 2020 issue of Heritage News.

A New City Landmark Rises in the Excelsior
By Woody LaBounty

For 84 years, the Royal Baking Company building’s distinctive three-pointed parapet has ruled Mission Street as an abstract sunburst, a figurative mountain range, or, perhaps most appropriately, a metaphorical crown. Now the Excelsior District’s neighborhood icon, built in 1935, is on track for designation as a San Francisco City Landmark.

The Royal Baking Company property at 4769-4773 Mission Street between Russia and Persia Avenues appears from the front to be two separate structures, but is actually an unusual mix of commercial façade styles sharing a single building. Metapan Pupuseria, a Salvadoran restaurant occupying 4769 Mission Street, has a Storybook-style façade resembling a gabled country cottage with false chimneys, a shallow tiled-roof parapet, small-scale non-operable windows, and a rustic stone bulkhead. Next door, the New Royal Bakery at 4773 Mission Street occupies one bay of a larger Art Deco façade with green-and-yellow polychromatic terra-cotta tile and an upper register of molded banding, fanned reliefs, curved recesses, and the three-pointed parapet. In addition to the two storefront businesses, a plumbing company currently rents space in the rear of the building, which occupies all of the 100-by-108.5-foot lot.

In late 2019, the property was put on the market for $1.6 million as part of a probate sale. District 11 Supervisor Ahsha Safaí, concerned for its future, directed the San Francisco Planning Department to initiate a landmark designation. San Francisco Heritage co-authored the nomination. The Royal Baking Company building is significant not just for its unusual and distinctive architectural design but also for its connection to the Italian-American community and the history of San Francisco’s important bread-baking and macaroni-manufacturing industries.

Top: The Royal Baking Company’s original Storybook-style façade at 4769 Mission St. on August 27, 1935 (Fang Family San Francisco Examiner Photograph Archive Negative Files, Banc Pic 2006.029:092906_03–Neg, Box 623, The Regents of the University of California, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley) Bottom: The façade in December 2019 (Heritage Photo).

While North Beach is the best-known center of Italian-American life in San Francisco, the Excelsior District in the Outer Mission has a relevant history almost as old. Truck farmers known as giardinieri (gardeners) from Liguria, Tuscany, and other parts of Italy leased land in the area as far back as the 1850s, growing lettuce, cabbage, and artichokes alongside hog farmers and dairy ranchers. The streets and European-capital street names of the Excelsior District were created as part of an 1869 homestead association, but true infrastructure, transportation, and building activity didn’t arrive until decades after the platting of the district map. Into the early twentieth century, a great deal of the Outer Mission and Excelsior remained agricultural fields with a few scattered home sites and Italian families of the thinly populated area had to travel hours to attend mass in North Beach. In 1898, an Italian National Church, Corpus Christi, was founded on the modern-day corner of Alemany Boulevard and Santa Rosa Avenue, and the first branch of the Bank of Italy was established on Mission Street a mile north of the Excelsior District in 1907.

The Excelsior grew in the aftermath of the 1906 Earthquake and Fire, as displaced San Franciscans from the city’s core moved into less-affected outlying areas. Real estate broker Ambrose B. Frank considered himself a pioneer and key figure in the neighborhood’s post-earthquake growth. He opened his real estate office at 4607 Mission Street in 1907, and by the 1930s he was “hailed by his neighbors as the mayor of the district,” according to the San Francisco Examiner. In 1935, Frank had the “new modern type” building at 4769-4773 Mission Street constructed without an identified architect, but with a long list of local contractors and suppliers. Italians and Italian-Americans remained the neighborhood’s dominant ethnic group, with many businesses on Mission Street and Geneva Avenue featuring signs in the window assuring customers they spoke Italian (Si Parla Italiano). When Ambrose Frank’s building was completed, two Italian-affiliated businesses moved in.

Making Macaroni

In 1935, Gaetano Ferrigno, Vice President, stockholder, and member of the Board of Directors of the Golden Grain Macaroni Company, decided he wanted out of the company.

Legally known as Gragnano Products, Golden Grain made macaroni, vermicelli, egg noodles, and semolina products at 966-970 Bryant Street and was the largest of some dozen macaroni manufacturers in San Francisco, most based near the Italian population of North Beach. Bread and bakery products, including the making of pasta, was the third-ranked industry in San Francisco by annual value in the early 1930s.

