S.F. quake shacks an endangered species

For a while there, it looked as if Alan and Melinda Mazzetti would have to shelve plans to build a new house on their Bernal Heights lot.

They didn’t know it, according to one city planner, but the modest house the couple bought in 2005 was a converted earthquake refugee shack. It is one of 28 that remain in San Francisco as reminders of a century-old natural disaster and refugee crisis that nearly destroyed — and helped define — The City.

The shacks are considered a historical resource, and are therefore required, under state law, to be treated as such. The 28 that remain in San Francisco are protected by strict historical codes. The Mazzettis had to either find someone to take the shack in one piece, or go through an exhaustive process of review and petitioning to tear it down. After a year, they are just three weeks from a vote at the Planning Commission.

“For a while there, it was scary. We weren’t sure if they were going to find somebody, but they ended up finding this guy who was willing to take it,” planner Tim Frye said. The shack will move to Midpines, near Yosemite National Park.

The shacks, the smallest of which were 10 by 14 feet in size, were The City’s answer to a disaster that left more than half its population homeless nearly overnight.

With the help of the U.S. Army, San Francisco constructed about 5,600 of the temporary buildings, setting them up in rows in city parks and open spaces in areas now known as the Sunset and Richmond districts.

The 1906 earthquake and fire was “probably one of the greatest natural disasters ever to strike anywhere,” said Charles Fracchia, the founder and president emeritus of the San Francisco Historical Society, and author of three books on San Francisco history. “You start off with a population of 400,000 (before the April 18 quake); 250,000 were rendered homeless because of the fire.”

While many stayed with friends and relatives in The City and the East Bay, about 15,000 to 20,000 moved into the temporary shacks, Fracchia said.

Over the course of the century, many of the buildings, which had been ordered off city property by 1910, were destroyed, moved out of town or convertedinto the components of larger dwellings, such as the one at 842 Moultrie St., which the Mazzettis own.

The Mazzettis and their architect, Jerry Veverka, declined to be interviewed for this story. Their project is due before the San Francisco Planning Department on July 19.

Structures’ scarcity spurs debate

Of the 28 known earthquake refugee shacks in The City, 22 are being used as homes, while six have either been restored or are identified for restoration, according to planners and preservationists.

There are two shacks open to the public in the Presidio, located behind the Dispensary. Another four are being kept at the zoo. Of those, one has been restored to its original state. The other three are slated to be moved to Oakland, where the Fifth Street Institute will turn them into artists’ studios.

There is a small debate within the preservationist community about the necessity of preserving each and every remaining shack.

“I think we have a good series of examples of them. I don’t know how many are still existing in their natural state,” San Francisco Historical Society founder Charles Fracchia said Friday.

“If there’s one that’s pristine, I think we should do everything we can to reside it, if that’s an issue. But in the case of something that’s been totally restructured, etc., I don’t think The City’s historical fabric is losing much.”

But planner Moses Corrette, who works on The City’s Historical Resources Survey, disagreed.

“They are a rare thing and they are unique to San Francisco and unique objects in the world. Because they were not built out of substantial materials, they are frail, but they’re an endangered species like a butterfly, and every one that we can identify should really be preserved and given its recognition,” Corrette said.

Shacks were divided up into four sizes:

» Type A, the smallest, measured 10 by 14 feet

» Type B measured 14 by 18 feet

» Type C, meant for families, measured 15 feet by 25 feet and 16 feet by 18 feet.

» Type D were barracks.

The following is a list of known shacks compiled by the San Francisco Western Neighborhoods Project, which is spearheading preservation efforts.

Bernal Heights

164 Bocana St. (Type C)

211 Mullen Ave. (Type B)

20 Newman St. (two Type Bs)

43 Carver St. (two Type Bs)

842 Moultrie St. (possibly 848 also)

Sunset District

1227 24th Ave. (City Landmark #171, three Type A, one Type B)

4329-4331 Kirkham St. (three Type As and one Type B)

Ocean View

233 Broad St. (Type A)

74 Lobos St. (two Type Bs).

254 Montana St. (Type B)

30 Niantic St. (two Type As)

Noe Valley

300 Cumberland St. (one Type A and one Type B)

252 Holyoke St. (one Type A and one Type B)


“Goldie Shacks” on Mesa Street, behind Old Post Hospital (two Type As). These shacks were originally located at 485-34th Ave. near Geary, and were saved from demolition in 1985.


Should The City preserve the earthquake shacks?

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