So, this is the house I’m most excited to show you. It’s a real jewel of the neighborhood. Built in 1900, it is what they call the Stick Eastlake style. You know what that is? It’s Victorian. I have no idea why it’s called Stick, though, but this is definitely Victorian—not one of those knock-offs trying to look Victorian with the prefab gingerbread that you see in the suburbs of Atlanta, or Western Massachusetts. This is the real deal. All original exterior crownings. Real wood. Look at this porch! Isn’t it something? And the stoop here? All marble finishes. Watch your step coming up.
What an entrance, right? And this isn’t even the living room. In these turn of the century places, there was always a receiving room. Some people refer to it as a parlor? Of course, we don’t have that kind of ceremony, anymore, where we call upon people with cards, and need to figure out if hats and gloves stay on or are removed in-hand. Now, we shake, we hug. So sweet, isn’t it? How intimate we’ve become? And now this space has no purpose, really. It’s a bonus room. Think of what you can do with it! Everyone likes a bonus.
The hardwood is refurbished walnut and ash throughout—none of that pine nonsense that gets all dinged, slashed, gashed up, gutted. Ash is what they make baseball bats from. Kid-proof. If you have kids, you won’t have to worry about them dropping dishes or scraping up the floor with their toys. Ah, no kids yet? But do you want them? How long have you two been together? Ten years? Well, it’ll happen, when the time is right. I’m sure you all are so busy. Careers, am I right?
Look at these ceilings. 11 feet 3 inches on the first floor. Doesn’t it make the rooms look even bigger? And this living room is to die for. Perfect for entertaining. I always prefer an oblong shape for parties, don’t you? That way not everyone has to face one another; so awkward. That over there is a fully functioning fireplace. It’s original, and, except when the previous owners blocked it up—don’t get me started on that—has burned wood for over 100 years. Isn’t that something? Imagine how many pieces of wood have burned up in that thing? And what else? Pocket lint, gum wrappers, discarded mail, postcards, receipts, letters from old lovers, important tax documents, divorce papers.
The kitchen is a real centerpiece of this house. Completely updated, modern, all granite countertops. The island? Oh, that’s not original. None of this kitchen is original, actually. But this is way better, you know, the modern kitchen design? The open concept flowing right into the dining room is Zen, gives you good Chi. So much better than those old, dark, closed in boxes that kitchens used to be. You know, those old kitchens were made like that to prevent fire from spreading too fast. You can imagine why that would be a big deal. Like, half of all our great cities were destroyed by blazes right around the same time kitchens were integrated with the main house: The Great Chicago Fire of 1871, the Boston fire a year later, the 1906 earthquake fire that ended just down the street from here, the sewing factory fires in New York City, not to mention the one in Wisconsin that killed a whole township. Imagine how many people burned up in those things, how many bodies jumped from upper-story windows, only to shatter their organs on pavement below. They didn’t want to smell their flesh searing in the heat. Hell, I’d jump too.
When I was a little girl, I was terrified by the stove. No cooking for me. Oh, it was one of those things, you know, where one diddly memory will just ruin the whole shebang forever. I was trying to cook pancakes for my mother’s birthday, I must have been six. It was a small Cape Cod in New Jersey, white with black shutters. So typical. And, silly me, I didn’t know how to cook pancakes, but I was certain I could learn simply by looking at the pictures in the cookbook. As you can expect, I had flour everywhere. On the floor, all over the counter, in my hair. My father came home that morning—he worked the night shift at the trucking company—and saw the mess, like the whole kitchen had been whited out. You know he was tired. When he grabbed my hand and stuck it on the burner I hadn’t felt anything that sharp before. I had been stung by a bee, and had sprained my ankle playing freeze tag with my brothers, but nothing like this. A burn doesn’t feel like what you think; it’s more like a bread knife slicing your hand. And the smell? Like charcoal and hair in a curling iron, something like that. I remember the smell more than anything. To this day I still can’t abide the scent of a barbeque grill. Isn’t it funny how a single memory can do that to you? You know he was tired. Imagine coming home to that kind of mess after a long, grueling shift. I could never do a job that required me to work nights. Could you?
