The contrast of death and survival, separated a few feet apart, still captivates 111 years later. One side of a steep Russian Hill street lies in ruins in the aftermath of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire. The other side, like the outlier in a Midwestern tornado, remains remarkably intact.
The destruction leaves an unobstructed view of the street that leaves it hard to recognize now without taking a closer look. Can you tell where this is? We’ll give you a minute.
It stumped us at first when we found the photo, courtesy of the California Historical Society, in the Chronicle archives. But this is the Vallejo Street Crest, with Broadway Street in the middle sloping down between Jones and Taylor. The buildings here contain a remarkable story of survival that saved some of the oldest pieces of San Francisco history. You can still visit these places today.
We dug into the Chronicle archives to compare and contrast vintage Russian Hill neighborhood photos with how they look now. But easily the most difficult shot to reproduce without sneaking onto a neighbor’s roof is this one, because so many structures have sprouted up in the decades since.
The best approximation we could find for where the photographer stood is at the top of Phoenix Terrace, a residential alley that bisects Pacific Street and slopes uphill. But now that view is almost totally obscured by a wall of residential buildings – like the rest of the city, Russian Hill has long since rebuilt from the quake. But you can still see the tops of two surviving buildings in the original photo. More on them further down.
It took quick action and guile to preserve the homes on Broadway and Vallejo as the Great Fire spread northward. Hilliam Bronson‘s 1959 book “The Earth Shook, the Sky Burned” said the homes’ owners eluded police and stayed behind to fight off the flames. Their work paid off: “Partly through circumstances, partly by hard work and luck, these few homes were the only frame structures spared within the 490-block area,” Bronson wrote.
The residents used some creative methods during their frantic defense, according to Bronson: “Using water from cisterns that dated back to a day when the City’s system didn’t reach that far, the stubborn band fought for hours until dusk Friday. Buckets and brooms and wet towels were their tools. The men nailed wooden cleats to their roofs, to make it easier to reach trouble spots.”
Look toward the center left in the 1906 photo and you’ll see the jewel of the saved homes: the Atkinson-Escher house on 1032 Broadway Street. One of the San Francisco’s oldest remaining houses, the Italianate villa was built in 1853 and was remodeled by Willis Polk in 1893.
The four-bedroom mansion has been exquisitely maintained ever since. It was put up for sale for $12 million in February 2015, and it’s still availableto any lucky Powerball winners.
In the upper left of the photo you’ll see two surviving homes that are famous for being far less chic. They’re the Marshall Houses on Vallejo Street, and as the oldest remaining shingle-style homes in the Bay Area, they were designed by an amateur architect, Rev. Joseph Worcester, to be the anti-Victorians when they were completed in 1888.
As for those two buildings in the original photo that you can still sort of make out in our “after” shot? They’re two vital pieces of San Francisco architectural history.
The dark shingled home that stands to the right of the Marshall Houses in the 1906 photo and the top middle of the 2017 version is the Livermore House on 40 Florence Street, between Vallejo and Broadway. It’s the oldest house standing in Russian Hill and was built between 1854-1856, with many add-ons and remodels by Polk in subsequent years.
To the right of the Livermore House in both photos with the white-painted casement windows is another dark, shingled gem: the Williams-Polk house on 1013-17 and 1019 Vallejo. Built in 1892, it was designed by Polk for artist Dora Williams, and it’s a cant-miss part of any Russian Hill urban hike.
One earthquake survivor in the photo that shouldn’t go forgotten: The retaining walls that go down Broadway, including the front of the Atkinson-Escher house, and Taylor to the right. They too survived the fire while serving as a defense against it.
How does the the rest of Russian Hill compare and contrast over the years? Look through our gallery above to find out.