Start: Corner of Broadway and Taylor Street (at the top of the steps).
: Bus: No. 12 will take you within a block of this walk; cable cars: Powell-Mason and Powell-Hyde will take you within a block of this walk.
Finish: Corner of Chestnut and Jones streets.
Time: 2 hours.
Best Times: Tuesday through Saturday between 10am and 5pm. Worst Times: Sunday and Monday, when the San Francisco Art Institute is closed.
Hills That Could Kill: The steps that lead to the upper level of Broadway from Taylor Street.
Lo ocal legend has it that Russian Hill's name is a memento of the visits made by groups of Russian seamen, who came down from Sitka to hunt sea otter for their skins. Those who died on the expeditions apparently were buried on this hill.
Russian Hill was a bohemian center long before Telegraph Hill or North Beach, and while the millionaires were busy sprucing up Nob Hill with mansions, the artists and writers of Russian Hill were living in little shacks and cottages, painting the views, drinking cheap wine, and taking part in intellectual discourse. Today, there's still a small community of writers and artists on the hill, but for the most part they've all been driven to other neighborhoods (such as the Mission District) by rising rents.
This tour will take you by the homes and haunts of famous bohemians, such as Ina Donna Coolbrith and Jack Kerouac. You'll also get a feel for the local color as you pass the homes of Kate Atkinson and Pop Demarest. You'll discover hidden passages with wooden steps, and you'll be charmed by the cottage-style homes at the hill's summit. And, of course, there are the breathtaking views.
Begin at the corner of Broadway and Taylor Street. Proceed up the Broadway steps. Your first stop will be at the top:
1. 1032 Broadway, the former home of Kate Atkinson, who for many years opened her doors to various artists and writers. A group of writers called "Les Jeunes" were among those who gathered here. Nine young, irreverent members made up the group, but by far the most interesting of them was Gelett Burgess.
Burgess, born in Boston in 1868, received a Bachelor of Science degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before moving to San Francisco, where he worked for Southern Pacific Railway and for the University of California. He made a speedy entrance into the literary world as an editor of a weekly publication called the Wave, where he replaced Frank Norris (who had left to complete McTeague). It didn't take long for Burgess to found his own publication, the Lark.
Working with the other members of Les Jeunes, Burgess printed the Lark on bamboo paper and filled its pages with whatever struck his fancy. Each issue featured a serious poem, essay, and fictional story, but most of its pages were filled with nonsensical rhyming verse. Burgess himself wrote one of the ditties you might recognize:
I never Saw a Purple Cow; I never Hope to See One; But I can Tell you, Anyhow, I'd rather See than Be one.
After its publication in one of the 24 issues of the Lark (plus an Epilark), the country went mad for it, and it was published and quoted and requoted in thousands of magazines.
Burgess also wrote a wonderful poem titled "The Ballad of the Hyde Street Grip," for which he probably would rather be remembered, so we'll leave one of his favorite hangouts with a stanza from that rhyme:
North Beach to Tenderloin, over Russian Hill, The grades are something giddy, and the curves are fit to kill!
All the way to Market Street, clanging up the slope,
Down upon the other side, clinging to the rope! But the view of San Francisco, as you take the lurching dip!
There is plenty of excitement on the Hyde Street Grip!
Directly across the street is:
2. 1051 Broadway, one of Herb Gold's residences. A former student at New York's Columbia University and classmate of Allen Ginsberg, Gold has lived in San Francisco for more than 30 years. He's a best-selling author whose novels include Fathers and Dreaming. He contributes regularly to magazines and is well known for his witty essays about San Francisco.
A bit farther on is:
3. 1067 Broadway, the former home of poet Ina Donna Coolbrith (1842-1928). The niece of Mormon Church founder Joseph Smith, she was born Josephine Smith, the daughter of Joseph's brother, Don Carlos. Coolbrith's father died when she was only 4 months old, and her
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Take a Break
1 1032 Broadway
2 1051 Broadway
3 1067 Broadway
4 Demarest Compound
5 40 Florence St.
6 Russian Hill Place
7 Ina Coolbrith Park
8 Macondray Lane
9 1067 Green St.
10 29 Russell St.
11 George Sterling Glade
12 Former home of Robert
Louis Stevenson's wife
13 Lombard Street
14 San Francisco Art Institute
Pacific Ave mother, who abandoned Mormonism because she disagreed with polygamy, took Josephine and her two siblings from Nauvoo, Illinois, west to St. Louis. They finally took the epic journey overland to California, stopping first in San Francisco, but finally settling in Los Angeles.