Just through this hallway is the master bedroom. You can see that a lot of care was taken to make this the epitome of luxury. When they refurbished the home they added the en-suite bathroom. Look at this 62” stone resin freestanding bathtub. What a dream. Imagine after a long day at the office coming home to this beauty. Light some candles, pour yourself a glass of pinot. Calgon, take me away! The double sink is a touch I particularly like. A must for a couple, to keep the marriage happy, am I right? And there is a rainfall shower with three heads. See, it comes from the top and from the sides. Look at this water pressure. And, big enough for two, to keep the marriage happy, am I right? With this shower, you’ll have kids in no time, you two!
This bedroom gets the best light. South-facing, with no bulkheads. One of the great things about San Francisco Victorians are the bay windows. The ones in this room are so deep you could have a little sitting area. Throw some pillows on it, grab a book, a perfect reading nook. This room is so much brighter than it was before the renovation. It was sad how dark the former owners kept it. They had painted it a navy blue. With brocade curtains, closed all the time. Can you imagine? Of course, the old man who died of cancer in this room probably wasn’t interested in seeing much of the outside. It took six years to take him. The esophagus. It couldn’t have been pleasant, the malignancy slowly lumping around his throat, cells replicating until it choked out his ability to swallow, sort of like marbles globbing his gullet until all he could do was pull blended Brussel sprouts through a straw. And then the metastasis, to his lungs, the white mutated nodes pulling on his alveoli like a boat anchor. Inhaling was a slow dry rattle, but exhaling was wet, like stewing molasses, until both stopped altogether, and there was only the body on the bed, and brocade curtains and closed out light. This bed? No, silly! This is all staging. His two grandkids, the ones who inherited the place, sold the bed in an estate sale, along with everything else. It was one of those lovely four-poster mahogany beds, but it had deep scratches on the headboard posts—have no idea where those came from, almost looked like animal claws. Such a lovely piece of craftsmanship. You’d think one of the grandkids would want to keep it, but maybe the scratches told them something they didn’t want to remember, or maybe they suggested something about the mystery of their grandfather. And the bed, like mystery—Hell, like memory!—could never be fully theirs, anyway.
Now, this staircase. Isn’t it dramatic? I love the way it ascends up to the second floor like a bird tilting westwards. Of course, it isn’t the original staircase, which would have been located along the parlor wall, like most Stick Victorians. It had already been removed when we bought the place. We had to completely replace the stairs. Can you believe that this house was turned into a church for a while? Gethsemane Baptist. Can you imagine? And Gethsemane obviously didn’t have much success in the way of a donation bucket, know what I mean? And not much imagination, either! They built these little clapper steps in the back by the kitchen, to make more space for the congregation room. Super narrow, just plywood boards. Who knows what they did with the staircase they removed. Probably a rich maple railing. It’s such a shame. You can just imagine how much a church setup would have ruined the architectural integrity of this place. It took so much ingenuity for the flippers to restore it back to any semblance of its original glory, what, with all the cut-ups and wall-chops. And what did the church do with the stairs!? Look, I have nothing against making a house of God wherever you please, but could they not use a little inspiration when they remodeled—if you can call it that—for worship? You should have seen how they gutted this baby. I’d show you pictures, but it’d ruin you for life, I tell you. Sure, the church was poor and needed to make due, but you don’t have to be rich to see the beauty in things, am I right? Can I get an Amen?
