article picture

Craftsman Building on S. Van Ness Avenue

by Bathsheba Malsheen and Susan Saperstein

An unusual American example of Craftsman design principles applied to housing for the urban working class stands at South Van Ness Avenue and 26th Street. Built by the T.B. Potter Realty Company in 1905, it is a clinker brick and shingle building consisting of 16 attached cottages. Curiosity about this structure led Bathsehba Malsheen to delve into its history – and ultimately to gain San Francisco landmark status for the structure.

The units originally contained Craftsman detail such as coffered redwood ceilings and leaded glass cabinets. And each unit has a small private courtyard in the back. The mystery is why there is no other example of this style of building in San Franciscan American Craftsman building created for the working class. Was it created as a prototype for other developments? Or meant to be worker housing for a particular industry in the working class Mission? The style is unlike the other developments of Potter Realty. It is not found in pattern books of the time used by local real estate development companies. The architect is unknown.

In the earliest days of San Francisco, the Mission District was a separate suburban area with its own theaters, zoos, gardens, and race tracks. Public transportation opened the Mission, so as more people moved to the city, they spilled into the district. The San Jose-San Francisco railway opened a station at 25th and Valencia in 1863, and in the 1870s horse drawn carriages ran from downtown to 26th and Folsom. The sunny weather and easy transportation led wealthy families to build mansions on fashionable Howard Street (now renamed South Van Ness). From 1870 to 1900 the population of the Mission grew from 23,000 to 36,000. Developers began building flats for middle and working class people, and the Mission became a densely populated urban area. The San Francisco Bulletin reported in its Sunday Real Estate section (12/24/1905), "The Mission is the focal point of speculation in San Francisco .... given the contiguity of the factory district, it will become the center of a large and dense population, an ideal district for tenements and retail business .... the values are rising." The Howard Street Cottages stand in an area that was part of a large tract of land sold by Robert Dyston to George Treat in 1853. The tract included the Pioneer Race Course, the first race course in San Francisco, built in 1850. Several other people subsequently owned the lots, but nothing had been developed when, in June 1905, it was sold to the T.B. Potter Realty Company, which planned "to erect 16 dwellings" (San Francisco Chronicle, 7/8/1905). Unlike the English Arts and Crafts movement, which espoused a socialist, working-class philosophy, the American Craftsman movement idealized the middle class. According to David Gebhard in California Design 1910, "The cornerstone of the Craftsman movement was a strong belief in a universal middle class which would spread itself out horizontally on the landscape." As it was promoted in Stickley's Craftsman magazine, a Craftsman house was a single story, detached, middle-class house, preferably located in a suburban or rural setting. Few immigrant working class families could afford to live in the suburbs, far from the docks and factories where they made their living. This building is unusual for such a design in an urban American area.

The T.B. Potter Realty Company consisted of Thomas B. Potter and his brother-in-law George B. Campbell. The men met in Stockton in 1885 when Campbell married Potter's sister Addie. Campbell was a contractor and builder in Oakland and Alameda. Potter, originally from Wisconsin and Kansas, had been a piano dealer in Oakland and an advertising agent in Los Angeles before returning to San Francisco in 1904 to found his realty company.

The realty company also purchased the Reis Tract – present day Visitacion Valley – from pioneer Julius Reis. Potter named the streets in his developments after his relatives. There are streets in Portland, Half Moon Bay, and Visitacion Valley all named for his daughter Arleta. Arleta Park development in Half Moon Bay also includes a street called Potter Avenue. In Visitacion Valley there are streets named for Campbell (his brother-¨in-law), Cora (his sister), Harkness (his real estate partner in Portland), and Raymond (his nephew, Raymond Potter Campbell).

The units on South Van Ness were rented as soon as the building was completed. The next year, George Campbell purchased the property from the realty company, and it went through a succession of owners to the present day. In 1993, because of their special character, the Howard/26th Street Cottages gained landmark status.

From the research of Bathsheba Malsheen for the Landmarks Preservation Advisory Board, Howard Street/26th Street Cottages, 1993. Bathsheba Malsheen is an avid preservationist and has resided in the Mission district for almost 20 years. She has been CEO of several technology companies, and is a passionate collector of Victorian antiques.

Photos courtesy of Eric Bennion

article picture

Virgil Street side of the Howard Street Cottages

article picture

South Van Ness Avenue side of the Cottages

Send comments and questions to
Material of San Francisco City Guides. Please give credit to the author and SF City Guides if referenced or reproduced.