A History of Ever-changing Rincon Hill

The evolution of a neighborhood

Urbanist Article

In the Beginning

In the mid-1840s, when San Francisco was a ragged collection of adobe and frame buildings with a population of little more than 200 residents, Rincon Hill was an isolated shrub-covered landmark, rising 120 feet above the uninhabited sand dunes south of present-day Market Street. That isolation was soon to end.

With the Gold Rush of 1849, San Francisco's population exploded. An entire town "seemed to be raised from the ground as by magic," reported Forty-Niner Frederick Gerstacker. By 1850, San Francisco had 25,000 residents, almost entirely young men who were headed for, or were just back from, the gold fields. Most of these early San Franciscans pitched tents or built canvas-covered shelters on the lower slopes of Telegraph, Russian, and Nob Hills, and in the sand dunes south of present-day Market Street.

By 1852, San Francisco's overgrown mining camp era was rapidly disappearing. Many Forty-Niners asked their wives or sweethearts back home to join them. By 1853, San Francisco had 50,000 inhabitants, 8,000 of them women.

Many of these families lived in three- and four-room cottages in today's downtown area and nearby South of Market blocks. Well-to-do San Franciscans, of course, wanted substantial houses and stylish neighborhoods which, for a few, recalled their previous way of life back East and, for most others, showed off the money they had just won in the West.

San Francisco's First Fashionable Neighborhood

In the early 1850s, Rincon Hill became San Francisco's first fashionable neighborhood. Why?

Rincon Hill had warmer and sunnier weather than the blocks north of Market Street, it offered views of the bay and city, and it was removed from the city proper and its nuisances such as saloons, gambling dens, and brothels.

By 1853, the houses on Rincon Hill were "numerous" and "elegant," according to the Annals of San Francisco. In 1854, enough people lived on Rincon Hill that an omnibus line started running every half hour along Third Street to Portsmouth Square and North Beach.

Throughout the 1850s and 1860s, dozens of large, comfortable homes were built on secluded Rincon Hill that reflected the era's popular architectural styles: Greek Revival, Gothic Revival, Italianate, and the mansard-roofed Second Empire. Some of the Rincon Hill residences, particularly on Folsom and Harrison Streets near the top of the
hill around Second Street, were large mansions surrounded by gardens.

The most ambitious real estate development on Rincon Hill was South Park. Developer George Gordon built handsome Italianate-style row houses around an oval 75-by-550-foot private park between Bryant, Brannan, Second, and Third Streets, on the southwest slope of Rincon Hill. Only homeowners had keys to the gates of the park, where a windmill pumped water for the garden.

Gordon was determined that South Park become San Francisco's leading address. In this era before municipal zoning, he wrote restrictive covenants into each lot's deed requiring that "the houses must be of brick or stone and occupied exclusively for private dwellings."

Despite South Park's many advantages, the blocks on neighboring Folsom and Harrison Streets near Second Street at the crest of Rincon Hill became San Francisco's best address in the 1860s, not South Park. Why was Gordon's dream, as the Bulletin noted in 1869, "not so successful as he had hoped pecuniarly?"

First, the narrow 21-foot-wide South Park lots were appropriate only for row houses, not the free-standing mansions that many rich San Franciscans coveted. Second, South Park's location on the sloping southwest side of Rincon Hill lacked the isolation and views enjoyed by many streets higher up the hill, and it was uncomfortably close to the workshops and cheap housing of the rapidly growing South of Market area.

The Beginning of the End

The "undesirable" qualities of the burgeoning South of Market district began to impact the rest of Rincon Hill. The houses and gardens on Rincon Hill's east and south sides, for example, looked down on lumber yards, factories, warehouses, and cheap housing along the bustling waterfront.

The controversial Second Street Cut of 1869 signaled the beginning of Rincon Hill's end as San Francisco's finest residential district. Rincon Hill stood between the southern waterfront and the rest of the city. Second Street was the most direct route, but it climbed and descended Rincon Hill at one of its highest points. Consequently, horse-drawn
wagons took the flatter, time-consuming, and therefore more costly Third Street route.

So, in 1869, 500 men dug a 100-foot-deep chasm through Rincon Hill along Second Street from Folsom to Bryant Streets. A cast-iron bridge, almost 100 feet above the new level of Second Street, connected bisected Harrison Street.

Rincon Hill was never the same again. The incredibly unsightly Second Street cut split the neighborhood in half. The exposed hillside was also quite unstable. At least one house slid down the hill and into the Second Street cut.

