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The San Francisco call. [volume] (San Francisco [Calif.]) 1895-1913, December 08, 1912, Image 8

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Persistent link: https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn85066387/1912-12-08/ed-1/seq-8/

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In some respects Russian hill J
is the most interesting of all *♦
described by Mrs. Collyer in her ♦
series of stories on the hills of I
San Francisco. It possesses the T
scenic attractions of Telegraph ♦
hill, the favorable residential fea- ♦
tures of Nob hill and a human j
history antedating and sur- i
passing in interest even that of ♦
old Rincon hill. While Rincon 1
hill leaped suddenly into popu- f
larity, only to fall as suddenly ]
later on, and while Nob hill t
owes its distinction to mechani- f
cal invention and the favors of t
a few millionaires, Russian hill *
has gone steadily forward in the X
San Franciscan's esteem with- ♦
out pause or hindrance. Once ♦
a Russian cemetery, it is now I
capped with handsome resit
dcnces, shared alike by people of I
material wealth and by those $
whose wealth is mental, for t
artists and writers live on Rus- ♦
sian hill side by side with those I
who have won success in busi- t
ness. Culture and wealth abide ♦
upon it, and handsome, artistic ♦
residences, from bungalow to i
mansion, are being 'steadily t
erected on its sides. «
Mabel H. Collyer
THE firs! burials of Terba Buena
were on the hills. This was fol
lowing to some degree the custom
•_>r the Indians, who invariably
buried their dead on high pla< -k, not
infrequently on the tops of trees, or
„ may have been that the pioneers at
ilrst glance, considering the heights
**o steep for permanent dwellings,
cheerfully handed them over to the
dead. Along the brow of Telegraph
hill were hundreds of graves. Very
greWabme were many of the finds when
Broadway and Sansome street were
cut through.
But on the summit of Russian hill
were only a few graves, and these
have long been shrouded in legendary
lore. It was from these ghostly in
vaders that the hill took its name.
Only very meager mention is made of
them in the various annals of Kan
Francisco. One writer, quoting from
an old document, states.
"A few graves,'surmounted by black
crosses and bearing Russian inscrip
tions, evidently the last resting places
of some of the Moscovites who had .so
journed in the old village, were to be
seen as late as 1849 on the opposite
height to the westward, which was
for that reason called and is still
known as Russian hill."
Another writer, relying solely on her
fancy, accounts for these graves as be
ing those of Russian sailors borne
hither on the shoulders of their mates
and buried with fitting and holy cere
mony. But, with all the interest which
centered around these isolated graves,
nobody, it seems, was inspired to copy
the inscriptions with a view of having
them translated. The crosses were still
there when the first shacks began to
straggle up the slopes of the hill. De
spite the magnificent view to be ob
tained, it was many years before even
the most venturesome souls began to
perch their dwellings near the summit.
It was a great, rough cliff, approached
only by a meandering goat path, thick
with weeds and brown with brush, with
only the silent Russians at the top.
And yet a glorious destiny was fore
ordained for Russian hill. Even the
most pessimistic of her critics were
fain to remark that while now the hill
lay barren and uncouth, future genera
tions would doubtless make it the gar
den spot of the city. Millionaires would
build their palaces there, of course, with
terraced gardens and winding boule
But the millionaires held back, and
later on the hill became a sort of poets'
corner. Only the true art lovers, it
seemed, were willing to scale the
heights. The artists followed the poets
and the writers followed the artists,
and these disciples of the muses, mak
ing their own bit of Bohemia, gave to
the hill a prestige that was not without
a hint of exclusiveness.
And this has lasted even to the pres
ent day. As early as the sixties the
weeds in the goat path had been tram
pled fiat by art devotees, who imbibed
inspiration from the summit. Old pho
tographs show a line of easels along
the cliff, and there is scarcely a file of
the early magazines without at least
one vivid description done from Rus-'
sian hill by the scribe of the hour.
O. P. Fitsgerald, a newspaper man rough inhospitable cliff would be ter
of the early si-ties, lived on the west- raced and set with country like villas
crn slope of the hill. He, contrary to of the people that appreciated the beau
the majority, who invariably focused ties of the bay and Tamalpais; but at
their eyes on the hay, let his wandering present a carriage could not mount it
fancy be enmeshed by the more human, and it made no appeal to the luxuri
interest of North Beach, and gives the* ous "
following sketch concerning the hood- , Thls Period passed. Today automo
lum of his day: blles - carriages, wagons and even fur
"The North Beach rabble in its nrdi- " ,ture vans make the ascent fijon. the
nary mood is rather noisy and demon- £?&*« * treet "ff* w " h only »• "f«g
«trative The hoodlum reaches his tier- <«*!&culty experienced on. all steep
stratne lhe hoodlum reac ti< s his pet grade , ; Hul withal tne SU mmit still
faction V ere -, T T hoo f ll,,n !? * y °" n * temains a bit of pioneer San Francisco,
( alifornian in the intermediate state pre t)| . t{
between a wharf rat and a desperado, v wore in the seventies . owing to the
combining all the sad qualities of both, indefatigable efforts of their tenants.