The second floor has three full bedrooms and two full baths, all with ample closet space, polished hardwood floors, and newly installed recessed lighting. This one on the left, though, is the most charming. Isn’t this adorable? The window alcoves are just precious. This was definitely a child’s room, for multiple generations even. When we first inspected the place the walls were purple, and then when we began stripping we discovered Laura Ingalls Wilder wallpaper, you know those Little House books? Apparently, that wallpaper was all the rage in the 40’s, so this must have been a girl’s room through the ages. It’s not a big room, but the closet is disproportionately large. Big enough to hide a full-grown woman, yes? In fact, that is exactly what it did, in various instances, from September 1951-March 1952. Sophie Mears, wife of Ernest, began to hide in this closet when her husband would come home drunk, convinced his lovely, amply built wife was sleeping with other men while he was out looking for work. He lost his job at the shipyard when the industry slowed down after the war, and it made him mean, you know, in that way that men were allowed to be back then. The very first time he came home drunk with the accusations, Sophie sported a generous shiner around her left eye that Ernest said guaranteed no man would look twice at her. It was their daughter, Rosie, who suggested her closet as a hiding spot. And, it worked. Ernest never did find her in there before he’d pass out, his anger always quitting once he fell asleep, but not before he stumbled around the house yelling her name, turning over chairs and slamming drawers. Sophie made a little nest of blankets and coats on the closet floor for these nights. It wasn’t too bad, at the end of the day. And when Ernest left for job-hunting in the morning, Rosie opened the closet door, and Sophie crawled out and made her and her daughter their ritual biscuits and scrambled eggs. Not a bad little cubby spot, huh?
Take a look at this attic. Isn’t it spectacular? The roof pitch goes up to nine feet at the center, so there’s lots of space to turn this into an office or study, maybe even a craft room. Unfortunately, because of the angle of the roof, the square footage can’t be included in the overall appraisal of the home. According to the American National Standards Institute, square footage can only be calculated if over half of the floor space is met with ceilings of at least seven feet. So, even though this is a functional 450 square foot room, the roof slant makes the room just shy of meeting that requirement. Isn’t that a shame? This standard is the reason why we don’t build houses like this anymore, with this kind of dramatic pitch. But this definitely served as a bedroom back in the day. Two folks met their death here: a woman died during childbirth in 1908, and a little boy in 1919, Spanish Flu. Did you know more people died of flu in 1919 than from the Great War? The woman and the boy were not related. Wouldn’t that have been tragic if they were?
Take a look at those beams. I bet you’re wondering—because you would be absolutely right; those indeed are redwood. In fact, the whole house frame is redwood. It’s the most durable. Many San Francisco houses were framed in it, especially before everyone got all environmental. The wood is naturally fire resistant—did you know that?—and is virtually termite and rot-proof. It’s the perfect material for building a city. But back then, it wasn’t an easy task to fell one of these giants, when all they had were men and axes. These are the tallest trees in the world, 300 feet tall, a dozen feet wide. The loggers would basically chop a pie wedge into the base of the tree, with the bottom cut perfectly horizontal. Then, to guarantee the tree fell in the right direction, they’d make sure the back of the face cut was perfectly perpendicular to the direction of the fall. Can you imagine getting the calculations on that wrong? Even just a hair off and that tree would fall over a hundred miles per hour across the forest floor. And, splat.
As a matter of fact, a man died felling the very tree that frames this house, including this beam here. His name was Burt Tyler. He was 21, with his first baby on the way. He and Dorothy moved from Indiana four months prior, lured by the logging boom. Sure enough, he was resting for lunch, smoking a freshly rolled-up cigarette on an old stump, when he heard screams from high up the hill, grown men shrieking high-pitched like women, and then the familiar thunder-crack of the tree splintering before the fall. You’d think it would have happened in slow-motion, you know, like the movies? But all Burt caught was the sound, then the metallic chill of his own veins, and then a flash of darkness, the hurled body of the giant tree blocking out the sun just before the more permanent darkness. And the other trees in the grove screamed, as well. No kidding! I’m serious! Redwoods have shallow roots, but they creep along the forest floor for hundreds of feet. And, different trees will link their roots together, like they’re all holding hands forming a chain. Biologists know now that once they intertwine, they communicate with one another, a sort of telepathy. So, when one tree is cut, they all feel it. And when we are cut, we scream. So. Isn’t that something? Screaming trees.
Have you seen the redwoods? No?! They are a must-see if you’re moving to Northern California. So impressive. Muir Woods is nice, but really touristy, lots of fanny packs and selfie sticks. I recommend going south to Big Basin in the Santa Cruz mountains. Much less people, you can really take some terrific pictures without being photo-bombed. No filter, am I right?