In an acrimonious split with his relatives, Ferrigno arranged to be bought out of Gragano Products to launch his own competitive business. He chose A. B. Frank’s new Mission Street building for the Sorrento Macaroni Company, leasing 5,000 square feet. It wouldn’t be the first macaroni factory in the area; the Green Valley Macaroni Factory had operated just across the street at 4736 Mission Street from about 1914 to 1923. (Green Valley was a promoted alternative name for the Excelsior in the 1910s.)

The Storybook-style storefront at 4769 Mission Street served as Sorrento’s sales space while an alleyway behind the rustic garage doors accessed the macaroni factory in the back of the full lot. Sorrento Macaroni, while never reaching the commercial success of the company Ferrigno left, stayed in business into the 1970s. Angelo Ferrigno, Gaetano’s son, later made the 4769 Mission Street storefront into the Sorrento Delicatessen.

Baking Bread

After securing the lease for the Sorrento Macaroni Company, Ambrose Frank advertised the remaining 4,500 square feet of the building as “splendid for Super Market, Department Store, Furniture, 5-10 & 15¢ Store, Music and Radio, Auto Sales Room, Cookies, Cracker and Food.” His last three suggestions proved the most accurate when he quickly came to terms with the Royal Baking Company, which leased the ell of the building not occupied by Sorrento Macaroni. Frank filed a permit application to install two large double-brick Dutch ovens in October 1935, and the Royal Baking Company applied for a sign permit the following month.

Royal Baking Company had been in business at 704 Filbert Street in North Beach before joining the Excelsior’s Italian-American community. While the owners, Pellegrino Matteucci, John Mazzini, Jack Cima, Mario Cafferata, and Rudolph Paladini, kept the Filbert Street location for a few years as a branch of their company, four of the five lived within half a mile of the new location and soon the entire business was run on Mission Street.

Heritage Photos | (Top) Interior of the New Royal Bakery at 4773 Mission St. during business hours; (bottom) a glimpse into the bakery floor. December, 2019.

Owners and partners over the years have included members of the Italian and Basque communities, with Royal Baking daily supplying bread to restaurants across San Francisco and Daly City and selling to local customers at the Mission Street storefront. In the 1970s, as Latino and Filipino populations overtook the Italian community as dominant ethnic groups of the Excelsior, the Royal Baking Company continued as an island of Italian culture, offering grissini, panettone, buccellato, focaccia, and “special Italian cookies” while being recognized as one of the city’s foremost purveyors of French and Italian breads.

A New Landmark

In recent years both Heritage and the San Francisco Planning Department’s preservation staff have made a concerted effort to bring the protections and recognition of City Landmark status to traditionally overlooked neighborhoods, and identify important but under-represented cultural affiliations and building types. Despite these efforts, only seven of the 288 properties designated San Francisco City Landmarks are within a mile and a half of Persia Avenue and Mission Street, the heart of the Excelsior. Four of those seven have received designation just within the last four years. A similar circle around 16th and Mission Streets would capture a dozen landmarks, and in older parts of the city many more.

Heritage Photo | Exterior of the New Royal Bakery, featuring the original tile work.

Balboa High School (#205) and the Alemany Emergency Hospital (#227) are the only two landmarks that could be considered within the broader Excelsior neighborhood, although each technically lies within the boundaries of Geneva Terraces. The Royal Baking Company building has the potential to be the first designated City Landmark of the Excelsior District proper.

Introduction of the nomination is scheduled will go before the Historic Preservation Commission on February 3, 2020, and landmark status could be conferred by the Board of Supervisors as soon as summer 2020. Outside of a few modifications, including the replacement of the alley doors, the integrity of 4769-4773 Mission Street façade is high.

With its distinctive architectural design, its connection with San Francisco’s baking and macaroni industries, and its significant association to the city’s Italian-American community, the Royal Baking Company building is a deserving addition to the city’s registry of significant historic resources.

Preservation Win for Potrero Power Station Development Project

Jan31st

Inside the Station A Turbine Hall, built in 1901.

The transformation of one of the city’s once-mighty industrial sites into a mixed-use development with 2,600 homes won unanimous approval Thursday from the San Francisco Planning Commission. As reported by the San Francisco Chronicle today, “The power plant project, being developed by Associate Capital, is set to be built in six phases over 16 years (note that this story may be behind a paywall for non-subscribers).” In addition to providing much-needed affordable housing and open space, the project includes a big win for historic preservation. Heritage is especially pleased that the iconic Boiler Stack and massive Station A Turbine Hall will be re-imagined as major focal points of the new development. The final plan also includes incentives to encourage reuse and interpretation of other historic structures.