But fashionable families did not begin an immediate exodus from Rincon Hill, because they did not have anywhere else to go. Nob Hill's development and reign as San Francisco's premier address was still several years away. The same goes for Van Ness Avenue, much of Pacific Heights, and the Western Addition.

For a time, well-to-do families stayed in their Rincon Hill homes. During the 1870s, several splendid mansions were even built along the Harrison Street hilltop. But as new, fashionable neighborhoods opened up, the wealthy slowly left Rincon Hill. Robert Louis Stevenson melodramatically disparaged Rincon Hill in 1880 as "a new
slum, a place of precarious sandy cliffs, deep sandy cuttings, solitary ancient houses and butt ends of streets."

By 1900, only a handful of Rincon Hill residences remained single-family homes. The rest were pleasant but slightly shabby boarding houses for middle class and "respectable" working class

South Park had become a working class district, like the rest of the South of Market area. Three-story flats replaced many of George Gordon's Italianate-style 1850s and 1860s row houses.

Earthquake and Fire... and Afterwards

Most Rincon Hill residences, like many homes elsewhere in the city, survived the April 18, 1906 earthquake. The Rev. F.A. Doane's 1860 house at Harrison and Hawthorne Streets, for example, was unscathed. Even the brick chimneys were intact.

But Rincon Hill could not escape the city-wide fires unleashed by the earthquake. On April 19, 1906, the flames which were consuming the South of Market area raced toward Rincon Hill. Henry Miller, the "cattle king," calmly locked the door of his sprawling Second Empire mansion at the northwest corner of Harrison and Essex Streets and drove to safety in his carriage.

Other residents mistakenly waited until the last minute. "The scene was heartrending," reported Commander John E. Pond, an officer on the USS Preble that had joined fire hoses and tried to pump water on nearby Rincon Hill structures. "Those who heeded the warning escaped to the waterfront, but many who delayed to gather personal belongings became panic stricken when they found escape in one direction cut off by flames and smoke, and ran screaming in all directions like a hive of ants whose hill has been disturbed... The whole section was swept clean in less than an hour, and many must have perished."

When the fire burned itself out and the embers finally cooled, Rincon Hill--like so much of San Francisco--resembled a charred lunar landscape. All its frame buildings were gone, leaving only their brick chimneys behind. Brick buildings, like George Gordon's Italianate-style row houses in South Park, were crumbling ruins.

Following the 1906 earthquake and fire, San Franciscans rebuilt their city with surprising speed. Most areas were reconstructed with their earlier land uses. South Park, for example, was rebuilt with flats that later became home to Japanese immigrants, and later, by the 1920s, to Filipino immigrants.

Much of the South of Market district became, once again, a mix of workshops, factories, warehouses, inexpensive flats, flophouses, and saloons. Along the southern waterfront, at the southern base of Rincon Hill, many new warehouses were constructed in the post-1906 building boom, including the Cape Horn Warehouse (1907) at 540 First Street and the Rosenberg Brothers Dried Fruit Warehouse (1912) at 275 Brannan Street, which still stand today.

Dramatic changes in land use, however, were occurring in the flat blocks between the eastern base of Rincon Hill and the Embarcadero, specifically along Howard, Folsom, Harrison, and Bryant Streets from First Street to the waterfront.

"Before 1906, these blocks had the typical South of Market mix of commercial, working class residential, and retail uses on relatively small lots," says Randolph Delehanty, the San Francisco-based historian who has written several books about the city's past and present. "After 1906, when the country was undergoing a great consolidation of U.S. businesses that needed bigger facilities, many big corporations decided that these blocks--which were near the downtown and adjacent to the Embarcadero--were an ideal location for large modern warehouses and, to a lesser extent, industrial uses. They had the money to pay high prices for the land and assemble the small pre-1906 lots into large parcels suitable for these facilities.

"The rebuilding of these parcels was not instantaneous," Delehanty continues. "When you see empty blocks in 1910 or 1920 photographs, the corporations (or their agents) were not land banking, they were completing the often-protracted assemblage process. And when these very large blocks were rebuilt, instead of 18 small buildings on a block, you had maybe six large buildings."

Residential uses, which had always been vital in these South of Market blocks, were largely squeezed out of the area. Nonetheless, 1920s photographs do show that modest flats were built on some of the alleys at the eastern base of Rincon Hill. Likewise, a few small businesses sprouted up in the midst of the huge warehouses and factories, like the two-story frame Edwin Klockars Blacksmith Shop (1912) which still stands today at 449 Folsom Street between Fremont and First Streets.

