Mark Twain didn’t really complain about the San Francisco weather (the person who coined, “The coldest winter I’ve ever had was a summer in San Francisco” never claimed the quote), but he did further dispute with the city.
“An old house broke from its berths last night and drifted down Sutter Street towards Montgomery,” the famous humorist wrote in the Daily Morning Call in 1886, above that office, and she finally stopped in the middle of the thoroughfare and stares dejectedly in Towards Montgomery Street, as if she wanted to go down there, but really didn’t feel up to the exertion. “
Aside from Twain’s wonderful personification of a sad, lost house in the middle of San Francisco, the scene he depicts of a house gliding through the city streets may seem like a bizarre spectacle – but it used to be a common sight.
This photo, recently shared on the excellent History of San Francisco Instagram, made me wonder a lot.
How do these poor horses move a villa?
Why move a house at all and not build a new one?
Seriously, are these horses okay?
Many of the answers can be found in Diane C. Donovan’s fascinating book “San Francisco Relocated”.
It turns out the photo was taken in Pacific Heights in 1908. The house with the overhanging windows on the far left still stands today, although it is painted white, at 2402 Steiner across from Alta Plaza Park.
While we don’t know where that particular traveling home ended up, Donovan reveals in her book that mansion relocation is a little-known part of San Francisco’s history. Due to the constant reworking of sidewalks, streets, and grid lines through the young city – and the fact that San Francisco’s redwood houses were relatively light as opposed to brick houses on the east coast – huge structures were often seen on the streets.
So much so that they became a public nuisance not just for Mark Twain.
“The business of buying these ancient clams, moving them … and selling them for long loans has become a regular business,” wrote the Alta California in 1868, “followed by a number of people making profit for themselves themselves, but have loss to the general public. “
The activity wasn’t much fun for the horses either. However, the method they used to move the huge houses was pretty clever and went something like this:
The house would be jacked up and placed on greased beams. As the house moved forward, the workers picked up the boards and ties that had been left behind and rebuilt the track in front of the house. A winch or drum was placed in the middle of the road and connected to a huge cross member on the structure with a pulley. The two horses circled the drum, unwound the roll, and slowly dragged the house down the street.
The method is pretty clear in this photo of a New York state house that moved in 1893:
Moving in, New York State, 1893.
Archive / Unknown
Even when gas powered trucks were available, horses were still used because they could step in circles over the large cables, which at the time would bring a truck to a standstill.
Moving homes and even churches and schools was a big industry in San Francisco for a short time. The 1900 edition of the city’s business directory lists no fewer than 19 companies offering their services to relocate your home.
Herbert L. Hatch’s early attempt at viral marketing on a postcard titled “Moving Day in San Francisco” shows a cable car passing under a huge house on Washington Street. (The building on the right is now Danielle Steel’s Spreckles Mansion.)
“Moving Day in San Francisco”, c. 1900.
One of the most extraordinary examples of frivolous buildings in San Francisco, as if they were monopoly hotels, came in 1913.
The Newton J. Tharp Commercial School was completed in 1910, but just three years later all 9,000 tons were lifted and 1,485 feet moved to make way for the new Civic Center. The school was moved from Van Ness to 170 Fell Street, where it still stands today.
The move was captured in this wonderful (filled with typos) postcard entitled “Biggest Moving Job Ever”.
“Biggest moving job ever.” The Newton J. Tharp Commercial School was relocated to San Francisco in 1913.
Archive / Unknown
As the city’s infrastructure established itself and building materials became cheaper, traffic, phone lines, and other services ended the era of building moving in San Francisco.
Some historic buildings in the Bay Area are occasionally relocated today, such as the historic Lathrop House in Redwood City, which moved to its third address, 701 Hamilton St., in 2019 to make way for an office building.
This structure was moved at speeds of 1 to 2 meters per hour, with a large crew of engineers, seismic fitters, industrial hydraulic rollers – and without horses.
Here are some great time-lapse footage from this step:
More San Francisco history