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the homes

1935 Webster

The Helen and Crittendon Thornton House

1935 Webster
Illustrations by Kit Haskell

The Helen and Crittendon Thornton House was built in 1879 in the popular Italianate style. The contractor-developer-designer was Henry Hinkel, who also built 1911 Pierce Street on today’s tour. The house has had only six owner families, all resident. The fourth stripped off the trim and covered the house with stucco. The present owners stripped off the stucco and found “shadows” of the original trim to guide restoration. They added the balcony and stair rail.

Hinkel sold the house in April 1879 for $6,400 to Charles E. Green, private secretary to David Colton, the junior partner of Southern Pacific’s “big four.” Colton’s widow Ellen was then being pressured by the remaining SP triumvirate to return all his SP-related holdings. In August 1879 she gave in and agreed to do so, including SP stock given to their older daughter Helen upon her marriage. Later she felt defrauded, and she sued them.

In the very month that Ellen Colton signed the agreement, Green “sold” 1935 Webster to her at the price he’d paid for it. She immediately gave it to her daughter. Helen and Crittendon Thornton, who was an attorney, settled quietly into the house with their baby daughter and two live-in servants. In 1891 they sold the house and moved to a bigger one on Pacific.

Next came the Ellert family: Levi, Sarah, and their 5-year-old son Arthur. Levi had a drug store at Kearny and California, and he was in politics. Many American cities were being run by political bosses, who did not themselves hold office but produced favors for those who paid or who carried out the boss’s orders. Civil service and the direct primary were invented to prevent boss rule. San Francisco had bosses of both major parties, the most notorious being Democratic “Blind Boss Buckley,” who ran the city 1879–1891, and Republican Boss Abe Ruef, who held sway 1901–1907.

Levi Ellert was first elected to the Board of Supervisors as a Republican in 1888. According to chronicler Walton Bean, that year the party’s local boss died, and Ruef graduated to a lieutenancy. The 1890 election was awash in SP funds, and a subsequent grand jury investigation drove Boss Buckley out of town. The Democrats’ new “good” boss, Gavin McNabb, supervised to 1901.

In 1892 when McNabb’s reformers first won, Ellert was elected Mayor as an independent. He seems to have been clean, refusing to permit city financing of the Midwinter Fair but happily presiding over the occasion itself. He also passed the bar exam while Mayor. After he died in 1901, the family kept the house until 1934.

The buyer was Shotaro Tsuruoka, teenage son of Tokutaro and Dai Tsuruoka. The house was in his name because California’s Alien Land Law of 1913 forbade “aliens ineligible for citizenship” to own land. Born here, Shotaro was a U.S. citizen, but his Japanese immigrant parents were denied citizenship by laws in effect until 1952. Dai had probably come here before 1908, when immigration was closed to Japanese men. Wives and families were admitted until 1924. The Tsuruokas were listed in SF 1933–34 (Dai as a salesman on Post Street) and 1939–40, living here without occupation. In 1941 Dai was listed here alone, working as a florist. They probably first created the house’s lovely Japanese garden in back.

Then, on December 7, 1941, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor got the U.S. into World War II. Immediately the FBI arrested some 2,000 Japanese nationals. On February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt authorized the mass expulsion of Japanese Americans. In March the head of the Army’s Western Defense Command announced removal of all persons of Japanese ancestry, alien or citizen. Over the next four months he issued 108 separate “Civilian Exclusion Orders,” each for a particular area. The residents were ordered out of their homes, transported with only what they could carry, and incarcerated. For citizen or alien, baby or grandfather, there was no hearing, no trial, no appeal.

Civilian Exclusion Order #20 took in the area from California to Sutter, Presidio to Van Ness. It was issued on Friday, April 24, 1942. Family representatives had to report for instructions on the 25th or 26th. Evacuation took place on Friday May first. One week to wrap up one’s life, take care of business and possessions. Pets were forbidden. Everything being carried had to be packaged. The people themselves were labeled. At Tanforan racetrack they were “housed” in horse stalls, grandstands, and tarpaper shacks.

Officials excused this shameful behavior as “military necessity,” but public opinion was the real driving force. The Army knew the West Coast was not seriously threatened. Hawaii never evacuated its Japanese Americans. Even after early June 1942, when the Japanese Navy was immobilized, the government continued to divert money, transport, personnel and materials from the real war effort, in order to build and maintain the concentration camps. Italian Americans suffered similar treatment, but only for a short while; German Americans weren’t bothered at all. Hindsight shows it as a clear case of racial prejudice.

What happened to 1935 Webster? Shotaro Tsuruoka sold it April 28, 1942, during that fateful week. He signed the papers in Fresno; maybe he and his mother had joined family there. It’s said that evacuees got 10% of value, but Tsuruoka may have fared better. He paid $2,500 in 1934 and sold for $3,750 in 1942.

— taken from the Victorian Alliance’s “Pacific Heights South 1997 House Tour” catalog

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