Monday, January 6, 2014

The Last of the Carville Houses

When the 1906 earthquake hit San Francisco, there were about five separate companies with cable car lines in San Francisco. The quake tore up many of the lines, both the tracks and slots. By 1906, electric trolleys had become more practical and certainly cheaper than replacing cable car slots and the mechanical apparatus it took to keep them running, so when it came time to rebuild the city's transportation system, the cable cars were only kept on the steepest routes. The cars that had run through the more flat neighborhoods, like Market Street Railway's Castro line, were replaced by trolleys. That left a lot of surplus rolling stock, which was hauled out to the sand dunes in the outer Richmond district and put up for sale: $10 without seats, $15 with seats included. This was a quick solution for a lot of people left homeless by the quake and subsequent fire, and so San Francisco's Carville sprang to life in the dunes at Ocean Beach. 

Minnie Collins, a notary public with an office near Union Square, had been living with her mother-in-law since she and her husband Everett were married. An enterprising woman who saw a chance to have a home of her own, Minnie bought three of the Castro cars and had them hauled out to a piece of property she had purchased about half a mile south of the Cliff House -- about 6 lots as they exist today. She had the cars joined side by side, with two of them opened up to make a double wide space. These were big cable cars, solid oak, 30 feet long and 8 feet wide, not like the little ones that run on Powell and Hyde today. The living room cars had been "convertible cars" with crosswise seating and sides that could be removed in the warmer months. That made it easy to join two together to make a wide room. Minnie had benches built along the outer wall, with storage space under the seats. You can still see the fittings for the cross-wise seats inside the benches. She kept the original windows and even the clerestories, and the original lighting fixtures, though she had them electrified, with their elaborate hand-blown glass covers. You can see the tops of the cable cars under the conventional roof if you look into the attic. 

Around 1977, Richard Jackman, a telephone company tech and railroad buff, had heard there were still Carville houses out in the Sunset district, and he began driving around, looking for them. The fates were with him -- not only did he find one, it was for sale. He bought it on the spot. Perfect!

He began hanging out at the local pub, a sort of living room for the neighborhood run by a motherly but flamboyant woman named Pearl and her husband Jack. There was New Orleans jazz there with Bert Bales on the piano on the weekends, and my ex husband, Bob Marchesi, a really good jazz bass player, was working in the band. Richard loved that band and became a regular. 

One warm afternoon I had been out walking on the beach with friends and we decided to take the streetcar home. It was Sunday so the cars only ran once an hour. We had just missed one, so we stopped in for a drink at the bar next to the car stop while we waited for the next one to come. The band was paying and we loved the atmosphere. Pearl, the owner, had known my father, who was also in the bar business, many years before. We hit it off immediately. The place was so homey and comfortable and the music was so great, I decided I would return the next week.

Next time, I ran into an old friend, Marilyn McGwynn, wife of the drummer in the band,. We had not seen each other for years and we were happy to reconnect. Musicians' wives have a bond of sisterhood. She introduced me to a new friend of hers, a really nice man named Richard Jackman, who had a cable car house just down the street. We all went to see it and I had the eeriest feeling when I was in the kitchen -- a sudden sense that I was going to live in that house. A certainty. It made no sense to me. I was not looking for a husband -- I was really happy being single, working as a nurse, having wonderful time and more or less living my dream. Sure, I was on my own with five kids, but I had been handling that well for about 6 years. Not a problem. I loved my single life! 

That was in April 1978, I think. The wedding was on October 31. My intuition had been dead on, and so we went to live in the cable car house. 

When the city built the Upper Great Highway along the beach, Minnie Collins lost her ocean view, so she simply had the house jacked up and built another story beneath the cars. It was rented out as a flat, but became the perfect second floor for kid's bedrooms and a sort of family room for us.  

It turned out to be the last vestige of Carville still standing. Though we sold the house in 1990, 1632 Great Highway is still standing today, so far as I know: the last of the Carville houses.  

This is a view of half of the dining area, which was in the part where the cable grip would have been. Looking out the open window, you can see where the headlamp had been. 

This is looking toward the front of the large open room, showing the benches along the side. 
The ironwork on the windows is intact, and that is the original glass. The clerestories are above. That big white chair just fit into the niche between the benches that Minnie had made to fit her small piano. 

I excavated the original number, hidden under 7 layers of paint, which identified this as a Castro car. I did the same for the living room cars. The bedroom/bathroom/kitchen were in this car, which still had the pocket doors intact, as you can see. In an article about the house in SF Gate, the author said an "expert" identified this as a horsecar. Wrong! It is a cable car and not a horsecar at all. Sorry about the oil stain on the photo.  

Our old Morris chair fit in very well. Note the bench behind it, which we used to store LPs.