Geneva Terraces: A Closer Look

by Woody LaBounty

A closer look at an OpenSFHistory image.

Welcome to Ottawa and Cayuga Avenues in Geneva Terraces. This scan of a vivid 35mm color slide calls to mind the work of photorealist artist Robert Bechtel, an expert at capturing the familiar quasi-suburban life of San Francisco’s outer neighborhoods—quiet avenues with stucco row houses, strips of lawn, and cars in driveways.

Ottawa and Cayuga Avenues, 1950s.
1500 block of Cayuga Avenue from Ottawa Avenue, 1950s. (wnp25.0389. Courtesy of a private collector)

Geneva Terraces lies in the rough triangle south of Geneva Avenue between Alemany Boulevard and Interstate 280, in what Google maps would label the Outer Mission now. Street names in the area are mostly Native American tribe names and appear on the “West End Homestead” maps filed with the city in the 1860s. But into the twentieth century, this gully between the San Jose and Mission Roads was open farmland with Islais Creek running through it to the bay.

Cayuga Park area, February, 1915.
View north of farms and Islais Creek (on left) near the site of the future Cayuga Playground and Geneva Terraces, February 1915. (wnp27.0484, DPW Image 2229. Copy negative courtesy of a private collector)

In the 1910s, the city buried Islais Creek in a sewer project and in the late 1920s, the real estate firm of Baldwin & Howell began filling the old farmland with stucco bungalows. There was little terracing needed for Geneva Terraces, but every hopeful subdivision at the time was named Terraces or Heights. Baldwin & Howell were at the tail end of selling out Mission Terrace and Westwood Highlands, both restricted residential parks tailored for upper middle-class buyers, and initially, Geneva Terraces had the same marketing plan. Prolific house architect Charles Strothoff designed five-room Mediterranean-inspired homes constructed by builder F. W. Varney, and the first houses went on sale for $6,500 just north of Geneva Avenue in 1927.

Grading for Geneva Terrace, 1938.
Grading for Geneva Terraces streets. View southeast from about Modoc Avenue. Upper left is Mt. Vernon Avenue and upper right is the intersection of Ottawa Avenue and Alemany Boulevard, February 28, 1938. (wnp26.157, DPW Image A5533. Copy negative courtesy of a private collector)

The onset of the Great Depression changed plans. Baldwin & Howell contracted with the Stoneson Brothers, who would later have great success creating the Lakeside neighborhood and the Stonestown Shopping Center, to build slightly humbler houses southeast of Geneva Avenue. In June 1930, five-room houses were listed at $5,450, a not uncommon monthly mortgage payment in San Francisco today.

As with the hundreds of houses built at the same time in the Sunset District, these modest residences followed a cookie-cutter floor plan, but had lots of frosting to draw buyers. Kitchens and bathrooms sported colored tile work with skylights and center patios (“daylight halls”) bringing in light. Outside, the stucco facades got bright pastel paint jobs and were tweaked with Old World elements to put mock Tudor cottages cheek and jowl with Mission chapels.

All the color didn’t help in the depths of the Depression. In January 1934, new Geneva Terraces houses were listed as low as $3,750.

Thanks to FHA loans, the market picked up by the time the Cayuga and Ottawa Avenue houses pictured above were built. The model home for the block at 1556 Cayuga was priced at $6,000 in November 1938.

Who were the families moving into Geneva Terraces? Like in the adjacent Excelsior District, typical last names of buyers were Corradetti, Catelli, Del Carlo, and Bergolio—Italians moving out from North Beach or flats in the Inner Mission for the promise of a new home in a new neighborhood. On November 9, 1938, almost certainly the first baby on the 1500 block was born to the De Capeva family, who had just purchased 1586 Cayuga Avenue, the second house in from the corner in our color image at the top of this story.