By Murray Schneider
Alma Hecht is convinced she lives in a Chenery Street earthquake cottage. Purchased 15 years ago, the original 500 square foot home can be found between 30th and Elk Streets.
She’s doubled its size since then.
“It was on September 9, 1999 when I bought it,” she said, while she and Moki, her four-year old Australian Shepherd, circled her garden on a recent morning. “It was 9 A.M., and it was my lucky day.”
Today the certified landscape designer and arborist lives on two levels, a bedroom and a bath in both. The original space, constructed from Douglas fir and redwood, now showcases a sitting room, dining room and kitchen. Downstairs houses a studio where Hecht can pour over blueprints for a number of her upcoming projects.
“I’m planning a garden now at Douglass and 24th ” she said. “It’s for a dog groomer, and I’m working it off partially in trade.”
“Eggs for life and lots of grooming for Moki,” she smiled.
The City planning department has yet to certify Hecht’s home a historic earthquake shack, one of 5,610 built in the aftermath of the 1906 temblor that sent San Franciscans scurrying for temporary shelter.
Nevertheless, Hecht won’t be dissuaded.
“When I bought the property,” she said, with conviction, “I was told it was an earthquake shack.”
Altogether, 16,448 of the 250,000 refugees who were left homeless because of the 7.9 magnitude April quake were housed in 14’x18’ and 10’x14’ “cottages.” They were placed in 11 refugee camps that included Dolores Park, Precita Park and today’s Park Presidio Boulevard.
Based on an U.S. Army design, approved by the City’s Department of Lands and Buildings of the Relief Corporation, and built by union carpenters between September 1906 and March 1907 for about $100 each, the shacks had sturdy roofs, fir floors and redwood walls. All were colored uniform olive drab using surplus military paint, better to blend with the flora of their temporary park surroundings. None of the shacks had plumbing or electricity, and all were built with the intent of moving survivors from tents to studier shelters as San Francisco’s winter rains approached.
Today City officials authenticate earthquake cottages when digging into lath and plaster and finding green painted-timbered walls, often stuffed with daily newspapers.
To date, 21 shacks have been given the City’s imprimatur.
“While upgrading the electricity,” Hecht revealed, “I found the rafters covered in newspapers from 1906.”
She believes the papers were used as insulation.
While she spoke, a humming bird treaded air above her backyard California native plants, benchmarked by a spill jar fountain.
“First growth redwood beams were used,” she continued, “and inside the walls we found redwood studs. In fact, I have one of the beams in my garden.”
Hecht’s house is filled with an array of furnishings, which highlight, as she does, simple finishes that keep with the simplicity of her cottage and its early 20th century pedigree. After a day of pruning, it isn’t hard imagining Hecht relaxing in her Bloomsbury-like setting. Among the assortment of clocks grouped in her sitting room, she can gaze from the parlor window into her garden, which gives her the illusion of extending the house and making it feel more spacious.
“I love cottages and gardens,” Hecht said, as she surveyed a battalion of vegetation that includes coffeeberry, hazel nut and apple trees. “
Originally from Southern California, Hecht earned a Masters of Arts in Landscape Design in 2000 from the Conway School of Landscape Design in Massachusetts. Before moving to Glen Park, she lived in Noe Valley, the Castro and the Lower Haight, and when an acquaintance from Friends of San Francisco Urban Forest told her about the house on Chenery Street she leaped at the opportunity.
“I’ve always had a garden,” she said, sidestepping iris and poppies that carpet her yard. “Throughout the day the light changes, and I follow the sun. In the afternoon, I sit on the porch. It’s a ‘Tea and New York Times’ moment, and I watch the bird show.”
Finches, towhees, robins and song sparrows visit Hecht’s garden and while she hop scotched among her fig, bay and crab apple trees, a bushtit settled on a branch. Only a few yards away automobiles hummed along Chenery Street, but Hecht seemed oblivious as she bent and inspected a plant from an earthen bed of lilacs.
She continued her turn around the garden, Moki trailing behind.
“Dogs are such good companions,” she said. “Moki is the world’s friendliest dog.”
Both stepped into the cottage, which generates antiquarian charm. If her garden showcases her talent with a trowel, then her home’s interior reveals her proficiency with design.