Josephine began writing, and at the age of 11, she had her first poems published in the Los Angeles Star. At 17 she married Robert B. Carsley, a minstrel-show performer. Three short and brutal years later, she divorced him and moved to San Francisco, taking the name Ina Donna Coolbrith, under which she had been writing her poetry.
Aside from being a poet, she was an inspiration for writers, poets, artists, and philosophers in early San Francisco and was greatly loved by her contemporaries. She began working with Bret Harte on the Overland Monthly (in 1868), but poetry did not pay her bills or support her family, so she took a job in the Oakland Public Library where she worked for more than 25 years. It was in the Oakland library that she met 12-year-old Jack London, then poor, shabbily dressed, and generally uncared for. He was asking for something to read. Coolbrith guided and inspired him, and of her he said, "I loved Ina Coolbrith above all womankind, and what I am and what I have done that is good I owe to her."
In 1915, at the age of 73, she was proclaimed Poet Laureate of California at the University of California.
On the other side of the street, at 1078-1080 Broadway, is the location of what was once known as the:
4. Demarest Compound. The old "compound" was really just a small grouping of cottages that was built to house refugees after the earthquake of 1906. After the refugees moved, the cottages, surrounded by shrubs and flowers, were home to many writers, but they no longer exist. However, you can't take a trip to Russian Hill without learning about old Pop Demarest, who built the cottages and owned the land upon which they were built.
Pop Demarest lived up here until he died in 1939, at the age of 87, but he wasn't known to more than a handful of people until his obituary, which called him "The Hermit of Russian Hill," was published. For many years he lived in an abandoned cistern pipe under the buildings at the compound, later moving into the basement of one of the cottages.
Demarest hated to bathe, but he loved to drink, and every month he would go on a drunken binge. For several days he would run naked through the compound gardens, throwing bottles and making a general nuisance of himself. His tenants didn't mind, though; they just locked their doors and waited patiently until he quieted down. His tenants probably were tolerant of this outrageous behavior—in part, at least—because Demarest didn't really care when or if they paid their rent. Money meant nothing to him.
After Demarest died, reporters flocked to his basement room to see what it was like. They found it full of cobwebs, knickknacks, dried animal skins, thousands of records (many by Adelina Patti, whom he was crazy about), photographs, and hordes of hungry cats.
Now head east until you reach the street sign marking Florence Street. It's tucked behind a tree on the north side of the street at the cusp of the hill. Head up the set of stairs on the north side of the road (the Florence St. Steps). When you reach the top of the stairs, you'll be on Florence Street. Look for:
5. 40 Florence Street, which once was the home of architect Willis Polk (1867-1924). In his early career, Polk spent time working for the firm Van Brunt and Howe in Kansas City, and later for A. Page Brown in New York. When Brown moved his office to San Francisco in 1889, Polk moved with him, and it was here that Polk flourished. His work has been described as "versatile" and "unpredictable," paving the way for many San Francisco architects to come. The tendency to mix and match styles is a technique frequently repeated in San Francisco homes of the Victorian period. Polk built an enormous number of houses and worked on many churches and office buildings during his career. In 1917 he designed the first glass curtain-walled building in the world (the Hallidie Building, at 130-150 Sutter St.).
While he made his living in architecture, Polk still had time to take part in some bohemian escapades. In fact, he was an active member of Les Jeunes and often contributed drawings or architectural essays to some of the magazines of the time, such as Gelett Burgess's Lark.
Continue to the end of Florence Street and turn left on Vallejo Street. Across the street you'll see a small lane called:
6. Russian Hill Place. Mystery writer Virginia Rath, once a resident of Russian Hill Place, gave one of her characters, Michael Dundas, a home here in the quaint, hidden cul-de-sac that tops Russian Hill.
Born in Colusa County, California, Rath had her primary education in country schools, where she began writing and submitting stories to publishers before she was 16. In 1935, the Crime Club published her first novel, Death at Dagtons Folly. Her next few novels made her one of the most popular mystery writers of her time.
