Photos by Elizabeth Creely

Dilapidated ‘workingman’s cottage’ gives way to proposed pair of four-story condo buildings

A 132-year old house located at 953 Treat Ave. was torn down Thursday, three years after one of its former owners, Ernest Heinzer, experienced a change of heart and mounted a last-ditch effort to preserve it.

The building’s end came quickly. It took one hour for a bulldozer to reduce the 937-square foot house to a pile of wooden and concrete rubble.

The tattered Italianate cottage, long vacant, was a remnant of a workingman’s cottage. These modestly designed dwellings once dotted the Mission. Many are still visible on Alabama Street, between 22nd and 23rd Streets.

Rising on the footprint of the cottage will be two four-story condominium buildings, each with three units. The buildings will have two off-street parking spaces and six class-1 bicycle parking spaces.

The house, built  in 1887, was the focus of a protracted neighborhood battle led by Ernest Heinzer and architectural historian Katherine Petrin. They sought to preserve the dilapidated cottage, which went through two historic reviews, both of which found that the house had no historic value.

The property is located next to the old Southern Pacific Railroad right-of-way, which runs behind it. Called the “conductor’s cottage” by some neighbors, neither the house nor its first inhabitants, a German-American family, had any known connection to the railroad company.

Louis Barner, a house painter who immigrated from Germany in 1872, is the first person listed in city directories as living at 953 Treat.

The demolition has been a long time coming: Heinzer’s campaign came following an effort inaugurated in 2005 to raze the cottage.

According to an email sent to the San Francisco Planning Commission on Feb. 3, 2017, from project sponsor Shadi Aboukhater, James and Ernest Heinzer, former owners of the Heinzer warehouse located next to the cottage, once jointly owned 953 Treat Ave.

The Heinzer brothers filed permits with the city, seeking permission to demolish the cottage in 2005. After the brothers split their assets in 2014, James Heinzer sold the site to Aboukhater.

Aboukahter alleged in his email that Ernest Heinzer was in a “feud” with his brother and was now unhappy with the plans to demolish the site.

Heinzer engaged Petrin, a well-known historical architect, to make a case for preserving the building on the grounds that it was once owned by John Center, the largest landowner in the Mission District until his death in 1912. Center also owned the land used for the railroad right-of-way and the first paved street in the Mission — 16th Street – was once named for Center.

Petrin, who stated that she was writing on behalf of a group called “Friends of 953 Treat,” suggested incorporating the cottage into the design of the proposed condominium.

That suggestion, and Petrin’s claim that the cottage had historic value, was reviewed by Page and Turnbull, a statewide firm specializing in architectural assessment and preservation. It was thoroughly refuted, reconfirming a decision made by San Francisco Historic Preservation staff 11 year earlier that the cottage could be demolished.

Neighbors and some tenants of Heinzers who live and work near the site expressed support for the demolition. Some took issue with Ernest Heinzer’s opposition, calling it “disingenuous” based on his earlier attempt to tear this house down. Neighbors also expressed displeasure with the safety hazard they said the tattered building posed.

The conditional use permit allowing the demolition of the cottage was issued in February 2017.

853 Treat Avenue as it appeared for much of the the 132 years prior to yesterday. Photo by Elizabeth Creely.

It’s unknown how long construction will take. Calls to the condo project’s architect, Winder Gibson, and the project sponsor, Aboukhater, weren’t returned by press time.

If the speedy construction of other developments along the right-of-way is any indication, building the new condominiums won’t take nearly as long as it took to pull the old cottage down. The residential building that stands on the site of the Western Plywood Company is nearing completion after starting last year in the spring.

For now, the “character defining features” of the cottage are shattered and strewn across the lot.  When the new building rises, there will be two new structures on opposite ends of the right-of-way, part of a wave of planned developments on Treat Avenue and Folsom Street that will change the look of the area, and increase the density of the neighborhood.

Of all the historic features of this part of the Mission, only the future of the right-of-way is still undetermined.

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  1. Thanks Elizabeth for the brilliant, well-researched article about another lost piece of San Francisco history. Sad that so many do not know or want to know the history of much of anything these days, or that they revise it to fit their narrative. This cottage is yet another example. In this age of development for profit and gentrification which cannot be stopped, 953 Treat Avenue is a contradiction. So goes the City, so goes 953 Treat Avenue. What demolition will be next…real estate is the gold standard on which this economy runs.