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Author Bill Yenne Helps Preserve Noe Valley's Past
By Olivia Boler
Who was John Meirs Horner, and why isn't Noe Valley named after him? What famous local ice cream maker once owned a dairy farm on the corner of 29th and Noe streets? How did Elizabeth Street get its name?
If you're a Noe Valleyan and you've pondered such questions, you'll be pleased to learn that local author and book producer Bill Yenne has gathered all the facts (and lots of old photos) in a new history of the neighborhood, San Francisco's Noe Valley, released last month by Arcadia Publishing.
A 30-year Alvarado Street resident, Yenne has a deep affection for Noe Valley. One of the reasons he wrote the book was to extol the neighborhood's virtues.
"There's something about the neighborhood that people sense when they come here," says Yenne, 55. "It's pleasant and peaceful. And it's unique."
But he also thought his neighbors, not to mention tourists, might appreciate a handy portal to the past. "I wanted to produce, if not a complete, at least a comprehensive and definitive collection of pictures that are gathered together in a single, easy-to-carry package," he says. "You can go to the Noe Valley Library to find these things, but you can't go there every day, especially now that the library will close in a few months for renovation."
At a book signing at Noe Valley History Night at the library in November, local residents proved Yenne's instincts were right. They snapped up the 150 copies that Cover to Cover bookstore had brought to the event in less than an hour.
This isn't the first time that Yenne has seen a need and filled it. A self-professed "idea man," Yenne has authored nearly 70 books and produced 200 tomes, the majority of them nonfiction coffee-table books. In addition to numerous books on World War II, he's written about beer, seaplanes, "woodies," West Point, and Elvis.
Yenne, who is married to Small Frys owner and Noe Valley Merchants Association President Carol Yenne, got his start in the book business at a young age. "As a little kid, I liked to put together little pictorial books on various subjects. I did a lot on airplanes, which later translated into several books that I produced as an adult."
At the University of Montana in Missoula, where he and Carol met, Yenne majored in art and took a liking to art history as well. One of his finals projects was a report on gargoyles, an idea he filed away and finally got to do 30 years later as a big hardcover book called Gothic Gargoyles (First Glance Books, 1998). Needless to say, it holds a special place in his heart.
But the book for which he is probably best known locally is San Francisco: Then & Now (Thunder Bay Press, 1998). It is sold in several bookstore chains and even at Costco. The book uses old and new photos to compare what the city looked like in the past with what it looks like in the present.
Yenne likes this format and used it quite a bit in San Francisco's Noe Valley, which has more than 200 black-and-white photos, over half of them dating from yesteryear. For example, there are three photos of the building at the corner of 24th and Church streets: one from 1878, showing the "Cheap Cash Grocery" store; a second from 1907, depicting a three-story Victorian building with the Oakwood Market on the ground level; and the last, a modern-day shot of the same building, with Happy Donuts' cheery logo on the awning.
A few of the vintage photos are from Yenne's own collection, but most are from the Noe Valley Archives, a collection nurtured by lifetime Douglass Street resident Paul Kantus. The newer photos were shot by Yenne himself last spring.
Yenne has plenty of photography contacts, but whenever he can't find a photo he needs for a project, he adopts a DIY (do-it-yourself) attitude. He did this for Gargoyles, covering five countries, 35 locations, 75 rolls of film, and 11,806 vertical steps in two weeks. "There were no stock color photos of European ecclesiastical gargoyles. That's where my second talent as a photographer comes in handy," he says dryly.
Of course, his first talent is a one-two punch--writing and designing books. After Montana and a brief stint in New York, the Yennes settled down in Noe Valley in the mid-1970s. Yenne couldn't find a steady job right away, so he freelanced, doing anything from writing movie reviews to illustrating local magazines. He also did some book design for local publishers. This led to writing and the formation of his own company, AGS BookWorks.
Over the years, he has cultivated relationships with several editors at dozens of publishing houses big and small, including Random House, Penguin, and Thunder Bay. AGS BookWorks occasionally publishes books as well, but those are usually distributed by another company, such as Boeing, for whom Yenne produced a coffee-table book that is sold in gift shops as well as in aircraft museums.
Yenne came across Arcadia Publishing while browsing a John F. Kennedy Airport bookstore in New York. A book that caught his eye was about a neighborhood in Queens previously unknown to him. He found out that Arcadia specializes in books on narrow regional subjects all across the United States.
