Excelsior Endangered

March 30th, 2020 No Comments »

by Woody LaBounty

This month we’ve focused on many significant businesses and buildings that make the Excelsior District special. Our primary goal has been to raise awareness of the historic fabric of the neighborhood and build appreciation for what’s special and worthy of preservation. But for each successful reuse of a commercial building, each place of worship revitalized by a new population, and each cottage occupied by a resident who appreciates its character, there is a business closure, an unsympathetic remodel, and a demolition. There are currently three worthy Excelsior buildings under threat on Mission Street.

Valente, Marini, Peralta & Co. Building
Valente, Marini, Peralta Funeral Home building at 4840 Mission Street, December 2019.

The Valente, Marini, Peralta & Co. Funeral Home at 4840 Mission Street was a significant landmark to the Italian-American community in the southern half of the city for ninety years before it closed in July 2017. Virgil Valente, Frank Marini, and John B. Perata operated the business which traced its roots in North Beach back to 1889. The 1906 earthquake and fire pushed them to temporarily relocate at 3448 Mission Street, which afterwards became a branch of the business. In 1926, the company followed its clientele to the Excelsior, closing the 3448 Mission location for their new building at 4840 Mission Street near France Avenue. You can read some memories of the business by Frank Dunnigan at OutsideLands.org.

Designed by Italian-American architect John A. Porporato, the building matched in style many of the new homes constructed around the area: Spanish-Colonial Revival with a stucco exterior and a red tile roof. Pairs of arched windows elegantly lined the façade.

Valente, Marini, Peralta Funeral Home at 4840 Mission Street, 1930s. (Valente, Marini, Peralta & Co.)

In 1959, the funeral home was expanded and remodeled with a very contemporary Midcentury Modern look. The façade featured a brick base and porcelain enamel panels. The color scheme ran from peach to salmon to crimson. The impressively-wordy neon sign directing mourners into the large parking lot dates back to 1937.

Neon parking lot sign for Valente, Marini, Peralta Funeral Home at 4840 Mission Street, 2010.

The Valente building’s Midcentury Modern design retains what planners and architectural historians term a high degree of integrity. It looks today much as it did in 1959, an intact artifact of the Excelsior when the neighborhood, city, and world were far different places. A historic resource evaluation determined the building was individually eligible for the California Register of Historical Resources.

The large parcel of the funeral home and its parking lot is an attractive development site. Bridge Housing Corporation and the Emerald Fund development company proposed 175 units of affordable housing on the Valente property and an additional 253 market-rate units on the neighboring Safeway grocery store property. The proposal fell apart in 2018 when Safeway pulled out of negotiations. Bridge Housing in February of this year came back with a proposal for 137 affordable units on the site including a new home for the community-based Mission Neighborhood Health Center.

Aerial rendering of 4840 Mission Street development proposal. (Bridge Housing; Van Meter, Williams, Pollack, LLP)

Although alternative plans have been put forward to incorporate the historic building as part of the new development, the current proposal still includes the demolition of the Valente, Marini, Peralta & Co. building.

4716 and 4722 Mission Street
4716 and 4722 Mission Street, December 2019.

While less glamorous than the colorful Valente, Marini, Peralta & Co. building, two commercial structures a block north on Mission Street between Leo and Ruth Streets are targeted for a similar fate. Locals on their way to neighboring Cumaica Coffee in the last decade would not be impressed walking by the closed-up 4716 Mission Street with its barred entry and papered-over windows. The taller 4722 Mission, home to Wellington Home Inspection and A. M. Rocca General Contractor, wasn’t much tidier with mangled venetian blinds hanging askew and a very rusty security gate.

But viewed from across the street, the historical significance of these two structures becomes more apparent. Each has nineteenth-century wood cornices with carved brackets and 4722 Mission features a line of arched second-story windows with bracketed hoods.

This pair represents the Excelsior’s earliest commercial era. Both were constructed around the turn of the twentieth century, and are seen in photographs from the 1910s:

View south on Mission Street from Persia Avenue, May 10, 1915. 4716 and 4722 Mission stand at right. (SFMTA Photography Department and Archive).

Detail of image above, showing 4716 and 4722 Mission Street. (SFMTA Photography Department and Archive).

Mission Street near Russia Avenue, August 18, 1919. 4716 and 4722 Mission Street are to the right of the Bell Theatre. (John Henry Mentz photograph, United Railroads image U06644. Jack Tillmany Collection courtesy of OpenSFHistory/Western Neighborhood Project wnp67.0023).

Like most commercial buildings that survive longer than a couple of decades, their ground floors have been modified and remodeled to serve the changing business uses and signage styles over the last 120 years. The hooded-window treatment of 4722 Mission was once present on its ground floor, and 4716 Mission formerly had very tall flanking windows reaching into the transom.

These survivors will be lost soon if a current project proposal comes to fruition. The site would be filled by a 65-foot-tall (six stories) building with 24 residential units, three-quarters of which will be small Accessory Dwelling Units. The rendering by Stanton Architecture doesn’t try to make the proposed new structure pretty. It’s almost completely feature-less and its neighboring buildings illustrated as nothing more than gray forms, as if the site was a blank slate with no history or character to be considered. There is the existing palm tree and some bikes parked out front at least.

Rendering of proposed 4716-4722 Mission Street by Stanton Architecture. (via SocketSite).

Neither of these projects is approved yet. There are still some hurdles and authorizations needed. Neighbors can still speak out, and perhaps there can be compromises that bring more density to the Excelsior (especially on the Valente, Marini, Peralta & Co. site) without eliminating some of the district’s distinctive architecture. Heritage’s goal is to form a community group that will in part help address issues like these, so keep an eye out for more news from us soon.

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