Earthquake Shacks: (Literally) Hidden Architectural Gems

A century ago, they were the equivalent of FEMA trailers. Now, the cottages built to help survivors of the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake are sought-after real-estate relics – and awfully cute, to boot.

Photo Courtesy Of The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley These funky little shacks have had a longer life than anyone expected. 

Once upon a time, there was a city littered with tiny houses in the wake of a massive disaster. The story of how some of those diminutive domiciles ended up wandering to strange new neighborhoods is one of those "only in San Francisco" stories.

The legendary 1906 earthquake and the fire that followed left some 16,000 San Franciscans homeless. In response, the Department of Lands and Buildings erected 5,610 "refugee cottages" in camps all around the city, including Dolores Park, Precita Park and Washington Square. They were small, ranging from 10x14 to 10x18, with one larger "Type C" size that can't have been much bigger. But they had their good points, too: redwood, fir and sturdy roofs, all painted a uniform green like some life-sized precursor to Monopoly houses.

After about a year, the camps began closing, but in true San Franciscan spirit, the occupants of these so-called shacks were loath to let go of what amounted to pretty sweet little pre-fabs. Enterprising folks managed to haul their homes to their new lots of land, sometimes building onto them, sometimes not. Over the years, these little refugees became as much a part of the neighborhood as the people who inhabited them. 

"They can be hard to spot," says David Gallagher, a local amateur historian who co-founded, with Woody LaBounty, the nonprofit Western Neighborhoods Project. "When people took them out of their camps, the first thing they did was try to hide the fact that they'd come from the camps. So they'd add cedar shingles or other siding to camouflage it."

Sometimes they would Frankenstein together two or three cottages into one house. The walls were "flimsy, with little framing involved," says Gallagher, "but the floors were attached and the roofs were actually overbuilt, so they could be hoisted onto some wheels and dragged out with a horse cart. In some pictures you can see the curtains still in the window, being pulled down the street totally intact."

And that was that: the shacks vanished under layers of building improvements, mostly forgotten until the 1980s when an activist (we've got to call her a "shacktivist," right?) named Jane Cryan agitated on their behalf, getting the city to rescue several remaining shacks and have her rented home, a complex of three stuck-together shacks she lovingly restored, named City Landmark #171.

Since then, Gallagher and LaBounty have set about verifying and cataloguing the remaining shacks. So far, they have found 32, and are constantly on the hunt for more. In 2006, they found and restored four shacks and placed them with local museums.

"It's pretty tough to verify for sure, but there are signs," says Gallagher. "You can find some of the green-painted wood if you're willing to dig into a wall. On some, we find them papered with 1906 newspaper." This can be more of a headache than a joy, if, say, you buy a lot intending to do a total tear-down and instead find yourself in possession of ye olde historic landmark. "We've had some people move them to their backyards or donate them to museums," Gallagher says. He's even organized historic walking tours of the extant shacks in Bernal Heights.

It's nice to see one in a museum, but for San Franciscans, famously geeky about their own history, the real joy is savoring the presence of architectural ghosts in their million-dollar midst.

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