As the blocks around Rincon Hill were steadily rebuilt, photographs show that most of Rincon Hill itself remained strangely empty, except for occasional temporary "earthquake cottages" which had been moved there from other locations, and literally dozens of rudimentary shacks.

Why weren't developers clamoring to build on the once-popular hill? The reason is simple. In October 1906, the Marsden Manson Report recommended that Rincon Hill be entirely cut down to provide more flat land for warehouses and factories close to the waterfront. Although nothing came of this proposal, even when it surfaced again in 1913 and 1927, the uncertainty over Rincon Hill's future discouraged real estate investors from developing residential units. Companies preferred flat sites for warehouses and industrial buildings in the area.

When journalist Charles Caldwell Dobie visited Rincon Hill in the early 1930s, he reported that its slopes were "dotted with home-made shacks compounded of refuse lumber, packing-boxes, and sheet iron." Dobie, who often criticized San Francisco's ethnic groups and "unusual" lifestyles, considered "these tiny shelters" to be "very trim and shipshape... Geraniums run blushingly up to the low window-sills, and clamshells outline the occasional attempt at gardening."

The death knell for Rincon Hill's redevelopment came in 1928 when the California Legislature authorized the construction of the Bay Bridge, which would run through the southern side of Rincon Hill, cause the removal of some land, and close a number of streets. In 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt hit a telegraph key in Washington, D. C. and set off the charges that officially began the bridge's construction.

By the time the Bay Bridge opened in 1936, much of Rincon Hill had disappeared. Its southern flank lay buried beneath the bridge and its ramps. Then, the ramps of the Transbay Terminal, which opened in 1939, smothered the hill's northern flank, closed more streets, and bisected the hill between First and Second Streets.

The alteration of Rincon Hill on behalf of the Bay Bridge and Transbay Terminal wasn't the only violence that it endured in the 1930s. On May 9, 1934, San Francisco's dock workers went on strike protesting their dangerous working conditions, long hours, poor pay, and unfair hiring practices, and demanding recognition of their unions. Ship crews and teamsters quickly joined them, which shut down the port.

Companies hurt by the strike retaliated by calling in the police and National Guard. Fights broke out, culminating on July 5, 1935 in the Battle of Rincon Hill in which 5,000 strikers using clubs, bricks, and guns fought 1,000 police, National Guardsmen, and scabs armed with guns, riot sticks, and tear gas. Two strikers were killed, and 109
people were injured. The battle led to a city-wide general strike, federal arbitration, and major concessions to dock workers, and it contributed to the rapid rise of union organization in the city and across the country.

But Rincon Hill's sufferings didn't end with the 1930s. The construction of the Embarcadero Freeway, which opened in 1958, not only wrapped a two-level highway along the waterfront, it required the demolition of buildings on the north side of Folsom Street and destroyed more of the northern flank of Rincon Hill itself, so that ramps could
connect the freeway to the bridge.

Rediscovery of a Forgotten Area

With the spaghetti-like jumble of freeway and Transbay Terminal ramps on the north and the Bay Bridge on the south, this side of Rincon Hill and
the nearby flatlands were a virtually forgotten area during the 1970s and 1980s, while the nearby downtown was enjoying a construction boom.

Thus, Rincon Hill was ripe for change when, in the 1980s, planners focused their attention on this convenient, but under-used area. The Loma Preita earthquake of 1989 also contributed to the revival
of Rincon Hill by necessitating the removal of the elevated freeway (and its ramps) that separated the neighborhood from the rest of the city.

Planning for Rincon Hill's new future continued in earnest during the 1980s and 1990s. But that, of course, is another story.


1Historically, Rincon Hill included the elevated area bounded by Beale, Folsom, Third, and Bryant Streets. In 1985, the City established the Rincon Hill Special Use District, which exluded the area from Essex Street to the west, but included the areas as far east as Beale Street that were reasonably flat and not part of the historical hill. This article addresses both the historic hill and the adjacent areas that are being evaluated as part of Rincon Hill for zoning purposes.

Charles Lockwood is the author of seven books about American cities and architecture, including Suddenly San Francisco: The Early Years of an Instant City. Rizzoli will publish a new and expanded edition of his Bricks and Brownstone, an architectural history of the New York row house, in mid-2003.