There is but one thing about him that tiie homes then standing were saved
has the semblance of a virtue, and that from the ravages of the great fire and
is his fidelity to his fellow hoodlums, are intact today. And this'has given to
He will defend one of his kind to the Russian hill the prestige of possessing
death in a street fig'it and swear to the'oldest house in San Francisco —the
anything to help him in a court of Atkinson house, built In 1856. ' This
justice." • • home, set back in a beautiful garden
Growing still more melancholy fn his' facine Broadway, has' a wonderful re-
retrospection, Fitzgerald gloomily de
scribes many of ths s-u'cldefi ♦' ;>t took
place along the b« ?' un
der his very nose. He was- a youo tore
runner of the police reporter: but his
eyes missed the beauty that lay*beyond,
Gertrude Atherton, In "Ancestors,"
describes the rickety old flight of steps
that led from Taylor street up the hill,
and gives this brief glimpse:
"There were many cottages on tills
side of Russian hill and one or two
fine residences; but beyond one ca*ble
ear lino, little or nothing had been
done to make life easy for the inhabi
tants. It was a bit of pioneer San
Francis< o. One day. no doubt, there"
would be a boulevard at its foot, the
tainlng wall worthy of an old fortress
and an ent; n - s-ate " ' '"'ght aptly
lead to a feudal caftl . '_.;.'. house has
been remodeled and enlarged, but the
type Is still that of the fifties. Nearly
all the houses on the hill, including
the Llvermore place with its spacious
garden that seems'almost a small park,
have unpretentious exteriors finished
with brown shingles. The Jenks and
Hanford places In Taylor street, two
elaborate mansions vacated by their
owners, mark the boundary line where
seemingly the millionaire attempted to
carry out the prophecy made so many
years' ago.
Gelett Burgess touches on this
prophecy in "The Heart Line." He says
that "Mr. Oliver Payson lived in a half
deserted street on the northerly slope
of Russian hill,'in a quarter of the
town which at one time promised to
become a favored if not an aristocratic
residential district. But the whim of
fashion had fancied in succession
Stockton street. Rincon hill. Van .Wss
avenue, Nob hill and now ha.l settled
upon the Western Addition and Pre
sidio Heights. The old North Beach,
with its wonderful water and moun
tain view, nearer the harbor and
nearer the business part Of thp city,
had long been neglected. The few old
families who in older days settled on
this site still remained, and with the
opening of new cable car lines found
themselves not only within a short.
distance of down town, but at the same
tim almost as isolated as if they had
dwelt in the country."
M.any California writers who have
been moved to discuss it while deplor
ing its exaggerated inaccessibility,
the bill more or less gracious trib
ute. Even Mark Twain in his "Rough
ing It." makes a complimentary allu
sion to Russian hill when the two over
sanguine miners an 1 planning to spend
their anticipated millions:
"Where ar c you going to live?" said
, "San Francisco."
Pa use.
"Too high—too much climbing—"
from Higbie.
"What is?"
"1 was thinking of Russian hill —
building a house up there."
"Too much climbing? Sha'n't you
keep a carriage?"
"Of course. I forgot %hȣ."
Pause. ■•• ■
"What kind of house are y/Ott String!!
to build?"
"Brown stone front, French plate
glass, billiard room off the dining
room, statuary and paintings, shrub*
bery and two acre grass plat, green
house, iron dog on the front stoop, gray
horses, landau and a coachman with a
bug on his hat."
Photographs of 1865 and later show
the observatory that used to stand
1 on the hill, with the spiral stairway
leading to it. More modern photo
-1 graphs show the great mastlike poles
Jof the Marconi wireless station that
' was only recently removed from the
r cliff facing the cut on Taylor street.
1 With the passing of these the hill has
: become entirely residential, and grad
ually new homes are being erected on
the old barren places. The side of the
, hill that faces Green street Is still
unbuilt. The other side of Green con
tains artistic, apartment houses and
private homes. Thence the hill slopes
down to a little court where the artist,
, Giuseppe <\adenasso, has built up a
! little colony, His studio, perched In
j, the air like a bird cage, misses nothing
tof the glorious panorama below.
The very steepness, deplored by non
residents only, is an asset which lends
, the hill intrinsic charm. And this also,
, granting the residents an appreciated
isolation, has thus far saved the Rus
sian from the fate of her sister hills.