Each room is appointed with well-thought-out color schemes, rich in hues and tonality. Rooms are filled with pieces acquired from her mother’s estate. Her mother took European sojourns through the mid-and late-Fifties and acquired an extensive array of antiques and art. Hecht’s kitchen is light and airy, decorated in the French provincial style and segues to a sitting room naturally lit by multiple windows.
The impact is one of harmony and balance.
Hecht stood by a secretary and pointed above it.
“That’s a 19th century Italian game board my mother left me,” she said.
Not everything she owns, though, is a family heirloom.
“I’m a bit of a dumpster diver,” she confessed “When Bird and Beckett was at its Diamond Street location I walked to a Friday jazz performance and saw something gold glinting from a container. I scrambled up and dragged out a frame and fitted it with a mirror.”
“When you live in a small space,” she continued, with an interior decorator’s savvy, “mirrors are tools for expanding space.”
Below deck provided additional testimony to her economic use of space.
“Here I designed the window seat so that I can pull the storage drawers beneath out, lift off the cushions, open the hinged plywood and relay the cushions,” she said. “Voila! A cozy nook for me and a friend to watch TV or a movie.”
She and Moki regained the upstairs by scaling 15 steps designed and built by Tom Cunniff, an East Bay contractor. Again, Hecht served notice that she’ll leave no stone unturned to gather collectables. Each corner of her living space is a far cry from the Spartan quarters once inhabited by displaced persons in the aftermath of the Great Quake and Fire.
“The orange chair was a street corner find that I had reupholstered and the little red chair belonged to a friend,” she said. She pointed to the master bedroom. “The headboard on the bed is a screen I traded with a little antique store for a piece I no longer wanted.”
Hecht’s utilitarian urges only take her so far, though.
“That little chair by the closet is the only impractical object, being ever so delicate,” she explained. “But so charming I had to keep it. You can’t sit on it if you weight over 110 pounds.”
Earthquake shacks weren’t built to last. Estimates indicate there may be only a few still remaining, hauled away within two years after the quake by horse and wagon to the Sunset and Richmond Districts. There two could be cobbled together to create a small house. Bernal Heights acted as a magnet for others, only a short haul up Folsom Street to the Red Hill. There is still a lack of clarity if Glen Canyon attracted other shacks since there is insufficient pictorial evidence that this might be so and the matter remains unresolved.
Altogether, though, when the refugee camps were closed in 1907, 5,343 shacks were moved to private lots, mostly at the occupant’s expense.
A February 3, 1908 San Francisco Chronicle article may go some ways in untangling the cloak of ambiguity. The Chronicle story noted, “The great fire of 1906, which scattered resident of the congested areas downtown, discovered Glen Park for those who drifted into the open spaces among the trees. Since then they have bought lots and built homes, varying from refugee cottages to pretty bungalows.”
What isn’t in dispute, however, is that earthquake refugees could rent a shack for $2 a month and apply it to a final cottage cost of $500. What isn’t in dispute is that the price for such dwellings has exponentially risen in value. Most recently, one sold for $600,000.
And what isn’t in dispute is that Alma Hecht has been happy in her home, which serves as a scaled-down sanctuary from the urban schema surrounding her.
She’s only a short walk from the village, which she engages on a regular basis.
“Eric Whittington is the greatest guy in the world,” she says of Bird & Beckett’s owner, “and I’m trying to get Sharon Ardiana at Gialina to create a gluten free pizza. The Canyon Market has the best veggie soup, and you can’t beat Rick’s sandwiches at the Cheese Boutique.”
In similar vein, Hecht needs only a little prodding to sing her own praises.
“In 2007, after the construction,” she said, “my house won a Green Building Council award for the greenest small home remodel.”
Neighbors can see for themselves on one of the many California Native Plant Society tours she leads around her diminutive grounds.
What’s most indisputable is that Hecht, with both a sense of history and a modern sensibility, has managed to fashion an eclectic living space.
Summing up, she says about her home:
“It’s comfortably elegant.”
Anyone who would like to consult with Alma Hecht about landscape and interior design can reach her at Alma@secondnature.bz