South Van Ness at Army, 1953 (Image Source: The Cushman Collection)
By way of Laughing Squid and Todd Lappin of Telstar Logistics, the corner of San Francisco’s South Van Ness at Army in 1953 (above) and in 2008 (below).
South Van Ness at Army, 2008 (Image Source: Laughing Squid)
The great line: “Like a bug in amber.” And the link that’s certain to consume way too much of your day: The Cushman Collection’s vintage San Francisco color photo archive.
With over 1700 photos in the archive, feel free to direct us all to your favorites below. Or even consider submitting your very own “then and nows” as a tip (tips@socketsite.com).
UPDATE: Did we say certain to consume way too much of your day? Make that week: San Francisco Historical Photograph Collection.
Then and Now: South Van Ness at Army, 1953 vs. 2008 [Laughing Squid]
The Cushman Collection’s vintage San Francisco color photo archive [indiana.edu]

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Comments from “Plugged-In” Readers

  1. Posted by enonymous

    i knew there was a generally anti-development stance in this city, but, wow.
    if you want to figure out why it costs so much to buy a house here, this set of pictures is exhibit A.
    great pics – I think i’m going to waste my whole day looking at these.
    Also, shouldn’t the chevy pickup truck be in the picture on top?

  2. Posted by Zig

    In all fairness there has been little pressure to develop this area until the recent decade I imagine

  3. Posted by Foolio

    Well, at least they changed the street name…

  4. Posted by resp

    wow 50 years of hotties in bikinis on the marina green.
    [Editor’s Note: Let’s not forget those photo links! The classic description: “Marina Beach Holiday crowd- but all Strangers.”]

  5. Posted by Can't think of cool name

    I love the gas station signs. 1953: gas is .25 cents. 2008: gas is $4.17 (and I’m assuming that’s cheapest blend).

  6. Posted by location

    The bricks of what is now the Ritz before they were covered up and subsequently restored:
    http://webapp1.dlib.indiana.edu/collections/cushman/full/P06546.jpg

  7. Posted by dub dub

    This is pretty shocking.
    When I first saw the top photo, I thought they were shooting an old-timey movie in current SF!

  8. Posted by mk92

    “I love the gas station signs. 1953: gas is .25 cents. 2008: gas is $4.17 (and I’m assuming that’s cheapest blend).”
    It’s not that out-of-whack. The change represents a 5.5% annual increase over the 55-year period. Inflation during that same period has been 4%.

  9. Posted by Library

    There are literally thousands of old photos of SF at the SF Public library photo database:
    http://sfpl.org/librarylocations/sfhistory/sfphoto.htm

  10. Posted by David

    I don’t have the number handy, but I bet the difference between the annualized price increases in gas and inflation is almost entirely due to increased gas taxes. Take those out, and I bet it tracks inflation perfectly.
    I bet it’s the same for all kinds of things like phone taxes etc. Strip out what the gov’t steals, and life would be a lot more affordable. But hey, gov’t services are way way better than 1953, right? Schools, right? right? Bueller?
    Well, at least gov’t worker pensions are better.

  11. Posted by Dan

    Interesting that the shot of today has a lot more trees than the shot in 1953. Not sure what that says about us in general, but I do find it interesting.

  12. Posted by Jimmy (Bitter Renter)

    The trees in the background are bigger now.
    See, some things do change … even in SF!

  13. Posted by Michael

    A clean view before the trees grew in:
    “The very last word in San Francisco dwellings. Washington at Maple [3800 West].”
    http://webapp1.dlib.indiana.edu/cushman/results/detail.do?query=city%3A%22San+Francisco%22&page=4&pagesize=20&display=thumbcap&action=search&pnum=P05884

  14. Posted by Satchel

    About inflation – how much has the average SFH in this area gone up since 1953? I bet the average SFH there was about $8K to $10K. (NEW houses in the suburbs in the mid 1950s were about $8K to $12K, and if SF was anything like the East Coast cities back then the suburbs were generally a tiny bit less than the existing city stock.)
    What’s an average SFH there today? $700K? $800K or so? (Average, NOT the gussied up “beauty queens” that dominate much of the sales activity in SF these days.) There’s your (credit) inflation.
    I bet anything that the price of the SFHs around this corner tracked generalized price inflation reasonably closely until the early- to mid- 1980s, when the distortive effects of prop 13 (1979), securitization of mortgages (early 1980s), special tax treatment of mortgage interest (1986) and special tax treatment of SFH gains (1996) successively began to “turbocharge” home price increases.

  15. Posted by tipster

    What’s surprising about the gas price is that it was about the same in 1953 as it was in 1968. How very spoiled the country was that gas prices didn’t budge for 15 years.
    As for the “bug in amber”, nonsense. For that area, that far out of town, to be built up to 3 and 4 stories in 1953 was very far ahead of its time. There just hasn’t been much of a need to do anything because it was so built up so early on.
    The real question is, why, in 1953 was that area built out as completely was it was? In all likelihood, it had shipyards and heavy industry nearby that supported the number of people nearby that could justify those building sizes. As those shipyards closed, and jobs moved farther north, and south, there wasn’t any need to develop that particular area.
    I’m sure if you look at factory towns from the 50s, in towns where the factories closed down, you’d see the same types of photos. It doesn’t imply a restriction on change as it implies a shift in workers to other areas.
    Cool photos, nonetheless.

