Pelton Cottages Evidence of Lived History in Dogpatch

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1010 Tennessee Street. Photo: Potrero View Staff

Passersby may have noticed two rows of identical bungalows huddled together on Tennessee and Minnesota streets near 22nd. These are Pelton Cottages – 1002, 1004, 1008, 1010, 1012, and 1014 Tennessee Street – and their backyard neighbors; 903, 905, 907, 909, 911, 913, and 915 Minnesota Street.  San Francisco was once home to 26 of these architectural gems.  The 13 in Dogpatch are the largest concentration of those that remain.  

The cottages were designed by John Cotter Pelton. Already a respected architect in the 1880’s, he wanted to make home ownership accessible to the working class.  ‘Cheap Dwellings,’ his series of plans for a three – later four – room cottage was published between 1880 and 1883 in the San Francisco Evening Bulletin, a daily newspaper whose readership was comprised of the City’s immigrants and laborers. Many residents of Dogpatch – then ‘Dutchman’s Flat’ – fit that demographic, working in shipbuilding and other heavy industries at Potrero Point, today’s Pier 70.  

The plans were predicated on a prospective new homeowner purchasing a 20-foot-wide lot, San Francisco’s minimum marketable plot size. A 20 percent rise in real wages between 1870 and 1890, along with newly available land for development brought about by street railroad expansion, made owning real estate in the City plausible for many who had previously been excluded.  Single lots in Dogpatch were selling for $700 to $800 in 1880, or $21,866 in today’s dollars.

Pelton offered floor plans with clear specifications, a materials list, labor cost estimates, and a ‘how to’ section to enable anyone to build their own cottage.  The designs were used by contactors and property owners throughout San Francisco, with many still standing today in the Mission, Haight, and Noe Valley. 

According to architectural historian Christopher VerPlanck, who authored the proposal that garnered Dogpatch ‘Historic District’ status in 2002, “Pelton’s ‘Cheap Dwellings’ series represented the first and only known instance in which a California architect published free plans for workers’ dwellings in a daily newspaper.”

His initial series of plans, from 1880, were for a three-room cottage that included an indoor water closet, a hip roof – one that slopes upward from all sides of the building, with no vertical elements – and picket fence, with costing $585 for materials and labor, $15,990 today. Later that year he published a second series, for a four-room 782 square feet cottage, with materials/labor cost of $854.25, $23,350 today.   

VerPlanck noted the more stylish nature of the second incarnation, “The plans depict scroll-sawn, Eastlake-style door and window surrounds and a heavy projecting cornice with brackets.”

Dogpatch’s remaining Pelton Cottages are of the four-room variety, constructed by contractor Rees Davis in 1887. The fortunate ones still wear their 140-year-old exterior finery. Some have had minor alterations, like installation of modern garage doors, stairs, or bannisters; missing wooden ornamentation.  Others have had severe facelifts, with shortened, metal casement windows, or a facade that’s been so rearranged one can’t be certain it’s a Pelton Cottage.  Fire has often been the author of these changes, completely destroying several.

The four-room cottages were originally configured as a front parlor, dining room, bedroom and kitchen and bathroom.   On real estate websites some are listed as having anywhere from three bedrooms, one bath to four bedrooms, three baths. One cottage’s original 872 square footage ballooned to 1,698 square feet through creation of a full story underneath, selling for $2.4 million in 2020. Cottages that remain close to their initial size are valued at $1.1 million.

While Pelton might’ve be aesthetically mortified by some of the changes, he’d approve the enlargements.  He planned for this inevitability, positioning two extra wide closets between the dining room and bedroom which could be converted to stairs to add another floor.

Shireen Irvine Perry’s family has owned the 1010 Tennessee Street cottage, which has retained much of its original features, since the mid-1980’s. The front steps are thin and extremely steep.  The front door – not original, but period correct, like many of the home’s fixtures – opens into a narrow hallway, which once ran the building’s entire length. The first room on the left, facing the street, serves as the parlor which, though small, has a grander feel because of its high ceiling and ample light. 

Next down the hall is the dining room, now functioning as a bedroom, with an antique bed, vintage quilts, and a 19th century chandelier from Perry’s grandparents’ home.  The hallway spills into the living room, which might’ve been the original kitchen.  The second bedroom is adjacent to the living room.  One of the closets has a trap door leading to a crawl space above. The cottage is filled with art and historic artifacts, many collected from travels to Asia and the Middle East.  

The kitchen and dining area occupy the back of the house, with French doors that look out into a spacious backyard.  Given that most of the cottages are on 100-foot-deep lots, the backyards are huge.  Other cottages and their yards are visible from the deck, creating a Rear Window vibe. The patch features a patio laid from bricks salvaged from the basement, possibly from the original chimney.  Roses, flowering shrubs, and mature fruit trees surrounded it, giving the feeling of an outdoor room.

Perry, a retired educator, spent thirty years teaching sewing to adults who had experienced vision loss. She authored a three-book series, Needle Arts With Vision Loss, and published In Sickness And In Health, A Story of Love In The Shadow Of AIDS, chronicling her marriage to Mark.

Previous 1010 Tennessee Street residents were identified through the Assessor’s’ Office and newspaper collections. Bartolomeo Lazzareschi and his wife, Anna, owned the cottage from 1924 until the early-1950s.  For much of that time, Bartolomeo’s brother, Italo, and his wife, Elisabetta, possessed the one next door, 1012 Tennessee Street. 

In 1932, Mrs. Jessie Scott Johnson Hughes of 41 Lakewood Avenue, in the Ingleside District, was brutally attacked in her garage, knocked unconscious, run over twice, her body dumped two blocks away. During the trial a secret witness was introduced, who was able to place two of the accused in that same vehicle, 20 minutes before the attack, in front of his business, the Harding Grill, at 543 Divisadero Street. The witness’ testimony sealed the case against the suspects. That secret witness was Bartolomeo Lazzareschi, who also made the news in 1932 when he and his wife welcomed a daughter.  

Battista Longo, 26, a baker, lived at 1010 Tennessee Street in the early 1920’s.  He married Frances Martinez in 1922.  Two years later he filed two lawsuits, seeking $25,000 each in damages from Mrs. Rita Ghigliano and Mr. Carlo Marenco, for allegedly inducing his wife to ‘separate from him’ on September 15.  Mrs. Frances Martinez Longo filed for a divorce on September 16, citing cruelty.

And there’s this nugget from the ‘Home Gatherings’ section of the San Francisco Call, August 29, 1897:

Mr. and Mrs. Peter Hamilton celebrate their tin wedding Saturday evening, August 22, at their residence, 1010 Tennessee Street. The house was tastefully decorated with evergreens and ferns.  A most enjoyable evening was spent in dancing, singing, music, and games. A well-known piper Daniel Beaton and vocalist Robert Fair were among the guests. The hostess received many valuable tokens of regard, both useful and ornamental.”

It seems doubtful that Mr. and Mrs. Peter Hamilton imagined that their neighbors, 125 years in the future, would read about their party. But then again, it’s unlikely that John Cotter Pelton ever thought that one of his cottages would one day fetch more than $2 million.