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San Franciscos St. Francis Wood

by Richard Brandi

In my current work, San Francisco's St. Francis Wood, the history is told of one of the country's most successful examples of a City Beautiful "garden suburb" through historical images and photographs. Known for 100 years as one of San Francisco's finest residential neighborhoods, early visitors were impressed with the graceful streets, parks, and landscaping designed by the renowned Olmsted Brothers and the classically-inspired public monuments designed by the prominent architect John Galen Howard of the University of California. The houses reflect many period revival styles and the talents of dozens of architects, yet the effect is homogeneity of scale, color, and style.

This achievement is all the more impressive in light of the challenges facing the Mason-McDuffie Company during the early years. A delay in building the Twin Peaks tunnel and the economic turmoil created by World War I and the economic depression that followed brought sales to a standstill for nearly a decade. Originally, the company offered only improved lots subject to architectural restrictions to ensure quality. Faced with market and economic difficulties, McDuffie refused to cut corners.

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St. Francis Wood upper fountain.

He continued to offer spacious lots but expanded his services during the war to include home financing, design, and construction services. He also built a series of demonstration homes priced for a range of incomes. McDuffie strove to maintain his vision of a garden neighborhood and the result was surprisingly successful.

The diverse styles of the 1920s and 1930s work together harmoniously because they reflect the classical principles. Architects used the latest construction methods and materials of their time but they also used natural materials coupled with high standards of detailing and craftsmanship. Homeowners take pride in their homes and their neighborhood. Many homes have stayed in the same family for generations. Architectural review by the St. Francis Homes Association ensures quality. The association also helps create a sense of community. As a self-governing neighborhood, the residents participate in the decisions affecting them. But it is the graceful streets, parks, and landscaping that give St. Francis Wood a sense of place.

City Guide Richard Brandi is an architectural historian and the author of San Francisco's West Portal Neighborhoods. He serves on the board of the Western Neighborhoods Project.

San Francisco's St. Francis Wood, is available at the Western Neighborhoods Project site at, William Stout Books, BookShop West Portal.

St. Francis Wood upper fountain, courtesy of Richard Brandi.
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