Friday, October 21, 2011

Memories of sailing the bay...

I just read through the Nov/Dec issue of Sailing and was came across "Bedlam on the Bay," describing this year's Big Boat Series, which was started almost 50 years ago by San Francisco's hoity-toity St. Francis Yacht Club.  It's always a great racing series, but what caught my eye was the almost full-page photo of two of the competitors sailing past Hyde Street on the waterfront.  It's a particularly wonderful image for me because triggers my earliest memories of the City.

I spent most of the first four years of my life in the Humphrey House, a marvelous old house at 976 Chestnut Street on the northeast corner of Hyde and Chestnut on Russian Hill.  At the time it was the oldest house in San Francisco, built by William Squires Clark in 1852, in part with materials brought around Cape Horn.  A sea captain named Humphrey bought it, and in 1880 it was moved to the corner lot, a bit west of its original location.  The Hyde Street cable car line was constructed during the following decade and is still operating as one of the City's only three remaining lines.

My maternal grandfather Frank Carroll Giffen rented the Humphrey House from about 1910-1928.  Then, after some ten years in Hollywood where he taught singing to emerging movie stars, he rented it again from 1938 until his death in 1948.  A few months later, my grandmother Sarah Jesse moved across the street into a large apartment on the northwest corner of Hyde and Chestnut and the old Humphrey House was sold and razed and replaced by the flat-roofed apartment building which I've circled in red on the photo above.  There was an effort to save the old house, and although some monies were raised to move it, the wrecking ball got it before the deal could be done.  The photo to the left was taken by the Historic American Building Survey in 1936 and looks north across Chestnut Street at the front of the house.

After my birth in Stanford University Hospital, then located in the City, my mother Elizabeth brought me to her family home at Hyde and Chestnut.  I recall playing in the front yard with my slightly older cousin, Boone, and because I was fascinated by the cable running under the street right outside the gate, I apparently managed to escape and sit in the middle of the street and gaze at it more than once, only to be rescued by a passer by or family member.  And, among my earliest memories are the fog horns that blew regularly on the bay during the 1940s.

This view of the house, also taken by HABS in 1936, is looking east across Hyde Street at the back and side of the house.  You can see the cable car tracks going up Hyde Street in the foreground.  My grandfather drove a Model T during the 1920s, and because the fuel was gravity fed, if he came down Hyde Street to far, he had to back up and into the garage, which you can see on the right of the photo, or back up to reach Chestnut Street from the garage.

Perhaps the loveliest thing about the old Humphrey House was the view it had of the bay and Alcatraz.  This 1990s photo which I found on a calendar captures the view wonderfully, and not only shows the cable cars, but you can see in the upper right quadrant the apartment building that took the place of the old Humphrey House 

When I began sailing the bay in 2000, I made it a regular occasion to sail past Hyde Street and look up at the same view captured by Daniel Foster in this Sailing photo.  I'm sorry to this day that I did not start sailing years earlier so that my mother could have joined me.  She would have loved it so!


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