San Francisco

The Storied Past Of 1550 Page Street, Turning 125 This Year

One of the undisputed architectural gems of the Upper Haight, the towering Victorian manse at 1550 Page St. is one of the best-maintained, most lovingly restored period homes in the neighborhood. This year, it celebrates its 125th birthday.

We recently sat down with the home's owner, Chip Isaac. A dedicated amateur historian, he walked us through the many lives of 1550 Page. It's story is very San Francisco: from an early land grant to a stint as a boarding house to a famous hippie flophouse, the house has had a long road to restoration—including an appearance in a Paul Madonna book.

The city's earliest records for the property date to 1870, when the land in the Haight was initially parceled out by the Committee On Outside Lands. The committee's aim was to establish a park in the western end of the city and to expand the city's limit into the western side of the peninsula, which was then federal land.

At the time, land in the western half of the city was largely held by squatters; Congress established a compromise between them, the city, and the federal government by granting the land to the city in exchange for rights to the land to develop Golden Gate Park. The city, in turn, granted the new land to the squatters. (The last names of the men on the Committee on Outside Lands: Ashbury, Clayton, Cole, Shrader, and Stanyan.)

The land in the Haight fell to two men, John H. Baird and Leopold Seligman, who sold it off to a variety of builders. In 1891, builders Cranston and Keenan constructed a block of five houses at the corner of Page and Ashbury (which the photo below shows from behind, as viewed from Oak Street).

These houses were just five of many built by Cranston and Keenan in the city. Isaac said that some of the houses in the Page and Ashbury block are still laid out the same way, and have pieces of the same marble inside. 1550 Page has a sister house of the same design at 701 Broderick, and another, recently restored Cranston and Keenan sits on the southeast corner of Page and Cole, two blocks from 1550 Page. The houses all share a host of architectural details: for example, 1550 Page and 1399 Broderick have identical sun detailing.

1550 Page (above left) at the corner of Page and Ashbury in 1910.

According to city water records, 1550 Page's first life was as a boarding house, with rooms for 14 people. Immediately after the 1906 earthquake, the house was bought up by the Shields Estate Company as a rental investment.

Isaac has found tenant names on city records from this era, and he believes the building was mostly run as a boarding house for men going to pharmacy school at UCSF (which was then a Berkeley extension). During a recent renovation, Isaac found graffiti on the subflooring that read "ΚΨ 1915"; Kappa Psi is a pharmaceutical fraternity.

In 1924, the Shields Estate Company sold 1550 Page to an Irish immigrant couple named John and Bessie Lynch, for the whopping sum of $7,967.82—that would be roughly $108,935.75 in 2016 dollars. (Isaac has a copy of the receipt, shown above.) The Lynches owned the house until the early 1960s, when Bessie died and her family sold the property off.

At this point, it's unclear who assumed ownership of the house, but like many of its kind, it became a hippie crash pad. Isaac said one of the residents was Jason Orr, from the San Francisco Mime Troupe. He lived there with his girlfriend Roberta Browne, whose brother—then 16-year-old Jackson Browne—stayed with them in the summer of 1965.

Another notable 1960s resident was Jim Pike, son of James Pike, who was the fifth Bishop of California at the time.

During its life as a 1960s party pad (Isaac said all reports indicated "lots of parties, and a lot of acid"), the house was known alternately as "Reagan Towers," for a painted plywood sign in the yard designed as a middle finger to then-governor Ronald Reagan, and "the Hippie Temptation house," for its seconds-long appearance in the famous 1967 CBS scare documentary of the same name.

After the party got ugly, the house was condemned by the city and boarded up. Isaac said that one neighbor who grew up nearby remembers playing in the empty house with her sisters as a child.

The house in the early 2000s, before its current paint job.

The house was bought by a dentist in the 1970s, and split into three flats. In 1984, Isaac began living there as a renter.

"It took me eight weeks to find this place," Isaac said, and "it was really the place itself" that drew him to the Haight. He decided immediately that he wanted to live in the building.

After 20 years as a renter at 1550 Page, Isaac was able to buy the building when it went up for sale in 2004. He's since embarked on a detailed restoration, including a complex 2007 paint job that incorporated an astonishing 31 different colors and a dimensional technique called drybrushing.

The original fireplaces are still in place, and feature elaborate carvings.

The house had a brush with danger in 2012, when an attic fire in the neighboring building spread into 1550 Page, forcing a full-building vacancy for two years while insurance hurdles were cleared and restoration was completed.

"We're just now settling back into the house," Isaac said. The tenants who lived on the upper floors before the fire have moved back in.

While 1550 Page is looking pretty swell for 125, Isaac grimaced upon realizing that it might be time for a fresh paint job. Until then, the next time you walk by, give the old lady a little nod.


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