  16. Posted by sleepiguy
  17. Posted by Ryan

    the washington / maple house is amazing… is it still there?

  18. Posted by fluj

    That photo is pretty cool. That’s where me and Mrs. Fluj reside, halfway up the hill and a little to the left. I don’t know if any of you have been up on those little streets above say, Precita, and west of Folsom looking back at the city, but they’re pretty nice. Narrow streets, big views, full of character. They are a little reminiscent of Silver Lake in LA. I dig it. I am very biased of course.
    It hasn’t changed at all. Ever see “Vertigo” in a SF movie house? The stock photos of Russian Hill used in that movie are always good for a few laufhts. They are quite different from the cityscape people know today. Not this!
    The reason that the area was built out as much as it was back in 1953 is probably because it’s actually not that far out of town, the weather is quite good, and it’s high ground. Also the shipyards would have been a straight half mile shot west. Just a couple guesses.
    This photo really brings it home big time. Cesar Chavez revitalization project, hurry.

  19. Posted by Dan

    North Bernal wasn’t built out because of the shipyards. Most of the houses on my block were built between the 1880’s and 1910. North Bernal is one of the oldest neighborhoods in the City. Most of the remaining buildable lots were filled in after the 1906 quake. Newer houses were mostly built on lots that were unbuildable until it became easier to carve bedrock out of the hillside.
    There are a lot more trees now than in 1953. Thanks Friends of the Urban Forest and diligent Bernal homeowners.
    My trained eye sees several differences between the 2 pics. Several houses on my street were expanded between 1953 and 2008. On formerly unbuildable hillside lots, a few newer houses were built in the early 1980’s (gentrification of North Bernal happened earlier than some think, due to the stunning downtown views).
    Other than a house that burned down and was replaced in the early ’90’s, few houses have been totally replaced. It is very difficult to tear down an existing house in Bernal, and strict limits on expansion (though many have been able to expand).

  20. Posted by Zig

    A family friend grew up in Bernal on the North Slope closer to 101 in a house that his grandfather literally built himself
    I recall also hearing that there were still a number of dirt streets in Bernal into the 1980’s
    Family friend still owns the place and is happy that the area has gone from terrible to well liked

  21. Posted by Dan

    Oh, note that the Dan who just posted all the North Bernal info (me, the original Dan posting on Socketsite) is a different Dan than the one who first noticed the increase in trees in the newer pic.

  22. Posted by Brian

    “I love the gas station signs. 1953: gas is .25 cents. 2008: gas is $4.17 (and I’m assuming that’s cheapest blend).”
    It’s not that out-of-whack. The change represents a 5.5% annual increase over the 55-year period. Inflation during that same period has been 4%.

    Uhm, the difference is that if gas were to have held with the 4.0% inflationary rate, it would be $2.06 9/10, rather than the $4.17 9/10 that it is today. Yeah, 1.5% per year over 53 years kinda adds up.
    Don’t get me wrong, I just miss the days of “cheap” gas.

  23. Posted by phil

    nice old school pics.

  24. Posted by David

    SFH’s in SF did track nationwide R.E. prices in general up until 1978, IIRC. (they were more expensive than nationwide median, but inflated at the same rate). After 1978, the appreciation rate began diverging here.
    D

  25. Posted by Zig

    A well know “then and now” in SF lore and I won’t even bother posting the much reviled “now”
    Fox Theater SF (the others are worth a look too)
    http://www.whitenberg.de/FoxTheatreAtlanta/SuperFoxes.html
    At the time in SF when it was knocked down I think few cared

  26. Posted by Joe

    And here we have a great example of why San Franciscans today are so militantly resistant to change – because historically there has been so so little of it. Honestly, I am NOT someone who is for ripping up things just because they are old, but SF is an extreme case. I wouldnt be surprised if the population of SF at the times some of these photos were taken was close to what it is now. Like it or not, SF is generally known throughout the country in urban planning circles as a museum town. There is an extremely vocal minority of people who actively work to maintain this, and our district elections system makes sure their voices are heard at city hall.

  27. Posted by zzzzzzzzz

    The loss of landmarks like the Fox Theater was tragic and irreparable, but SF has unfortunately over-learned the lessons of the past. No one in their wildest imagination should conclude that saving dilapidated wrecks like the Pagoda and Harding theaters or the burned-out house at 15th and Dolores should be any kind of priority. At some point you have to let go of the past and move on.

  28. Posted by fluj

    Folks, there has been all sorts of change as of late. The entire South Beach neighborhood didn’t even exist six or seven years ago. Mission Bay is transforming daily. About six new skyscrapers have gone in. Then there’s the new De Young and the Academy of Science reconfiguration, which look amazing juxtaposed. We do need more tho.

