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History of a Tree, A Branch, A Block

September 16, 2010

A big branch of the landmark 100+ year old Moreton Bay Fig tree next to St Luke’s fell on a car around 8PM. (15 second exposures.)

It’s the second branch to fall in the past year or so.  A panorama of the tree in better days:

This tree is well over 100 years old, and may have been planted by Bancroft (of the Bancroft Library) himself.

You may have seen the bronze historical marker below the tree – Hubert Howe Bancroft had his library at Valencia and Army / CC for 26 years.

Bancroft moved to SF in 1853 at age 20 to extend the family bookstore.  He started collecting books, maps and documents in 1860.  By 1870 he had opened a library on Market & 3rd, with 120 boxes of books. But within 10 years he had outgrown it and moved 622 boxes to a new library at Valencia and Army next to St. Luke’s hospital. (So, how do I get that job?)

I’ve always wondered why he chose to build on that corner.  It was pretty far out there in the day, and he lived on Van Ness & Sutter.

Good transit may have been a factor: streetcars had been running on Valencia since 1865, but stopped at 25th St (next to the SFSJ railroad station).  The streetcar line was converted to a cable car in 1883, and the line was extended across Army St (the car barn was at Valencia and Mission).

A picture of the “new” library sometime after 1880, looking from Valencia and Army, to the SW. (No fig trees as far as I can see.)

1886 Sanborn map (west is up). Tiny St. Luke’s hospital visible to the left.  Also, an “old ladies home”.

1888 view looking to the NW down from Bernal – the Bancroft library is just behind the big white barn looking building. (Can’t say that I see a tree.  If anyone has a higher resolution version of this I will buy you all the beer you can drink in one sitting.)

1900 Sanborn map.  (Cool, a hen house and a windmill!)

Because it amuses me, I include an undated picture of the St. Luke’s hospital  Taken from Valencia & Tiffany, looking NW. (1890s? 1900? When did guys stop wearing those hats?) Bancroft Library would just be to the right (along with our tree?) You can see the two hospital buildings on the Sanborn map above. (Nice deck!) Note also the tiny predecessor to the 1912 steps. And that retaining wall has been around forever.

Anyway, the Bancroft’s building was the only major library in the city to escape the fires of 1906. Alas UC Berkeley bought the Bancroft Library in 1906, moving it across the bay. “Three great vans full consisting of over three tons have already arrived . . . but it occupies five hours for a wagon to come from Valencia Street to Berkeley.” (24th to Berkeley on BART is half an hour.)

After Bancroft, the building turned into the “Eng Skell Company soda fountain supplies, syrup factory and warehouse” – a rather inelegant transition from a world class research library. Here we have the 1913 Sanborn map:

The shot below is supposed to be from 1910 and is labeled as the St. Luke’s, though I suspect it’s the employees of Eng Skell’s. (If they were nurses they’d be wearing their hats, no?)  Sometime in the early ‘1os, 1538 was taken over by St. Luke’s as an outpatient clinic.

Our Mortenson Fig could very well be the one on the left – it lines up perfectly with the Sanborn-Google overlay (library in red). If so, I’d guess that Bancroft planted it 20 years before this? Any tree people, feel free to comment on my growthstemation.

Note that the Guerrero side (top) isn’t misaligned — remember the city pushed back those house 20 feet when they widened Guerrero in the early 1950s. (Oh, and the green square? Just the site of the Bernal Rancho in the 1840s-1860s.)

The old library stood until the mid 195os:FIGURING IT OUT–Joseph Zem, right, director of St. Luke’s Hospital, and Episcopal Canon Charles Guilbert, talk about the new hospital annex to be built where they’re standing. The 74-year-old building behind them, formerly a library, will be torn down.”

(You can barely see the “ENG” above the door from the Skell days.)

I suspect our Moreton Bay fig is just visible on right in this photo.

24 Comments leave one →
  1. September 16, 2010 10:16 am

    Moreton Bay Figs grow very fast so the putative fig tree in the Skell picture could be much younger than 20 years.

    As I’m sure you know, Bancroft was farming fruit by the 1880s ( Perhaps an interest in trees began with ornamentals.

  2. christi permalink
    September 16, 2010 10:24 am

    very cool research, thanks!

  3. friscolex permalink
    September 16, 2010 10:35 am

    First response: Glad I wasn’t biking home at that time!
    Second response: I hope the tree will heal properly. I know someone who LOVES this tree.
    Third response: Sweet!! BJ has a whole bunch of cool stuff about this!


  4. September 16, 2010 10:44 am

    I’m always bummed out when I hear about awesome old building being torn down.

  5. Siobhan permalink
    September 16, 2010 12:18 pm

    Thanks for the info, fellow tree hugger!

  6. Jonathan Lammers permalink
    September 16, 2010 1:27 pm

    As an aside, Eng Skell Co. in 1930 constructed a new and much larger plant at 1035 Howard Street in SOMA. This building should rightly be considered the finest and most monumental Art Deco industrial works in San Francisco, and continues to be occupied by Eng Skell’s successor firm, Esco Foods .

  7. Mei Ling Hui permalink
    September 16, 2010 3:37 pm

    Thanks for this post – this is my favorite tree in the City. It means a lot to me and I’m heartbroken right now.

    The tree was granted landmark status (most protected tree class) by the City, which is different than/additional to Mike’s list of really fabulous trees.

    For more info on the City program:

    Also, I have a picture of the tree in the 1920’s that I pulled form the SFPL archives when it was going through the landmark tree review process. I’m unsure of how to upload it into a comment, but would love to share.

  8. rocky'sdad permalink
    September 17, 2010 3:57 pm

    beautiful post. that tree is one awesome landmark. I walk by it a lot. I hope it can be saved.

  9. September 23, 2010 11:45 am

    Johnny0, last night I had a dream where you had made a Burrito Justice book full of historical map and photo analysis, and also some weird pinball machine that had padded cloth sides. I think you should make both of those.

    • September 23, 2010 12:13 pm

      While the latter is certainly intriguing, I suspect the former would sell better.

      Can someone buy Sanborn for me? (hint hint Google…)

    • friscolex permalink
      September 23, 2010 1:07 pm

      Padded cloth-sided pinball machine, not sell? Surely you don’t know your demographic! :-P

    • September 23, 2010 3:30 pm

      Oh, I thought you meant padded on the INSIDE. OK, then. I’ll get right on that too.

  10. Dave Dennison permalink
    September 28, 2010 3:57 am

    Great post as usual.
    Mention of the ‘Old Ladies Home’ reminds me of the provocatively named Lick Old Ladies Home on University St. in the Portola.
    Now it goes by University Mound Ladies Home, sadly.

  11. October 3, 2010 2:18 pm

    I have a higher-res version of that photo above — e-mail me for details!

  12. Chris Dichtel permalink
    February 22, 2017 2:18 pm

    Was revisiting this post when I renoticed your appeal for a better version of that shot from Bernal hills, and the comment that someone may have already provided you with one (and gotten that lap full of beer); but I also have a much-better-rez version of that view, an almost identical shot, but more detail and wider spread.

    Just clue me how to toss it at you and I will. Love your site.

  13. GrandMaster Bernie permalink
    September 21, 2010 9:34 pm

    The estimate lifespan for one in cultivation is over 200 years so hopefully the tree will out live us all. It is definitely in my 10 5 favorite trees in the city.


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