Noe Valley Voice December-January 1999-2000

Florence's Family Album: A House with a Rich Past

By Florence Holub

When my family came to San Francisco from Idaho in 1925, we stayed for a short time in a house on 23rd Street owned by the Haglunds, members of the Swede-Finn colony of Noe Valley. Each morning, after my mother went out to search for living quarters for our family of five, I would run to the front window and wait for her to return. Hour after hour, I would peer out at the strange new world of San Francisco. Often my 6-year-old gaze would fall on an elaborate Victorian that sat directly across the street.

This stately manor -- at 3780 23rd St.-- seemed enormous compared to the plain, one-story farmhouse we'd left behind in rural Idaho. It was even bigger than our barn, I marveled. I wondered how many dozens of people lived there.

During those few days, I developed such an enduring fondness for the house that when I started doing illustrations for the Noe Valley Voice some 60 years later, I chose it as one of my first subjects. When the light was right and the weather was clear, I ambled down the hill (from my home on 21st Street) to record this lovely landmark with pencil and paper.

One day as I sketched, an old schoolmate, Esther (Reicks) Koch, happened by. She was especially interested in my drawing, she said, because she was on her way to visit her Uncle Alfred, who lived in that very house!

A conversation ensued, during which I learned that Esther had an even stronger family connection: her mother had grown up in the house. Though I had known Esther since grammar school, I had no idea of her Noe Valley roots.

Since that day on the street, whenever our paths have crossed, she has provided more interesting tidbits about her mother's house and the people who inhabited it.

The first owners of the house were the Schneider and Pracy families. The building was originally constructed in 1869 on a large parcel of land facing Church Street. Behind the house was a stable for the horses and a windmill with a water tower that was connected to a well on 24th Street.

Noe Valley was growing by leaps and bounds in those days, so in the 1890s the city decided to build the J-Church streetcar line to help transport residents to their jobs downtown. The new rail line required an enormous amount of street and earth to be excavated and hauled away. It also meant that the Schneider home had to be moved. In 1893, using jacks, blocks, timbers, and great caution, an able-bodied crew lifted up the entire house and carted it down the steep slope to the rear of the property between Church and Chattanooga streets. There it was placed on a new foundation facing 23rd Street.

In that abode, Nicholas Schneider and his wife, Mary Pracy Schneider, produced six children -- two sons and four daughters.

Nicholas and George were the eldest, and when they were grown, they founded Schneider Brothers on Post Street -- dealers in fine furs. (Remember, this was 1908 -- and it would be many decades before furs became frowned upon.)

The youngest Schneider daughter, Charlotte, married a neighborhood gentleman, Alfred Girot, also a cutter in the fur business. The couple moved into the upper story of the 23rd Street house, while Charlotte's parents remained in the lower flat.

(Nicholas Schneider died not long after, but his widow, Mary, lived to be 93. After her death, the entire house passed on to Charlotte and Alfred Girot. But I'm getting ahead of myself.)

Charlotte's brother Nicholas lived not far away on Church Street in a fine Victorian (1117 ­ 1118 Church). He had daughters and no sons, so in the 1970s, after 75 years in business, he closed the doors of the Schneider Brothers furrier shop. He later moved to San Mateo.

Mary Schneider, the matriarch of this family, was very enterprising throughout her long life. It was she who with family assistance had a row of cottages built on the property facing Church Street (1081 ­ 1097 Church), as well as a large apartment house on the northwest corner of Church and 23rd streets.

Esther told me that her own mother came to the big house through an interesting set of circumstances. It just so happened that Esther's grandfather, Charles Hugo von Blossfeldt, had married a Schneider relative in Germany. Unfortunately, his wife died at a fairly young age, so Charles decided to come to San Francisco, where he met and married a woman named Katherine Esther Ross. He and his second wife had two daughters, Esther and Evelyn. Esther and Evelyn were only 14 and 12 when both parents died unexpectedly. (Sudden deaths like these -- often caused by flu or pneumonia -- were common in the days before antibiotics.)

The orphaned Esther was taken into the Schneider home because she and the Schneiders' youngest daughter, Charlotte, were very close. Sadly, the family did not have room for Evelyn. However, she was lovingly welcomed into the home of a church couple, who had lost their own daughter in a fire. The sisters lived close to one another and were able to see each other often.

Esther left the big house when she married Henry Reicks, but they settled not far away in a flat above what is now Tully's, next to Bell Market. There in 1919, a daughter named Esther was born (my friend), and later christened at the Presbyterian church on Sanchez, now the Noe Valley Ministry.

The younger Esther and her cousin George Girot (Charlotte and Alfred's son) remember the magical Christmases they spent at the 23rd Street mansion. On Christmas Eve, trees on both floors of the house were trimmed with lit candles set in tiny saucers (to catch the melting wax). The candles were attached to each limb with a strong clamp, but very carefully so that the flame could not start a fire!

The little children were told they had to be good, because if they were bad, they would get only a lump of coal in the stockings the family hung by the chimney.

When Esther was 5, she must have been very good, for she received a beautifully dressed 24-inch doll with a china head that had real hair and eyelashes, and lids that opened and closed. She still treasures that doll, named Charlotte Rosalie, after her favorite aunt, and although the doll is now 75 years old, she does not show her age.

Esther wears her years well too, perhaps because she has had such an interesting life.

She was always an excellent student. After high school, she went on to graduate from the old State College, located then at the intersection of Market and Laguna streets. Later, she received her master's degree in education at the new campus near Stonestown.

As a schoolteacher, she taught little kids during the day. But in the evenings she taught dancing to the big kids at the Arthur Murray Dancing School. This was back in the era when we all danced cheek to cheek. We also watched the Arthur Murray TV show, featuring dancers gliding gracefully around a ballroom to the theme song "Arthur Murray Taught Me Dancing in a Hurry."

That is what Esther did locally: she showed the not-so-fleet-of-foot how to move like Fred and Ginger.

She began to dance as a teenager after a bout with rheumatic fever. To speed her recovery, her doctor prescribed a gentle form of exercise such as the Hawaiian hula.

Since that time, Esther has followed her doctor's orders diligently. In fact, she has danced her way through life!

In 1949 she married an engineer, George Koch, who was born and raised in a house on the corner of Elizabeth and Sanchez streets, across the street from the church where his future bride was christened. Small world, isn't it?

Fifty years later, Esther is still dancing. She wears a long skirt, not a grass skirt, and performs for groups in retirement and rest homes. Only last month she danced for her fellow residents in a large retirement complex in Millbrae.

On December 12, she will again be swaying to her favorite tunes. Her daughter -- who is named Esther too, of course! -- is throwing a big party at the Mark Hopkins Hotel in honor of her mother's 80th birthday.

My man Leo and I will be there to extend our best wishes. We will also thank Esther for sharing her family tree with all of us in Noe Valley. Without her recollections, a piece of history might have been lost forever.

We're looking forward to the birthday party, which should be a lively celebration. Perhaps Esther will perform her famous Hawaiian hula dance!

P.S. About the house at 3780 23rd St.: Esther told me that it was sold in 1973, after her Uncle Alfred's death. Curious about the current occupants, I stopped by the house recently and knocked on the door. I was greeted by a very nice woman who said she and her husband and three children -- the Cutler family -- were pleased to be living there now. They bought the house in 1983, and last month were busy repainting the exterior. Forgive the scaffolding, she said, the house will be beautiful soon!