Micro-units and tiny homes have trendiness on their side, but living small is nothing new in San Francisco. In fact, more than 100 years ago, a huge proportion of San Franciscans were living in houses under 200 square feet. After the 1906 earthquake and fire (111 years ago today) ravaged the city and left thousands homeless, a unique and beloved housing type was born—the earthquake shack.
The 1906 earthquake and fire was a beastly disaster. It destroyed 500 city blocks and left 250,000 citizens (over half the city’s population) homeless. Refugees migrated west to the underpopulated parts of the city and settled in areas like Golden Gate Park and the Presidio. The U.S. Army ran 21 refugee camps, housing 20,000 people in tents.
There were camps located in Dolores Park, Precita Park, and even Camp Richmond (known now as the road and green strip of Park Presidio Boulevard). As the city tried to recover from the disaster, residents needed shelter.
The tent camps worked pretty well as a temporary measure—they were well organized and formed social structures like any other neighborhood—but once winter came along, a more substantial solution was in order.
In a joint effort between the San Francisco Relief Corporation, the San Francisco Parks Commission, and the Army, union carpenters built more than 5,000 small wooden cottages.
The design is said to be courtesy of Army General Greely, who had previously built shelters in the Arctic, though parks superintendent John McLaren played a big role too.
The cottages came to house more than 16,000 people. They were teeny tiny by today’s standards, ranging from 10 by 14 feet to 14 by 18 feet. Walls were made of California redwood, the flooring was fir, and the roofs were shingled in cedar.
They were even painted green to blend into the parks better.
As a way to help the rebuild of San Francisco’s housing stock, the earthquake shacks were essentially rent to own. Tenants paid $2/month (take a minute to pick your jaw up off the floor) toward the total cost of $50. Once the cottage was all paid off, the owner had the responsibility to move it from the camp to a permanent location.
In a happy twist of fate, the program enabled lower-income residents to become homeowners for the first time.
Once the cottages were moved to their new homes, the owners would build extensions onto them or even hodge-podge a few together to make a bigger house. That’s why many of the remaining shacks are borderline unidentifiable today from behind their larger facades.
Back in the 1980s, Jane Cryan, a Sunset resident and owner of a former earthquake shack, lobbied the city to preserve some of the remainders. She also had her own house of three Frankenshacks landmarked.
The last refugee camp closed in June 1908, just over two years after the disaster. Two shacks have been restored and are in the Presidio, tucked behind the Old Post Hospital near the corner of Lincoln and Mesa.
The Western Neighborhoods Project also restored four shacks (taken from two larger houses on Kirkham Street in the Outer Sunset). One is now part of the conservation center at the SF Zoo, while the other three are part of the Fifth Avenue Institute in Oakland, which aims to turn them into artist studios and a community space.