Exterior of the Station A Turbine Hall

Over the past three years, Heritage has been engaged in a regular and productive dialogue with Associate Capitol, the community, and the city on how to address complex preservation issues at the Power Station site, and we deeply appreciate the project sponsor’s creativity and collaboration in addressing many of our priority concerns.

Dating to the turn of the century, Station A best represents the evolving history of Potrero Point, being one of the last remnants of the site’s crucial early period of industrial growth (1870-1920) which included power, gunpowder, barrel-making, yeast, and the sugar industries. As a partial ruin, it is also a uniquely challenging and inspiring candidate for creative reuse. Given the extraordinary vulnerability and significance of Station A, Heritage supports extraordinary regulatory and financial incentives (including Mills Act property tax relief) to spur permanent construction and seismic strengthening at the earliest opportunity.

We are committed to continuing to work with Associate Capitol and the city to ensure that permanent stabilization and construction at Station A—and other historic resources at the Power Station—will proceed as soon as possible.

The open-air Unit 3 Block and adjacent Boiler Stack, built in 1965, contribute to the significance of the Third Street Industrial District 

Legacy Business Spotlight: Dianda’s, Grubstake, Thanh Long

Jan31st

This month we will start to highlight San Francisco Businesses that were part of Heritage’s original 100 Legacy Bars and Restaurants initiative back in 2013. This initiative was the first step in documenting the city’s vast commercial heritage and promoting businesses that did not necessarily qualify for formal historic designation. Legacy Bars and Restaurants directly inspired the creation of the city’s now existing Legacy Business Registry program, which now includes over 270 San Francisco businesses.

Dianda’s Italian American Pastry

Photo courtesy of Dianda’s Bakery

2883 Mission Street
Year established: 1962

Since its inclusion on our Legacy Bars and Restaurants list, Dianda’s Italian American Pastry have now been approved by the Historic Preservation Commission and Office of Small Business to join the Legacy Business Registry! Dianda’s was opened in 1962 by Enrichetta and Elio Dianda, natives of Lucca, Tuscany who left Italy for San Francisco following WWII. The Diandas purchased a bakery at 2883 Mission Street, which had been in operation since 1906, and gave it their family’s surname. It has since become a San Francisco tradition, popular for wedding and birthday cakes, as well as Italian cookies, pastries, candies, and panettone. Hanging from the bakery’s walls are black-and-white photos of Enrichetta and Elio Dianda; near the entrance is an inscription that reads, “Elio Dianda & Sons.” With strong feelings about worker’s rights, Dianda’s offers their employees two unions – one for the bakers and another for the clerks. Enrichetta and Elio Dianda handed down the business to their sons, Armando, Floreano, and Pascuale, who managed the bakery until 2004 when principal owner, Pascuale Dianda sold it to fellow-bakers and long-time employees Floyd Goldberg, Sergio Flores, and Luis Pena. The new owners remain committed to Dianda’s tradition of offering fresh, traditional, Italian pastries on a daily basis while also offering some of their own baking traditions, including Tres Leches cake and New York Brownie with walnuts.

A selection of Dianda’s cookies at SF Heritage’s Holiday Open House in 2019.

Photo by Pengrin/Flickr.

 

Grubstake

Photo courtesy of Grubstake.

Situated between Polk and Van Ness, Grubstake is a unique eatery that boasts of being the only restaurant in San Francisco that is operated out of a railway car. The car originally operated on the Berkeley-Oakland-San Francisco key rail line. In 1927, it was brought to rest in San Francisco after being sold at auction. The Orient Express, a traditional diner, made its home in the red and white car for several decades. In 1967, the owners of Grubstake restaurant, originally located at 142 Mason Street, moved into the charming railcar, which was later repainted. In 1995, it became the only restaurant in San Francisco to serve continental Portuguese food, adding a twist to the diner fare on the menu.

In 2019, plans were announced to demolish Grubstake and then rebuild it. From Eater SF:

The Grubstake, a diner located at 1525 Pine Street, has been serving late-night patrons since the late 1960s, but its roots in the city go back about a hundred years. Its fate was thrown into question in 2015, when former Mayes Oyster House owner Nick Pigott bought the spot (via a company called “1525 Pine Street Dev. LLC”), promised that “nobody is going to notice a difference,” then commissioned plans to raze the diner and build a condo development in its place. Those designs failed to pan out, but new plans reported on by the SF Business Times would see an eight-story, 21-unit residential development in the space. As part of the new plan, Socketsite reports, the Grubstake’s facade would remain, and the restaurant is expected to return after construction is completed.”

