San Francisco Landmarks

San Francisco Landmark #32: Abner Phelps House 23 June 2003
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San Francisco Landmark #32
Abner Phelps House
1111 Oak Street Between Divisadero and Broderick
Built 1850

Although accounts vary as to its date and builder, the Gothic Revival Abner Phelps house is generally considered to be the oldest unaltered residence in San Francisco and dates from 1850-51.

The earliest published account (August 8, 1934) states that the house was "built in 1850 by John Middleton & Sons, one of the first real estate concerns in the city...(and) constructed of lumber into sections brought round the Horn from Maine, there being no sawmills here at the time."

However, Mrs. Victor E. Rosenstein, Abner Phelps' great-grandaughter declared in 1961 that the house had been purchased in New Orleans in 1850 and shipped in sections around the Horn to ease the homesickness of Phelps' bride, born Augusta Roussell. It was then re-erected here about 1850-51.

The San Francisco Junior League book Here Today favors the latter explanation: the house is raised on a high foundation, reminiscent of southern riverfront cottages ot the 18th and 19th centuries; furthermore, the upper story balcony and the veranda are also reminiscent of Louisiana homes of the day. This book further states with certainty that Phelps, who had been a colonel in the Mexican War, lived in the house in 1851; and suggests the possibility that John Middleton's firm assembled the house for Phelps when it arrived.

At the time the dwelling was erected, it stood in the midst of Phelps' 160-acre homestead at the foot of Buena Vista Hill, well beyond the city limits which did not reach Divisadero until 1854. A portion of Golden Gate Park Panhandle was then part of the Phelps property.

Phelps was a lawyer who had his office in the Montgomery Block, and made what was then a long dusty journey to town daily by horseback. At that time, Divisadero was no more than a path which served as the western boundary of the new city from 1854 to 1856 when the city and county were consolidated.

The house has been moved twice. With the grading and building of Divisadero in the 1890's, the house was repositioned on the land. In 1904, it was moved backward to its present location in the middle of the block to enable Phelps to build stores on Divisadero Street. (When this case study was written, the address of the Phelps house was 329 Divisadero Street. It now has an Oak Street address.)

(Source: San Francisco Landmarks Preservation Advisory Board Revised Case Report Approved 20 August 1969)

The Phelps House is also National Register Listing #71000187.

Buildings that Moved

It's not just that the people of the American West are restless, the buildings themselves sometimes pack up and move when - for one reason or another - the neighborhood no longer suits them or the neighbors no longer want them or opportunity waits down the road.

And when buildings remain in place, they are often searching for their identities.

Probably the most ambitious relocation occurred on July 4th 1904, when the Southern Pacific Railroad loaded most of the town of Wadsworth, Nevada, onto rail cars and transported the town thirty miles west to create a new town which became known as Sparks.

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