Dolores Heights architecture is like a tapestry
28 August 2013
Ph: Pete Kiehart, The Chronicle
From afar, Dolores Heights is a rustle of walls and rooflines, green trees and straight asphalt. The steep, 400-foot hill itself is a definition rather than a destination, framing Noe Valley to the south and Dolores Park to the east. However, things aren't so placid on foot in the enclave bounded roughly by Cumberland, Church, 22nd and Castro streets.
"Residents of the hill fought bitterly over location of the streets the city was preparing to cut into the sides of the hill," The Chronicle wrote in its 1958 piece on Dolores Heights, describing the early 20th century. "Everyone wanted the paved street to be at the level of his house - not that of the house across the way, which might be 20 or 30 feet higher or lower."
The result was that some streets are split by retaining walls between lanes. Others filled in on one side but not the other. At the crest of 20th Street above Sanchez, for instance, the south side of the block was still open space when George Homsey (B.A. Architecture, 1951) and his wife bought a 50-foot-wide lot in 1963.
"It was a little blue-collar enclave back then, a cul-de-sac with steps down to Sanchez," recalled Homsey, a founding principal of the architectural firm Esherick Homsey Dodge & Davis. "This side was nothing but a rocky bank and the property above."
Then, filling in the blanks was a casual thing. Homsey met with a bureaucrat, assured him the house wouldn't be too tall, and hired a contractor to erect a woodsy house that would look at home in a Sierra forest. Friends stopped by on weekends to help with interior details, such as the stained plywood floors that still do the job.
While families like the Homseys staked their claim with affection and care, mid-century builders slapped in product with no thought for their surroundings. In reaction to what was seen as excessive or insensitive development, neighborhood residential groups emerged across the city in the 1960s and '70s.
However, the glass residence at Sanchez and 20th streets suggests that Dolores Heights - like other neighborhoods, such as Hayes Valley - is again willing to allow architects to take chances, as long as they respect the hill's underlying rhythms and forms.
For his part, Homsey isn't sure what to think of the new kid at the end of his block, the home designed by Steely that appears on the cover of September's Dwell magazine.
"I'm learning in my twilight years to live and let live," he laughed. "A residential area like this, I'm not so sure it's important to 'relate' to everything. What's important is that a building be done sensitively."