San Franciscans still live in 1906 earthquake shacks. Here’s why they matter more than ever – San Francisco Chronicle

Posted: April 21, 2021 at 9:42 am

Liz Henry knew she was moving her family of four into a very small space in 2013. The blue cottage between two larger houses stands out on the block, due to its lack of size.

But it wasnt until after the lease was signed that she discovered 48 Cortland Ave. in the Bernal Heights neighborhood of San Francisco was the Shelby Mustang or Stradivarius of tiny houses: one of dozens of surviving 1906 earthquake shacks that are still scattered around the city. Some are lived in by people who dont realize their celebrity status.

It was very exciting, Henry says. I got into reading the history of how they were built. I remember going to look at the property records online and just seeing the official record listed as refugee shack.

There were once 5,610 refugee shacks in 11 San Francisco parks, assembled with lightning speed in the months after the April 18, 1906, earthquake and fire. Today, there are fewer than 50 identified in the city. But those that remain are a symbol of civic vision, built in a bureaucracy-free utopia that included a partnership among city officials, labor unions and the U.S. Army. Theyre also a symbol of post-crisis rebirth, designed to house the displaced workers who built back San Francisco better than ever.

And today, 115 years after the disaster, theyre the most visible reminder of the citys most defining event preserved by a shifting collection of regular citizens and nonprofit history organizations, advocates so dedicated to the shacks that they feel like a religious order.

14 Elsie Street, a surviving 1906 earthquake refugee cottage, is seen in San Francisco, California Wednesday, April 14, 2021. (Stephen Lam / The Chronicle | San Francisco Chronicle)

Shack historian John Blackburn with the Bernal History Project volunteer research group sent The Chronicle a file that includes data sets, images and a 426-slide PowerPoint presentation. Asked what inspires him to spend so much time cataloging the small homes, when hes never lived in one, the retired private investigator answers, Everything.

They were simple, elegant, functional and timely, says Blackburn, a longtime Bernal resident. They served a need, and they are still serving a need all these years later. They are in essence the beginning of the tiny house movement, which today is all the rage.

The house builders werent being trendy when they started mass-producing shacks months after the earthquake and fire. Half of San Francisco had burned to the ground, and refugees moved to tent cities in Golden Gate Park, the Presidio and other green spots. But the shelters were a ticking clock. Relief leaders feared they would become waterlogged and disease-ridden when heavy rains arrived later in 1906.

A tent camp in Golden Gate Park, April 1906, after the Earthquake and fire. (Chronicle Archive 1906 | San Francisco Chronicle)

Using redwood and fir lumber sent from Washington state and Oregon, the cottages were built in tight clusters in the parks with cooperation among the San Francisco Parks Commission, headed by John McLaren, the San Francisco Relief Corporation and the Army. Tenants paid $2 monthly rent on cottages valued at $50, with the option to own. And in 1907, many shack owners hauled their new property using literal horse power, becoming starter homes in empty lots across San Francisco and beyond.

They served the purpose while the city rebuilt, Blackburn says. They housed the working San Franciscans who helped put this city back on track after the 1906 earthquake. And then they were scattered about. Daly City, Manteca and all the places they went to. Even Santa Cruz has one.

OurSF: 1906 Earthquake photo from the San Francisco Chronicle archive. Photographer unknown. Woman in front of her A-frame shack in a refugee camp

OurSF: 1906 Earthquake photo from the San Francisco Chronicle archive. Photographer unknown. Woman in front of her A-frame shack in a refugee camp

Photo: Chronicle Archives

OurSF: 1906 Earthquake photo from the San Francisco Chronicle archive. Photographer unknown. Woman in front of her A-frame shack in a refugee camp

OurSF: 1906 Earthquake photo from the San Francisco Chronicle archive. Photographer unknown. Woman in front of her A-frame shack in a refugee camp

San Franciscans still live in 1906 earthquake shacks. Heres why they matter more than ever

Thats where the utopian vision ends and San Francisco NIMBYism begins. As early as 1907, newspapers report Glen Park residents fighting earthquake shack families from moving in because their property was being injured.

But the homes and their working class residents were welcome in Bernal Heights, where a large camp of cottages existed in Precita Park, and the great majority of the surviving San Francisco shacks stand today.

(Blackburn and the Western Neighborhoods Project, a nonprofit that recently saved $180,000 worth of Cliff House artifacts at auction, list more than 40 shacks in various databases. A couple dozen are deemed certified, and many are hidden from the public eye. Blackburn believes more are yet to be discovered.)

One of four restored earthquake refugee shacks from Kirkham Avenue in San Francisco is moved for display on Market Street in 2006.

LisaRuth Elliott, a community historian and textile artist who has worked in international disaster recovery, says living in the earthquake shack she occupied until recently near Powhattan Avenue in San Francisco was a wonderful adventure.

It was very much like living on a boat, Id say. Very small, she says. We have a fascination in our culture of living in tiny houses. I really got a sense of what it meant to be in an efficient space.

The great majority of earthquake shacks were 10 by 14 feet, or 14 by 18 feet, with a stove but no kitchen or plumbing. Most were altered to add a bathroom and expand the living space often by linking multiple shacks together like houses in the board game Monopoly. (They were even painted the same color park-bench green.) Elliott thought her space was two shacks, only to discover her bedroom was a converted chicken coop built some time in the first half of the 20th century.

