Western Addition Cottage Endangered

January 14th, 2022 No Comments »

2083 Ellis Street, constructed circa 1889, is targeted to be demolished for an 11-unit, 66-foot high building.

by Woody LaBounty

In June 2021, Zac Maddry, architect for Nopa Heights Builders, LLC, filed a preliminary project assessment application (PPAA) with the San Francisco Planning Department for Block 1126, Lot 022 in the Western Addition, addressed as 2083 Ellis Street. The man behind Nopa Heights Builders, John Stricklin, has since started reaching out to neighbors about his plans.

The proposal is to construct an 11-unit building (nine two-bedroom and two three-bedroom) on the 25 x 137.50-foot lot, getting additional units through the State Density Bonus Program by designating two as reserved for Low Income residents, defined as 80% of Area Median Income (AMI). An individual making up to $74,600 a year is 80% AMI in San Francisco as of 2021. More housing, two units “affordable” doesn’t sound bad except, in exchange, a remarkably intact residence dating back to the 1880s would be demolished.

Rendering with overlay of proposed structure to replace 2083 Ellis Street.

The structure now at 2083 Ellis Street was constructed about 1889 and until the mid-1890s was addressed as 2027 Ellis Street. Despite being the home of blue-collar workers, it was created in the elegant Italianate style popular in San Francisco at the time. The façade somehow escaped mid-twentieth century modernizing trends of aluminum siding, “Perma-Stone,” and slathered-on stucco. The decorative brackets, cornice moldings, bay window, and entryway hood are all intact. The windows are still wood. A course of original brick foundation is visible at its base. The house wasn’t raised for a garage space like its neighbor at 2089 Ellis. There is no looming back addition or expansion like the work underway on the Victorian cottage across the street at 2010 Ellis Street. “Integrity” is one of the criteria used in evaluating historic structures. It’s possible that no residential building in the city could score higher in integrity than 2083 Ellis Street.

Unlike its neighbor to the west, 2083 Ellis Street never had a garage added and almost all original facade details are still in place and in apparent excellent shape.

So does this building count as a “historic resource,” worthy of preservation? San Francisco Heritage believes it does. The owners have engaged land use attorneys, Reuben, Junius & Rose, who will certainly argue that it does not. The Planning Department currently lists such determination as “unknown.”

Despite decades of preservation field work, graduate programs, textbooks, consultant studies, white papers, municipal ordinances, and case law, what makes any individual house historic—worthy of preservation, worthy of protection—is still frequently a case-by-case debate, especially in a city where land values are insanely high.

2083 Ellis Street almost certainly wasn’t designed by a well-known or master architect. Italianate cottages were the tract homes of San Francisco in the 1880s. Hundreds of them were built just in the Western Addition alone. Likely no important or significant person lived at 2083 Ellis Street. In scanning San Francisco directories of residents in the 1890s, I found a bookkeeper, a salesman, a streetcar conductor, and a stone grinder. The last probably worked on grave monuments for Calvary Cemetery, which at the time was just a block up the hill to the west. (In 1893, there were “marble yards” on two corners of the Broderick and Ellis Street intersection.)

Detail from an 1893 Sanborn fire insurance map shows 2083 Ellis Street when it was addressed as 2027 (red box highlight added) and had marble yards and the Roman Catholic Calvary Cemetery (at top) as neighbors.

The homes of stone grinders and bookkeepers have historically been ignored in preservation work in favor of halls of power, civic temples, and moneyed estates. But the tides have slowly begun to turn in San Francisco to recognize sites associated with the diverse cultures and communities the city prides itself on. Some attention has also been given to the homes of the people who built this city and powered its industries. The Shipwright’s Cottage in India Basin is a rare example of a humble structure given any degree of protection. Usually, these emblematic working-class houses are razed after being deemed too common and ordinary, as one of my favorites was at 2478 Geary Boulevard in early 2021.

The flat-front Italianate cottage on right (2478 Geary) stood with its “sibling” as part of a nineteenth-century group at Geary and Lyon before being demolished early in 2021. No new construction has begun on the empty lot.

The preservation case for 2083 Ellis Street is that it is almost a perfect time capsule. It naturally needs attention and repair as a building over 130 years old (neighbors have told me it looks like the roof needs replacing), but it appears almost exactly as it did the day it was built. This is how it looked when the funeral for G. H. Porter’s beloved wife, Ella, was held inside in 1892. This is how it looked when mourners came to the same place for the funeral of Irish immigrant Michael McDonnell in 1909.

Simple in design and construction, with an elegant facade, 2083 Ellis Street appears remarkably intact and unaltered after 130 years of use.

2083 Ellis Street looked exactly the same when resident Bernice Bresette agreed to marry Elgin Brotherton in 1933. It looked the same when Mr. and Mrs. McCoun lived there and welcomed a son in 1940. It was the same when seven-year-old Anna Rasmussen lived there and became a paid artist ($2) by having her snowman and Christmas tree published in the San Francisco Examiner’s “Juniorama” section in 1956.

The house at 2083 Ellis Street, where clerks, masons, conductors, and laborers made their lives, is an almost perfectly intact example of the city’s nineteenth-century urban fabric. It is a rare survivor. It should not be demolished.

Alternative plans to add residential units to the deep lot without impacting the historic cottage can be developed. The cottage occupies less than a third of the parcel.

On December 17, 2021, San Francisco Heritage conveyed our opposition to the Planning Department and the owner. We continue to monitor and advocate on this issue and will provide updates.

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