by Susan Saperstein
The block of Lombard between Hyde and Leavenworth Streets began as a straight, cobblestone street with a 27% grade. In the 1920s the people living on this street wanted cars, but the street was too steep for vehicles.
Carl Henry, insurance and drug business executive, is credited with initially proposing the idea of a curved street. Henry owned half of the lots on the 1000 block of Lombard and land all around the street. He created a lily pond and rose gardens, and had planned to give his land to the city as a park. However, when he died his widow sold the property to pay off debts.
Since the Lombard Street lots were inaccessible by autos, the property values were not as high as on neighboring streets. The landowners approached city engineer Clyde Healy, who came up with the street design.
A newspaper article published in the San Francisco Call, 6 December 1905, "New Street Transportation Ideas Are Suggested to City's Merchants" mentions another civil engineer hired by the he Merchants Association. This article indicates that in 1905 the Merchants Association hired a civil engineer named William Barclay Parsons to advise them how to improve San Francisco transportation. Parsons advocated the use of tunneling and terracing. The article includes sketches from his report showing how the terracing would look on California Street and on the slopes of Nob Hill. The California Street drawing is very similar to what was actually done on Lombard in 1922 and Vermont in 1928.
It seems likely that when Carl Henry proposed the idea of a curved street he may have been recalling Parsons' report, or possibly city engineer Clyde Healy found a copy of the plan for terracing.
When the two-way, brick paved street was constructed in 1922, the curved switchbacks were installed and the grade was reduced to 16%. This one block of the street consists of eight turns and approximately 250 steps on each side. The agreement was that the city would pay for the street, and the residents would pay for the steps and maintain the plantings. When the work was completed, people could drive up and down, and the property values rose.
From the beginning, the neighbors bickered about the plantings, and many would not pay for maintenance. One resident on the block, Peter Bercut, businessman and Commissioner for Parks and Recreation, would trim his neighbors’ shrubbery, which his wife said really annoyed them. Then early one morning before dawn, Bercut hired a bulldozer to mow down all the plants and started planting flowers. Peter Bercut was also an avid horseman. The Bercut Equitation Field in Golden Gate Park was named for him in 1949.
Bercut’s plantings did not hold back the erosion until, after a trip to his native France, he had the idea to plant hydrangeas. The brilliantly-colored block became known by people living in the neighborhood, but was not a tourist destination until, in the late 1950s, a photograph showing the hydrangeas in bloom was published, and in 1961 was printed on a postcard. Soon thousands of tourists were driving down the street.
The street was made one-way in 1939. In its high season, summer weekends, as many as 350 cars per hour drive down the street. Some tourists even ask to use residents’ bathrooms. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors has been presented with petitions to close the street to all except residents in 1970, 1977, and 1987. Each time the Board has decided there is no cause for the closure, despite Dianne Feinstein taking up the cause for residents when she was a supervisor. Tour buses were banned in 1980.
If you compare today’s crooked street with photos from the past, you see that many older single family homes have been demolished to be replaced by more lucrative multi-unit buildings. One house, torn down in the 1970s for a planned 28-story apartment building, was purported to be designed by Bernard Maybeck, although this was disputed by its owner, Louis Petri (a winemaker who owned Italian Swiss Colony). Because of court actions by the residents, this development was never built. That house had once been owned by Elizabeth Huntington Metcalf, daughter of Southern Pacific Railway founder Collis P. Huntington’s nephew and heir, Henry Huntington, whose collections became the Huntington Library and Botanical Gardens in Southern California. She had purchased several of Carl Henry’s lots, including his rose gardens. The land was sold to Petri after her death in 1967.
Other notable residents were newspaper reporters Winifred Bofils and Arthur Caylor. Bofils was a reporter for William Randolph Hearst and used the pen name Annie Laurie. It was Caylor who had his newspaper publish the photo of the hydrangeas that would later bring the onrush of tourists.
- Subject files in the San Francisco Public Library History Center
- Russian Hill Neighbors, http://www.rhn.org/historynorthslopeII.html
- California Digital Newspaper Collection website: cdnc:ucr.edu/cdnc
- Photos courtesy of SF History Center, San Francisco Public Library.
Thanks to Marlea Graham, Editrix emerita
California Garden & Landscape History Society, cglhs.org, for pointing us to the San Francisco Call article from 1905.
Lombard Street in 1933, before the hydrangeas were planted.
The houses on the south side of the block were destroyed to create a fire break during the 1906 Earthquake and Fire. In this photo taken during street construction, the south side is still not built up.
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