Arcadia especially likes to cover neighborhoods with a strong identity and has produced books on the Sunset District, Ocean Beach, and the San Francisco Fire Department. When Yenne pitched the idea of a Noe Valley book, the company jumped at the chance. Naturally, Arcadia markets to local readers, and Cover to Cover, Phoenix Books, and Just for Fun gift store will be selling the book.
As for researching San Francisco's Noe Valley, Yenne claims he didn't dig too deeply, drawing on the knowledge he has garnered over the years as a member of the community. "If I have a question about, say, when Tuggey's was opened, I can just call someone and they'll know." He also checked back issues of the Voice.
But he admits he owes a huge debt to Kantus. "I literally couldn't have done the book without him. It's a priceless gift that he's given the neighborhood, by collecting and archiving all that material."
This year, in addition to Noe Valley, Yenne has published two other books of note: A Damned Fine War (Berkley) and Missions of California (Thunder Bay Press). The latter is a coffee-table book with lavish color photographs depicting the architectural legacy of the Spanish missionaries. But the former is a departure from Yenne's norm, a novel. It's a war thriller that imagines an alternative universe where Stalin tries to conquer Europe after defeating Hitler. The book has a local angle, too. One of the characters is a young woman living in Noe Valley who becomes a reporter in Washington, D.C. In 1945, she returns to San Francisco to cover the founding of the United Nations.
The prolific author and his wife have raised two daughters, Azia, 27, and Annalisa, 21, who were, like his fictional heroine, born and raised in Noe Valley. Both still live in the neighborhood; Azia works at Small Frys, while Annalisa is a financial planner.
Yenne is also a founding member of the St. Philip's Belfry Society, which in 1994 restored the bronze bell in the belfry of the landmark church on Diamond Street. He and other members of the group take turns ringing the bell on Sundays and special occasions. "You have to have the strength of the Hunchback of Notre Dame to do it," he laughs.
However, the bell-ringing is one of the things that lends Noe Valley its charm. Yenne writes near the end of San Francisco's Noe Valley that the Belfry Society adopted the motto Tintinnabulum noxia fugo, "meaning that the ringing of bells gives flight to harmful things. Indeed, such a notion can be said to be an allegory for living in such a neighborhood as quiet, peaceful Noe Valley."
Bill Yenne will sign copies of San Francisco's Noe Valley at Just for Fun, 3982 24th Street, on Saturday, Dec. 11, from 5 to 7 p.m. His book ($19.99) is also available at other neighborhood shops and bookstores.
The following is excerpted with permission from San Francisco's Noe Valley by local historian Bill Yenne (Arcadia Publishing, 2004).
Before Noe Valley was known as Noe Valley, it was known as "Horner's Addition," after the man who turned the rolling pastures of Rancho San Miguel into some semblance of an urban neighborhood. If Jose de Jesus Noe can be considered the namesake of Noe Valley, it can be argued that John Meirs Horner was the father of Noe Valley. Born in June 1821 on a farm in Monmouth County, New Jersey, Horner became a baptized member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons) in 1840. After several years at the major Mormon settlement in Nauvoo, Illinois, he joined a group of Mormons who were bound for California. In 1846, the year of the Bear Flag Revolt, Horner arrived in Yerba Buena with his young wife, the former Elizabeth Imlay....
Horner bought a substantial amount of land in Alameda and Santa Clara Counties. He also purchased 5,250 acres in what is now San Francisco, but which, in 1852, was outside of city limits. This included a sizable slice of the old Rancho de San Miguel that had been owned by Jose de Jesus Noe. Horner's land holdings closely conformed to what is now Noe Valley.... John Horner correctly predicted that his portion of Rancho San Miguel, which came to be known as "Horner's Addition," would eventually be incorporated into the city limits of San Francisco. Planning to sell lots for homes, Horner laid out the present street grid and named the streets. He named one of his new thoroughfares Horner Street, and a block south, Elizabeth Street was named for Mrs. Horner.
Horner's fortunes declined during the national economic downturn of 18571859, and he was forced to sell much of his California property at a loss. In 1879, he relocated to Hawaii, where he died in 1907 at the age of 86.
In the meantime, many of the names that Horner had assigned to his grid of streets were changed. In 1861, every other street was numbered. Elizabeth Street would remain, but nearby John Street became 22nd Street, and in between, the founder's own Horner Street because 23rd Street. At the foot of Horner's Addition, his Grove Street became 30th Street, while Park Street, the growing economic hub of the area to the west of Dolores Street, became 24th Street.