Do you think these plans will retain the integrity of Grubstake?


Photo courtesy of Grubstake.

Photo by Leo Reynolds/Flickr.

Rendering of the proposed mixed-use project at 1525 Pine St., the longtime home of Grubstake. KERMAN MORRIS ARCHITECTS

Thanh Long

Photo by Yuichi.Sakuraba/Flickr

Matriarch Diana An first opened Thanh Long in 1971 as a 20-seat diner. When her entire family arrived after fleeing the Communist take-over of South Vietnam, the restaurant expanded and now is hailed as San Francisco’s first Vietnamese restaurant. The name of the restaurant was originally supposed to be “Thang Long” or “ascending dragon” in Vietnamese, but a printer’s error caused to name to appear as “Thanh Long,” or “Green Dragon.” Since the color green has traditionally brought prosperity and luck to the Vietnamese culture, the misspelled name has remained to this day.

The namesake dragon. Photo courtesy of Thanh Long Restaurant.

Diana’s daughter-in-law, Helene, came from a prominent family in Saigon, as her father and grandfather both held the royal title of Vice Consul to the Vietnamese Emperor. When Helene, her husband Danny, and their three young daughters landed in San Francisco, they brought with them dozens of family recipes that would later be the hallmark of the establishment, including the now-popular Roasted Garlic Crab. Having been raised in a family of diplomats, Helene attended many formal dinners as a child, with menus prepared by Vietnamese, Chinese, and French chefs. The unique blend of the foods to which she was accustomed informed the menu at Thanh Long, leading Michael Bauer, former longtime restaurant critic at the San Francisco Chronicle, to name Helene “the mother of Fusion cuisine in the U.S.”

Last week, Rachel Levin of the San Francisco Chronicle profiled Thanh Long in her column “The Usual,” an “irregular column about regulars and their restaurants.” It features stories from customers over the years, who reminisce about the crab, how prices have changed, and the role the restaurant has played in their lives. The actor and SF resident Danny Glover, a regular to Thanh Long since the 70’s, also gushes about their crab. Here’s to more memories in the Outer Sunset!

An family collage. Photo courtesy of Thanh Long Restaurant.

Original Member of “Legacy Bars and Restaurants,” Cafe Flore, has closed

Jan8th

Photo courtesy of Café Flore.

As reported by Hoodline, Castro’s 47-year old Cafe Flore is now closed. Cafe Flore was one of 100 establishments included in Heritage’s “Legacy Bars and Restaurants,” an initiative launched in 2013 that was the direct inspiration for the city’s now flourishing Legacy Business Registry. Read more about how Heritage and the city supports legacy businesses here. Below is our original entry for Cafe Flore as part of our Legacy Bars and Restaurant’s initiative:

Address: 2298 Market Street

Year Established: 1973

With its eclectic menu and abundance of comfortable outdoor seating, Café Flore has long been considered a culinary landmark in the Castro District. The building that Café Flore occupies dates back to the early 20th century when the Castro was then colloquially known as “Little Scandinavia” or “Fin Town” due to the large numbers of Nordic immigrants who called the district home. The plot of land that would eventually become Café Flore originally contained a Swedish bathhouse.

Café Flore, 1977. Photo by Mahmood Ghazi on Castro Biscuit.

Constructed in 1932, the bathhouse was owned and operated by the Finnila family. A pharmacy was also opened in the section of the building that faced the corner of Market and Noe Streets. The designer of the building, Alfred Finnila, later contributed to the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge, where he oversaw the iron and roadway installation. Finnila also built the famous Bridge Roundhouse restaurant.

In 1973, the pharmacy closed its doors, and Café Flore was established in the now vacant storefront. The Finnila family continued to run the bathhouse section of the building until 1986, when that section of the building was demolished. Café Flore has continued to thrive, serving countless locals and tourists each year. Given its proximity to the Castro, the establishment plays a prominent role in the local gay community. With its large glass windows facing Market Street, the business proudly declares its place as a well-known cruising and people-watching spot. In early 1990s, New Colonist stated that Cafe Flore “is a de facto nexus of gay life in this town.”

Café Flore, 1985. Max Kirkeberg Collection, San Francisco State University.

Café Flore, 1985. Max Kirkeberg Collection, San Francisco State University.