'On all sides of the hill flats and inar
tistic apartment houses have found a
place. On Vallejo street below Taylor,
the Italian quarter is steadily climbing
upward. Just two blocks below Green
one steps into the North Beach district
with Its row after row of plain little
flats painted white. From the back
porches of the Willis Polk houses on
the top of the hill, one is seemingly
within a stone's throw of' the down
town district, only\ partially screened
from view by the stately Fairmont.
Half a block down on Broadway is the
Spanish church, rebuilt on its former
site, and now as in the past shielding
the hill from being part of the care
free Latin quarter circling at the foot
of Telegraph hill. The two so closely
linked have always been different. Rus
sian hill is plainly American, almost
distinctly Californian; Telegraph hill
is and always has been distinctly for
Among the writers who still make
their home on the hill may be men
tioned Ina Coolbrith, the poet, and Lu
cia Chamberlain, the author of several
novels. Miss Coolbrith lived on the
Taylor street slope before the fire; her
home is now in Broadway. Miss Cham
berlain lives with her aunt, Mary Cur
tiss Richardson, the portrait painter,
in Vallejo street. Members of the news
paper cult almost too numerous to
count come and go. The hill claims
an added distinction through the brief
residence of - ..-.Bsjsen/firtjjii. :Ja'ck»on, 'aw-*
thor of "Ramona, «wfc«-,dled 'n' ISS'S in
a house th?t at the
corner of Taylor street and Broadway^
Among the scribes who have jour
neyed to other ports are the two Irwin
brothers. Will and Wallace; Gelett
Burgess, who was in a little cottage in
Florence street at the time of the fire:
Alice Rix, John Fleming Wilson, who
moved the office of the Argonaut to the
hill after the fire; Henry Lafler, one of
the former editors of the Argonaut,
and Porter Garnett.
' Mrs. Robert Louis Stevenson lived on
the hill for a short time after her
husband's death In 1894, occupying one
of the Williams apartments, and this
has given rise to a false rumor that
the famous author himself was once
a resident of the hill. But it is the
various little cosmopolitan haunts in
* the Latin quarter just down the hill
that may justly claim him as a one
time patron.
"It was here that he sat," states one
worthy restauranteur, pointing to a
corner of his little place that has been
rebuilt since the fire on exactly the
old lines, to preserve the illusion of
the Stevenson presence, "and it was
here that he wrote," passing around a
great book filled with drawings and
inscriptions of noted artists and
writers. It is scarcely kind to notice
that the Stevenson inscription has been
pasted in. for the gesticulating host
goes on to explain:
"I lose my all —my place, my tables—
they all go; but I save this —the book.
I build again—my place, my tables.
Behold, they are just the same; then T
show my book, and my friends, they
all come back."
It is his talisman.
Among the many written descrip
tions concerning the glorious view ob
tained from the crest of the hill, the
most striking, perhaps, has been con
tributed by Emma Francis Dawson. It
Is contained in one of her short stories,
"A Gracious Visitation," which oddly
enough is a ghostly tale with a beau
tiful setting, concerning the unknown
Russians whose graves were on the
hill. It is in part as follows:
"On Russian hill I look down as
from a balloon; all there is of the stir
of the city comes in distant bells and
whistles, changing their sound just as
The San Francisco Sunday Call
the scenery moves, according to the
state of the atmosphere. The islands
shift as if enchanted, now near and
plain, then removed and dim. The bay
widening, sapphire blue, or narrowing,
green and, gray, or before a storm
like quicksilver. The city lights
twinkling of long lines of romances
or hidden by the gray slides that shut
off ,all in life but the wails of warn
ing to the sailors. It is like having
genii for companions, so picturesque
and constantly varying are the alter
nate movement and exchange of cur
rents from the sea of air and the
sea of water, tremendous forces of
life, showing me personality, pulse and
arteries, as traces by Maury, who even
suggests for the ocean a heart—the
equator. The stillness which makes
the town, although within a stone's
throw below, seem yet unbuilt; the
pure mid-ocean spaces where none
have breathed; the gorgeous sunsets
that give the meanest Cinderella the
freedom of fairy cities."
Again she describes the coming of a
storm, "signaling its coming from thou
fc-nas of miles at sea. Often the whole
sky was of such terrific import that I
feared Michelet's waves, like a mob of
eyeless, earless beasts, foaming at the
mouth, demanding universal sup
pression of the earth and return to
The marvelous beauty of the myste
rious bay has always ably apologized
for man's failure to beautify the shore
line, which just at present ip, in con
trast, rather a sorry spectacle. Sug
gestions have come from various
sources for gardens, trees and shrub
bery along that portion of the water
front that has not already been defaced
by wharves and machinery. The whole
problem has now been left in the a
hands of the fair directors.

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