Liz Henrys family relaxes inside the Cortland Avenue home in Bernal Heights where she used to live. The structure was a modified 1906 earthquake shack.

Henry says her familys main living area at 48 Cortland Ave. was almost comically small; even with two bedrooms added on, the house is just 600 square feet. From the outside, the Cortland house resembles the one from the movie Up, in a valley between two much larger structures. But, Henry says, her now-grown children appreciate their memories of the space, which was like living in a log cabin.

It meant we all had to know how to get along, she says, and how to respect each others privacy and boundaries.

Elliott says she lived with space challenges, including food storage in a mini-fridge meant for a hotel room. The original shacks had pegs on the wall to hang clothes, and some of the survivors dont have much more. But all the shack-dwellers salute the sturdiness of the structures, betting that the redwood frames and simple peaked roofs could last a couple more centuries.

And of course, when you live in an earthquake shack in San Francisco, you also feel like youre already sort of one step ahead of the game if theres a bigger earthquake, Elliott says.

LisaRuth Elliott takes a photo inside the Bernal Heights home where she used to live, which was a modified 1906 earthquake shack. (Courtesy LisaRuth Elliott | San Francisco Chronicle)

Ultimately, rising property values, not the elements or natural disasters, have been the biggest threat to the shacks survival. As values climbed across the city, shacks were frequently razed and replaced by structures with 10 or 20 times the square footage. In the 1980s, a race began to save as many as possible from being demolished and replaced.

Jane F. Cryan is the godmother of shack-tivism. She moved into a cottage at 1227 24th Ave. in the Sunset District in 1982 and began collecting data on shacks, lobbying for preservation and eventually getting her rental home registered as City Landmark #171. Blackburn and San Francisco History Association member Vicky Walker (who once lived in the 48 Cortland Ave. shack) have shepherded this history into the present.

Cryan moved out more than a decade ago, priced out of San Francisco and now living in Wisconsin. But in an email interview, her memories of first setting eyes on the shack still read like poetry.

I knew instantly it was a monument to my dreams, a replica of the little houses surrounded by white picket fences I had treasured in childhood magazines and books, Cryan says.

Landmark no. 171 is actually an assemblage of four shacks. Cryan says golden light filtered through the 26 windows in the front and 16 windows in the rear shack. A recent inhabitant started an Instagram account about living in the landmark at 1227 24th Ave.

The Western Neighborhoods Project got its start in 2002 saving four earthquake shacks on Kirkham Avenue in the Sunset one of which found a home at the San Francisco Zoos Conservation Corner. Another pair, the so-called Goldie Shacks, were rescued with help from Cryan and can be publicly viewed behind the Old Post Hospital in the Presidio.

But many shacks have met other fates. Blackburn talks in more somber tones about 281 Nevada St. in San Francisco, a home that once had an entire earthquake shack within it, like a Russian nesting doll of real estate.

It was in the dining room, Blackburn says. The guy who used to own the house just didnt want to tear the shack down.

Sold in 2015, the property was recently demolished to build a new home.

(There are reportedly five shacks in the backyard of one Pacific Heights residence, although Blackburn says the owners prefer to stay out of the public eye.)

Perhaps more than the physical spaces, preservationists love the shacks for their design perfection and what they symbolize. Theyre living reminders of San Francisco at its very best, a community setting aside obstacles to build many small things, for the greater good of the entire city.

San Francisco natives Marsha and Bryan Britt stand on the sidewalk as they visit 1227 24th Avenue, a San Francisco City Landmark and a home made up of three Type A and one Type B 1906 earthquake refugee cottages after reading about its existence in San Francisco, California Wednesday, April 14, 2021. (Stephen Lam / The Chronicle | San Francisco Chronicle)

Blackburns giddy passion about earthquake shacks goes to a darker place when he thinks about the pandemic, and the struggle to house people whose lives are at stake. The cottages, he says, are a reminder of the challenges that our modern society is too fractured, too stubborn or too unambitious to conquer.

It is phenomenal what human beings can do when they have the will to do it in the midst of a crisis, Blackburn says. People do not learn from the past. They have allowed themselves to be bullied into submission.

Elliott says that living in a piece of surviving history makes her think about the kind of world shed like to live in.

Maybe (the modern version of the shack) is not a structure. Maybe its a system, she says.

Elliott has seen ambitious earthquake shack-style thinking during the 2020-21 pandemic, but at the neighborhood level by organizations such as the Mission Food Hub food bank and the Free Farm Stand.

Elliott and Henry both moved out of their earthquake shacks within the past year. Elliott needed a bigger space for her art, and Henry moved to a new home in Bernal just a few blocks away.

Blackburn, who winters in Tucson, Ariz., and admits hes behind in his cataloging, says he hopes interest in the shacks outlives him, just as it has for previous generations. The lessons of the shacks, he says, are timeless.

They banged these things out in a day. And people ended up having great lives in them and raising their kids and the city became whole, Blackburn says. It could happen again.

Peter Hartlaub is the San Francisco Chronicle culture critic. Email: phartlaub@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @PeterHartlaub

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San Franciscans still live in 1906 earthquake shacks. Here's why they matter more than ever - San Francisco Chronicle

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