1906 Earthquake Shacks: City Landmark #171

April 21st, 2020 No Comments »

by Woody LaBounty

1227 24th Avenue is City Landmark #171.

On Saturday, April 18, 2020, we marked the 114th anniversary of the great earthquake and fires that changed San Francisco forever. To me, the most significant part of the 1906 disaster began after the ashes cooled and the city faced its future. On 24th Avenue between Lincoln Way and Irving Street in the Sunset District, City Landmark #171 stands as testimony and in appreciation of a massive and innovative relief effort, one which housed tens of thousands of San Franciscans.

View south from Nob Hill at ruins after 1906 earthquake and fire (OpenSFHistory / wnp27.0645.jpg)

In the aftermath of the 1906 earthquake and fires, more than 200,000 San Franciscans were displaced from their damaged, crumbled, or completely incinerated homes. The first emergency shelters were made of repurposed rubble and lumber, rigged canvas tarps, and even bed sheets, before the United States Army distributed tents. Official relief camps were soon established in the city’s parks and squares from the Marina to Potrero Hill, North Beach to the Richmond District.

View south from 18th Street, with Dolores Street at left. Refugees crowded in what is today Dolores Park, April 1906. (OpenSFHistory / wnp27.1729.jpg)

A “Relief Corporation” was quickly formed to receive aid and handle all aspects of the city’s recovery. The disposition of thousands living in close quarters with inadequate sanitation was a prime and immediate concern. Winter rains could turn the parkland camps into unsanitary swamps, and thousands of dispossessed workingmen of the city might leave town before rebuilding could start. In response, the Relief Corporation’s Department of Lands and Buildings devised a creative solution called the Cottage Plan.

The Department of Lands and Buildings contracted with companies employing union carpenters to build thousands of small houses in the parks in the fall and winter of 1906-1907, providing work for hundreds and improving shelter for the refugees. The cottages were set up in rows, constructed of redwood walls, fir floors, and cedar-shingled roofs and each painted a “park bench” green.

View northeast across earthquake cottage camp in today’s Dolores Park, with the original Mission High School in background, 1907. (OpenSFHistory / wnp14.0615.jpg)

The refugees were asked to rent the cottages—and could pay a small amount more for a pot-bellied stove—with the payment not only an incentive to find work and become self-sufficient, but to be counted toward the granting of the cottage when the camps closed. Refugees, most of whom did not own property or a house before the earthquake, could acquire a cheap lot—there were thousands of affordable ones in the western and southern sections of the city at the time—and move their cottages onto the land as starter homes.

Camps began closing in late 1907, and horse-driven wagons hauled wooden cottages around town for weeks, depositing them in empty lots, backyards, and in some cases small villages near and across the county line. The Relief Corporation did not want the cottages disposed of for speculative investments or rentals, but under pressure to close the camps and give the parks back to the city, many real estate agents and owners of large parcels were able to acquire scores of cottages for just such use.

View north on Mission Street between Kingston (then Lizzie) and Eugenia Street. Horse teams moving 1906 earthquake refugee shacks in late 1907. (Marilyn Blaisdell Collection, OpenSFHistory / wnp37.04335.jpg)

One was real estate broker Sol Getz, who specialized in selling lots in the sandy blocks of the mostly empty Sunset District. In 1908, he sold a number of properties with two or more refugee cottages cobbled together for larger living spaces, including 1227 24th Avenue, which has three earthquake relief cottages on the property—two joined in the front as part of one residence and a third situated in the rear of the backyard.

5,343 cottages were relocated out of the camps to make new homes; today, less than 50 are estimated to still stand across the city. Over the decades the humble structures that kept so many in the city became labeled as “shacks,” inferior housing types targeted for condemnation.

In the 1980s, “shack-tivist” Jane F. Cryan brought to light the importance of the earthquake cottages and their role in getting the city back on its feet. Cryan learned about earthquake cottages soon after renting 1227 24th Avenue in 1982. Soon she was researching, surveying, and fighting for their recognition and preservation. Energetic and charismatic, Cryan reclaimed “shack” as a term of endearment and helped the public connect with individual properties by giving them nicknames. Her home at 1227 24th Avenue was the “Little Red House” (although it has a different paint scheme now.)

1227 24th Avenue, with front yard flowers in bloom, in 2002.

The small houses were (and remain) continually threatened by demolition and proposed new construction projects. Cryan lost a few battles, including the loss of four cottages on 25th Avenue in the Richmond District, but she won some significant victories. Two earthquake cottages on the 500 block of 34th Avenue were preserved and moved to the Presidio by the U.S. Army. The “Goldie Shacks” are still there today under the stewardship of the National Park Service and Presidio Trust.

Cryan also successfully won her own residence City Landmark status, pushing the nomination to unanimous votes at each of the Landmark Preservation Advisory Board, Planning Commission, and Board of Supervisors in 1984.

Achieving landmark status was more than a ceremonial act. Cryan’s landlord was not supportive. His real estate broker said the owner wanted to have “the option to knock down the buildings.” A month after designation, the property was put on the market for $145,000.1

Perhaps landmark status somewhat depressed what the owner could have realized on a sale, but the cottage has more than held its value. Today, intact and cared for, 1227 24th Avenue is worth somewhere in the million-dollar range, and the landmark designation certainly saved one of the last tangible reminders of the most significant event in San Francisco’s history.

More information on earthquake cottages
The Outside Lands San Francisco podcast has podcast episodes on earthquake cottages, from 2013 and 2020.

Read Jane F. Cryan’s account of moving to 1227 24th Avenue and beginning her activism work at OutsideLands.org

See some of Bernal Heights’ earthquake cottages on FoundSF.org

Western Neighborhoods Project has a list of confirmed and suspected earthquake cottages still standing.


Notes:

1. Gerald Adams, “Battle to save quake victims’ shacks,” San Francisco Examiner, February 24, 1984, pg. B5; Classified ad, San Francisco Examiner, August 18, 1984, pg. 33.

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