by Woody LaBounty
The mixed-use building on the corner of Mission and Harrington Streets currently houses an auto parts store on the ground floor with two stories of apartments above it. The building shares the characteristics of many San Francisco buildings put up on commercial corridors in the 1920s: a series of bay windows, a blond-brick façade with a pressed metal cornice, and a formal entrance tucked off to the side. We tend not to notice that many of these nondescript-appearing buildings have names. In the glass above the entry of 4534 Mission Street, gold-stenciled words read “Ferrera Bldg.” Under the gold leaf of those letters some neighborhood history gold can be found.
The Ferrera Building at 4534-4540 Mission Street on the corner of Harrington Street in 2019.
Alfonso Ferrera landed in San Francisco “a poor Italian boy” in 1909, unable to speak English. He worked for seven years in a restaurant before deciding to strike out with his own business in the Excelsior District, where many Italian families were settling. His grandfather in Italy had been a hardware merchant, and Ferrera started with a 5-10-15 cent store at 4655 Mission Street. In 1921, he took over the McCall hardware business on the corner of Mission and Harrington Streets. 1
The first Ferrera Hardware store on the corner of Mission and Harrington Streets, 1920. (Walter G. Jebe, San Francisco’s Excelsior District, (Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2004), 49).
The 1920s saw a construction boom across the city, including in the Excelsior District, and Ferrera Hardware thrived selling materials, paint, and goods for the hundreds of new neighbors. Just a few years after buying the business, Alfonso Ferrera thought bigger. He temporarily moved the hardware store down the block, where his wife Irene took direct charge, and began work on a “new, larger and more commodious establishment.”2
Illustration of the new Ferrera Building in 1928. (Excelsior News, Special Edition, August 20, 1928, 12)
Walter Jebe, a nephew of Ferrera, wrote in his book on Excelsior history that the hands-on Alfonso not only made sure the building had basement parking for its occupants, but also took a further step by digging a well for the building’s private water supply. “Until the city made him cap it, it was one of the last freshwater wells in San Francisco.”3
The new building was steel-framed and originally configured on the upper stories with eight offices “for professional men” and twelve two-to-four-room apartments “modern in every particular, containing steam heat, hardwood floors, frigidaires, luxurious and other conveniences, including elevator service.”4
A Woolworths store shared the retail frontage along Mission Street until the chain built its own larger building across Harrington Street in the 1950s, at which time Ferrera Hardware expanded to occupy the full ground floor. Alfonso died in 1972, and his sons took over the business. The store stayed open for the next twenty years, but, after serving the Excelsior for seven decades, finally closed in 1992. The space has been occupied by different auto parts stores ever since.
The Ferrera Building is a common, if attractive, type of structure in San Francisco. But ordinary-appearing buildings can still be imbued with significance, as 4534-4540 Mission Street shows by embodying one of America’s hallowed immigrant success stories, exemplifying the Excelsior District’s origins as an Italian colony of San Francisco, and recognizing the influence individuals and families had in creating the city’s characteristic neighborhoods.