Watch your step coming on to the back porch. Isn’t this nice? So private. No one can see you back here. A little oasis, yet everything just beyond the wall-high wood fence—the most current design in sound deflection technology. It’s like you don’t even live in a city, right? You can enjoy the perks of what urban neighborhoods offer without exposing yourself to the unseemly elements, all while you enjoy your morning coffee.
Now, don’t get me wrong. The neighborhood is very safe. Back in the day, maybe not so much. When this property served as Gethsemane Baptist, let’s just be honest: it was rough. 30 years ago, no one wanted to live here, except for the artists and the gays. Well, others lived here, but, you know. Well, I mean, people did. It just wasn’t much of a market back then, is what I mean. Before the neighborhood was called NoPa, it was known as The Western Addition. Well, there still is a part of the city called the Western Addition, but that is way over there. It’s so different than this part of town. But back when this was still part of the Western Addition…well, let’s just say people like you wouldn’t be looking for a home here, know what I mean? And such a shame, right? These homes are beautiful! So, when people began noticing the potential—again, the gays; they always have their pulse on what’s hot, right? (my motto in real estate: invest wherever you see women walking around in combat boots, no matter how scary it is to drive through)—they thought to change the name of the neighborhood, to make it reflect the improvement taking place. I’m sure you know, there’s power in a name. Renaming a thing does something to it. Born again Christians do it. Women do it when they get married. Slaves before they were sold. Of course, we don’t do that anymore. Goodness.
Don’t worry, between you and me, only the right element is moving in. How do I know? The Dollar Store down the street closed, and the most adorable sportswear boutique moved in. On the corner, a gourmet coffee shop opened in an old auto-body garage. And did you see that really nice BBQ place opening across from the park, with the raw wood panels and the Edison bulbs hanging from the ceiling? It used to be this ratty old restaurant called Da Pit. Can you imagine naming your restaurant Da Pit? Who would want to go there? See, a name change has power.
The value of this property will only increase, I guarantee, so you can maximize your upward mobility when you decide to move on to the next best place, and then the next best place. They say that cashing out here will be smart in about three years, and then you can buy a house in West Oakland, or maybe even in Portland or Austin outright with the profit! You could even do what we did here and flip it—a little gingerbread here and there—and make a killing. I mean, that’s what property is, right? An investment for your future? A killing?
Oh, don’t let the graffiti unnerve you. It’s merely vestiges of the old guard. I know what it says, but you can’t be intimidated by meager threats. Besides, they don’t know you personally, that you’re really nice people working for a living, just like everyone else. I mean, isn’t that tag sort of reverse racism? Don’t you think that’s a bit hypocritical? You know, so many people resist progress, even if the change benefits them. This neighborhood is so much safer now. And, there’s lots of great restaurants and shops. Before, we’re talking just ten years ago, no one visited this neighborhood. It was full of places that only the locals frequented. There was no allure, no intrigue, only people. If you’re going to buy property, you want it to be a destination, right?
The former residents? Oh, you can’t be thinking about that. I can tell you, the people who owned this house are lucky they could sell it in the first place, considering the shape it was in. And, they got a pretty penny, way more than they paid for it. They probably bought a big house in Antioch or one of those other outer Bay Area suburbs, probably welcomed the change to something quieter. They probably are swimming in their newly installed backyard saltwater pool right now. They wanted to leave. We didn’t put a gun to their head. They had a choice. You can’t be thinking about them. You need to think about your future. You know, progress. That’s how it works, right?
About the Author: Miah Jeffra is author of the essay collection The First Church of What’s Happening (Nomadic Press). Miah has been awarded the New Millennium Prize for fiction, the Sidney Lanier Prize for fiction, the Clark-Gross Novel Award, and a Lambda Literary Fellowship for nonfiction. Residencies include Ragdale, Hub City Writers Project, Arteles and Red Gate. Miah is editor of queer literary collaborative, Foglifter Press.