A row of Arthur and Oliver Rousseau-constructed homes on 35th Avenue, at Lawton Street.
Photos and story by Thomas K. Pendergast
(Originally published in the April, 2017, issue of the Sunset Beacon newspaper, a community newspaper serving the Sunset District of San Francisco.)
In 1932, the country was going through the worst of the Great Depression: with millions of people being unemployed and thousands standing in soup kitchen food lines.
In San Francisco, money for building large scale projects, like hotels, office buildings and apartment houses, had almost dried up, so two brothers in real estate development, Arthur and Oliver Rousseau, turned their attention to building single-family homes in the Sunset District, much of which at the time was still covered with sand dunes.
While Arthur focused on raising money and running the family business, Marian Realty, Oliver designed fanciful and opulent home for middle-class buyers. Together, they built fewer than 200 homes and within three years their business had gone bankrupt, but the homes they built influenced many San Francisco architects who built after them. They were among the first to make built-in garages standard and they popularized central patios, for example.
Today, 93 of their "Rousseau" homes -- concentrated within city blocks on 33rd, 34th and 35th avenues, between Kirkham and Lawton streets -- are under consideration for historic landmark status.
Details at house on 35th Avenue between Lawton and Kirkham streets.
"The proposed Rousseaus' Boulevard Tract Landmark District Designation is intended to preserve the unique San Francisco version of storybook-style architecture of this tract," said Gina Simi, communications manager for the SF Planning Department. "The landmark designation ordinance is intended to provide clarity to both property owners and future (Planning Department) staff. Property owners will help tailor the landmark designation ordinance to determine which types of alterations would require additional review.
"Property owners were asked to rate the value they place on original and-or compatible materials and design in order to help (the Planning Department) determine which building features are most important to each property owner. This information will be used to guide future discussions and revisions to the landmark designation ordinance that will ultimately help determine a consistent design review process for the district," Simi said.
During the 2012-2013 Sunset District Historic and Cultural Resource Survey, the Rousseaus' Boulevard Tract was identified as a potential historic district and the Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) adopted the Sunset survey findings on Sept. 18, 2013.
The architecture of this district is described as "whimsical and detailed," representing a uniquely Bay Area version of storybook-style architecture. Also along the blocks where the Rousseaus are constructed are Tudor Revival, French, Mediterranean, Spanish Colonial and Monterey Revival houses.
The turret and roof of this home built by the Rousseau brothers are covered in Spanish-style tiles.
In a 2004 San Francisco Chronicle article, David Weinstein described the interiors of some of the homes.
"Inside the homes on 34th to 36th avenues, plans are nearly identical. Main living areas are above the garage. You walk up a flight of steps -- beneath a medallioned entry if the home is French, an arch if it's Spanish -- and enter a foyer large enough for the residents to use for their piano," Weinstein said.
"You can turn right, into the living area, or proceed straight to the bedrooms using a curved hallway. Separating living and sleeping areas, and serving as the home's fulcrum, is a center patio open to the air and often free-form in shape. Many people use it as a garden or children's play area. Smaller Rousseaus on 33rd lack the patio.
"The living room, which faces the street, is often sunk two steps below the dining room. Arched doorways separate living and dining areas. The doorways may have low, wrought-iron fences. A breakfast room has a built-in hutch, the kitchen an alcove for the stove," Weinstein continued.
"Downstairs is a two-or-three-car garage and a finished 'social hall,' with wet bar; many have been converted into mother-in-law rooms. Rousseau homes n the neighborhood have exposed structural steel beams in the garages. Owners say they're found only in true Rousseaus, and are indicative of well-built homes," he said.
A Rousseau home in the proposed historic district.
According to Simi, there are benefits to being in an historic district.
"If the Rousseaus' Boulevard Tract is designated by Board of Supervisors as a landmark district, property owners would be eligible to apply for a Mills Act contract," Simi said. "The Mills Act Program provides a potential reduction in property taxes, which is intended to help off-set the cost of maintaining and preserving their historic property.
"There will be at least one more neighborhood meeting (date T.B.D.) to discuss the draft landmark designation and ordinance. Planning staff expects to present the proposed landmark designation to the Historic Preservation Commission in May or June," Simi said.
Storybook-style houses feature towers, turrets, columns and colonnades, along with mullioned casement windows, arched or half-round doors, stucco siding and ornate hardware or lighting fixtures.
Along with bungalow and ranch-style houses, the storybook style originated in California. It was the brainchild of returning WWI veterans, who had discovered the charms of French and English residential architecture.
A variety of European styles, including things like round windows, can be found in the Rousseaus' Boulevard Tract Landmark District.