Come back out of Russian Hill Place and go left to the end of Vallejo Street, where you'll find—along with a terrific perch on which to soak in the spectacular view of the city and bay—a set of stairs to the right. Go down the stairs, cross Taylor Street, and follow another set of stairs into:
7. Ina Coolbrith Park. Coolbrith lived near here on Taylor Street until her apartment burned down in the fire of 1906. In the fire, she lost letters from such friends as Lord Tennyson, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and from closer everyday companions such as Mark Twain, Bret Harte, and Charles Warren Stoddard. She met Twain and Stoddard when she worked in the offices of the Overland Monthly.
Harte, Stoddard, and Coolbrith enjoyed taking trips to Mount Tamalpais and Muir Woods, and they often drank together in Sausalito or sat in Coolbrith's Russian Hill house reading poetry together. After the fire destroyed the home, friends raised money and purchased two apartments for her, one of which provided enough rental income to meet her living expenses. (Note: Keep an eye and ear out for the flock of wild parakeets that reside here. You can't help but hear their horrible screeching as they zoom overhead.)
Come out of the park the way you entered, and go right on Taylor Street until you come to a wooden staircase on the left side of the street, which is:
8. Macondray Lane, the quintessential San Francisco pedestrian street, inaccessible to cars or any other form of transportation. Some people believe that this street was the model for Armistead Maupin's Barbary Lane, whereas others believe Filbert Street was (because of its proximity to Maupin's own home). In any case, this is a wonderful street to walk along with its overhanging trees and wandering flowers. You're sure to find several cats hanging out under the steps or near the houses.
When you come to Jones Street, turn left, and then turn right on Green Street to:
9. 1067 Green St., which will be on your left. This octagonal house, better known as the Feusier Octagon, originally was constructed in 1859. Louis Feusier, a San Francisco merchant, added the cupola and mansard roofing 20 or 30 years later. The house was built at a time when it was rumored that people would be healthier if they lived in octagonal spaces, and although it makes for interesting architecture, there was never any proof that this claim was true. A similar octagon-shaped house is located at the corner of Union and Gough streets and now is a museum and home to the National Society of Colonial Dames of America (see stop 16 of Walk 7).
A bit farther along on the right, at no. 1088, is a Tudor Revival firehouse that dates from 1907 and was designed by Newton J. Tharp. The firehouse was still in use until the early 1950s. It later was purchased and restored by Louise S. Davies, who donated it to the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1978.
Continue along Green Street to Hyde Street. Go right on Hyde to Russell Street. Go left to:
10. 29 Russell St., where Jack Kerouac lived with Neal Cassady and Neal's wife when he came back to the West Coast in 1952. During his 6-month stay, Kerouac worked on revising On the Road and collaborated with Cassady on the art of spontaneous writing. Out of some of their conversations, which were tape-recorded as examples of spontaneity, came several sections of Visions of Cody.
If you continue west on Russell Street, you'll come to the intersection of Russell and Eastman streets. Go right here to Union Street, and then go left. When you get to Larkin Street, go right 2/4 blocks to the Greenwich Street Steps, which will take you up to the:
11. George Sterling Glade. After the suicide of the "King of Bohemia," George Sterling's friends and contemporaries gathered for the dedication of this memorial park. A tiled bench and plaque were installed here, but the bench broke and the plaque was stolen; so in 1982, another dedication was made, and a new plaque was installed. Alas, it's now also gone. But engraved on the bygone plaque were Sterling's own words about San Francisco:
Tho the dark be cold and blind, Yet her sea fog's touch is kind, And her mightier caress Is joy and the pain thereof; And great is thy tenderness, O cool, gray city of love!
Sterling was a serious and prolific poet. In his life he wrote 18 volumes of poetry, 13 of them published by Harry Robertson of San Francisco. Among the more notable were Wine of Wizardry, The Testimony of the Suns, and Lilith. Sterling met his unfortunate end in 1926 when he was awaiting the arrival of H. L. Mencken, for whom he had made elaborate arrangements in the way of dinners and parties. Mencken, oblivious to Sterling's plans and perhaps even to Sterling himself, decided to stay in Los Angeles a few more days. Sterling was so upset he drank himself into a stupor; when Mencken finally did arrive, Sterling was too drunk to greet him. Sterling also was unable to play his role as master of ceremonies in the festivities in Mencken's honor, so he was promptly replaced. So devastated was Sterling by this social failure that he proceeded to consume a lethal dose of cyanide, right in his room at San Francisco's famed Bohemian Club.
Continue east up the steps and past the tennis courts to Hyde Street. Go left on Hyde Street to Lombard Street.
Before heading down Lombard Street, note that on the northwest corner of Lombard and Hyde is the:
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