Leave it to a group of nurses to start a healthy Thanksgiving tradition in San Francisco, one that’s lasted 50 years and traces its origin to New York and Ireland.
There’s also a mansion at the heart of the tale, though the gathering was never fancy. As the size of the group grew each year, its attendees were required to bring their own metal folding chairs — no small feat when you consider that there are 82 stairs leading to the front door.
And that’s how Jeanne Carney came upon her first residence in San Francisco. The New York native, a registered nurse, journeyed to The City to help her good friend Ruth Varni deliver her baby. Varni suggested that Carney rent a room at 2212 Sacramento St., better known as the Richard E. Queen House, which was the last project built by Arthur Page Brown, the man who designed the Ferry Building.
Carney found a roommate named Phyliss McDermot, a nurse who had recently emigrated from Ireland, and the two women decided that it would be good to introduce some of McDermot’s friends from Ireland to a distinctly American tradition. It was 1961, young John Kennedy had recently become president, the nation was full of enthusiasm, and San Francisco was in the infancy of a social revolution.
“It was just a simple idea to share an American holiday with these friends from Ireland,’’ Carney said. “We didn’t even have a dining room table. The first year there were seven of us, and it just evolved from there.’’
The Pacific Heights mansion had passed from the Queen family to Frances and Bob Moonan. Moonan was the choir master at Old St. Mary’s Cathedral and used to move around town playing piano at some of The City’s best known hotels, the Mark Hopkins and the Fairmont, as well as spots such as Bimbo’s and the Domino Club.
Although it was never intended to be used as an apartment, that’s exactly what the Queen House became, as Moonan and his wife rented out more than 20 rooms to young professionals, many of them nurses. They had mixers. They started to marry. And as the families grew, so did the Thanksgiving feast.
After McDermot got married, Carney found a new roommate, Clare Cavanaugh, who remains Carney’s housemate to this day. McDermot introduced her sister Nancy to a young man named Tom McGarvey, who with his brother Michael ran a waterfront institution known as Red’s Java House that has been at Pier 30 since 1923.
The second year, 20 people showed up. More friends and strangers were added to the mix. By the second decade, the group exceeded 50.
It was quite a sight watching the lineup trudge up the stairs at the Sacramento Street mansion. Built in 1895, the house has a striking neoclassical façade with a sweeping semicircular entry portico with a Palladian window above the entrance. The Moonans were planning on doing a restoration — and in fact, had to — when in the early sixties a crane that had been used to build an adjacent high-rise toppled and crashed into the roof.
The Moonans eventually sold the house and Carney moved to a smaller place on Buena Vista in 1986 which was too small to hold the Thanksgiving gathering so it bounced around other family homes, crowded affairs that had people fighting for space to hold the four turkeys.
Several of the key members eventually moved down the Peninsula and for the last 10 years or so the group has held the feast at the Lion’s Club near Burlingame High School, the only nearby hall big enough to fit all the original 2212 Sacramento St. participants and their extended families.
More than 70 people are expected to converge there today, 50 years after the first gathering. They no longer have to bring their own chairs, just their favorite pot luck dishes.
Carney said that although it’s been years since the group got together in San Francisco, they still have ties to the original house. It turns out Tom McGarvey’s daughter married a contractor who is doing the current renovation of the mansion.
Traditions die hard in such a small city. There’s at least one extended brood quite thankful for that.
Ken Garcia appears Thursdays and Sundays in The San Francisco Examiner. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.