Little Hollywood in Visitacion Valley

October 19th, 2021 No Comments »

294 Tocoloma Avenue, Little Hollywood’s “Mae West House.” (Heritage photo)

by Woody LaBounty

Little Hollywood has long been a secret enclave. Many long-time city residents would more likely assume that Wheeler, Lathrop, Nueva, and Tocoloma are Nevada ghost towns rather than San Francisco street names. Like the best secrets, this Visitacion Valley sub-neighborhood gives the discoverer a sense of surprise, delight, and the hint of further mysteries to unravel.

Part of the neighborhood’s anonymity stems from its location. Tucked between the Highway 101 Bayshore freeway, Bayshore Boulevard, and a small hill backing the city’s dump (excuse me, “transfer station and hazardous waste facility”), this bottle-shaped plat of single-family houses is an island set apart, difficult to access. Even if you get there, getting out becomes a puzzle. Every street on the north, south, and east seems to dead-end. The only escape is the Blanken Avenue tunnel, almost hidden on a curve, offering no hint of where it will deliver you.

Crocker Estate Company’s “Bay Shore Tract” houses on the 200 block of Peninsula Avenue, 1925. (OpenSFHistory/wnp27.4597)

Little Hollywood started off with much more accurate if commonplace names. The Crocker Estate Company began developing its “Bay Shore Tract” in the 1920s. The first homes were fairly standard and like many constructed in the Sunset, Ingleside and Bay View Districts: one-story five- and six-room floor plans over garages, horizontal siding, strips of lawn in front.

This was before the creation of the Highway 101 freeway, when the bay was much nearer, Bayshore Boulevard was just a ridiculously wide country road, and the hill where Little Hollywood Park is now was methodically quarried down for fill to cover over the city trash dump.

View north on Bayshore Highway (now Boulevard) with Bayview Hill in background and houses on 100 block of Tunnel Avenue, October 15, 1929. (Department of Public Works photo, OpenSFHistory/wnp26.129)

Local builder William H. Grahn bought most of the tract from the Crocker Estate around 1929, and came up with the name “Bayside Hills” for the neighborhood. Grahn used architect Charles Strothoff to design at least some of the exquisitely rendered Spanish and Mediterranean bungalows along the 100 and 200 blocks of Tocoloma Avenue. Strothoff did similar work in Westwood Highlands, the Parkside, and other Bay Area neighborhoods. Indeed, mini haciendas, missions, medieval castles, and chalets were going up all over the state in the early 1930s.

Possibly the first use of “Little Hollywood.” House listing by Becher & Turner, March 14, 1943 (San Francisco Examiner)

In 1943, real estate agents Becher & Turner at 2200 Bayshore Boulevard used the term “Little Hollywood” in a listing to sell a Tocoloma Avenue house, no doubt seeing a resemblance in Strothoff’s row to fanciful Storybook houses of Southern California. The firm stuck with the name in future ads and another real estate agent, Walter Renner, took it on as well before the year ended. Soon the whole tract was known as Little Hollywood.

Most of the neighborhood’s later architecture doesn’t rise to Strothoff’s level of whimsy. Grahn soon went with cheaper designs on other streets, throwing up simple façades with some red clay tile trim and molded exterior staircase walls. His prices at least reflected the change. Houses on the 200 block of Nueva Avenue started as low as $4,375 for a five-bedroom house in 1936, which in 2021 dollars would be an absurd $82,500.

266 Tocoloma Avenue, likely designed by Charles Strothoff. (Heritage photo)

There’s another persistent origin story for the “Little Hollywood” name, eagerly repeated by the real estate agents of our time. The legendary actress Mae West is said to have some connection to the neighborhood, secretly owning a property or at least making use of one for private affairs and/or parties when she was in town for a movie shoot. (“Klondike Annie,” in which West played a character named “The Frisco Doll,” is often cited, although it’s unlikely any shooting actually took place in San Francisco.)

294 Tocoloma Avenue on the northwest corner of Blanken Avenue is usually fingered as “the Mae West house.” Grahn made it his model home for the block in 1933. Nicknamed “Casa Bahia Loma” (Bay Hill House), newspaper ads highlighted its cathedral window, beamed ceilings, painted door panels, built-in bookcases, and front-yard birdbath. Frederick H. Meyer may have been the architect rather than Strothoff.

Real estate section advertising 294 Tocoloma Avenue as the model home “Casa Bahia Loma” in 1933. (San Francisco Examiner, June 3, 1933.)

There’s no evidence Mae West was ever connected to the house. She lived at The Ravenswood apartment building in “Big” Hollywood from 1930—before 294 Tocoloma was built—to her death in 1980. Casa Bahia Loma was owned by a fairly well off individual named Margaret Kerber, whose husband was one of the founders of Lucky Lager Brewing Company.

But we all love a good story. Maybe Mae was lured up to the Kerbers for a party or two, enticed by the free-flowing Lucky Lager.

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