  29. Posted by tipster

    For a creative success story, see the Crunch gym, converted from the very much restored Alhambra Theater on Polk and Union Street.
    Click the “Next” button under the photo. Pictures don’t do it justice: the next time you are near the area, it’s worth a stop inside to see what you can do with a treasure like that with just a little creativity.
    http://www.crunch.com/crunch/gyms/location.aspx?id=19
    If they hadn’t forced the owner to preserve, that building would have been torn down. Instead, the interiors remain beautiful, preserving all of their detail, rather than getting torn down for some plain building, and the building got put to a new use. The balconies are intact, along with the ceiling and wall decor that you couldn’t have done today at almost any cost.

  30. Posted by Michael

    ^ That’s progress? That’s an abomination and a shame. Where’s a NIMBY when you need one!

  31. Posted by Jimmy (Bitter Renter)

    I work out at the Alhambra crunch. The ceiling decor is truly amazing… nice to look at in between sets on the bench press.

  32. Posted by DrewSF77

    The Before and After pictures above are proof enough why historical preservation is a good thing in most instances (obviously not the Harding or Pagoda).
    SF is considered a “Museum Town” because we have all this historical architecture worth preserving. Most parts of the US don’t. So we should protect our treasures. And know enough to know the difference between treasure and blight.

  33. Posted by Telstar Logistics

    I’m Todd, the fella who found the 1953 photo above, and took the 2008 photo below. A few comments:
    I didn’t post the link to the SFPL online historical photo archive for fear of bringing our local economy to a complete standstill. It’s so great, and so deep, that it’s very easy to spend days poking through all the photos. A truly amazing resource.
    Also, I live on Precita, so this is my ‘hood.
    Yes, North Bernal was largely developed in the aftermath of the 1906 quake. (Precita Park was a refugee camp for years afterward as well.) Yes, Bernal was largely working-class housing for employees at the Hunter’s Point Naval Shipyard during and after WWII. And yes, the neighborhood suffered quite a bit, in that urban-decay sort of way, after the shipyard closed in the 1970s.
    Trivia Fun fact: The house at 288 Precita, about a block from here, was used during the 1975 Patty Hearst kidnapping, as one of two San Francisco safe houses occupied by the Symbionese Liberation Army. In another sign of the times, the house was recenty remodeled.

  34. Posted by bob

    SF – which has really only been a city for 160 years – has relatively little “historical architecture” relative to other cities which have been around much much longer. The kinds of things which the local populace commit virtual hary kary over (doggie diner head) would be laughed at on a national or international level. There are things in SF which deserve preservation – but nothing like our current state of ossfication would suggest.
    This obsessive need to have the city shellacked and hung on the wall to fawn over for ever and ever does more to ensure that San Francisco becomes “anyplace, America” than a thousand real estate speculators.

  35. Posted by incredulous

    THAT is what some people think a city view looks like? Spending a million dollars to live on a hill overlooking a gas station and calling it an urban lifestyle, who would have thought? The view past and present reminds me of a depressed Colorado mining town. Paris on the Pacific INDEED!
    I don’t think San Francisco is ready to be put under glass yet. In fact, I don’t think it is even ready to be what it thinks it is.

  36. Posted by minnarrez

    A striking before-and-after:
    http://webapp1.dlib.indiana.edu/collections/cushman/full/P06721.jpg
    55 years later:
    http://www.mapjack.com/?iVEnWjQAcF3B
    That’s a serious cut–the road must be at least 12 feet lower.

  37. Posted by Usually Named

    DrewSF77: “SF is considered a “Museum Town” because we have all this historical architecture worth preserving”
    I didn’t know that we valued pennies that much. Because that’s what a lot of this so-called historical architecture is worth.

  38. Posted by Dan

    Actually, if one’s house is on that hill, the view is panoramic, from Twin Peaks and Buena Vista Park, to the Golden Gate Bridge, to Pacific Heights and Cathedral Hill, to City Hall, the downtown skyline, the Bay Bridge, and the bay. It’s one of the best views in the City. If you don’t have any friends who live in those houses, go up to Bernal Hill park and take a look.
    Here’s part of that panorama:
    http://farm3.static.flickr.com/2343/2411308295_39003ab90c.jpg?v=0

  39. Posted by Dan

    Todd, by the way, I love what you did with your house– I first saw the inside on Apartment Therapy:
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/telstar/sets/1354525/

  40. Posted by NoeValleyJim

    Wow, small world Todd, I used to work with you at HotWired. I must know half the posters here…

  41. Posted by anonarch

    Todd’s house is now my new favorite house in San Francisco! It is a great example of someone taking a home and recreating it as an expression of their imagination and taste vs. trying to create something that will “sell”. Todd, if you have a fundraiser for a good cause at your home, I will pay $1000 for a short tour. I want one of those MUNI scrolls he has in the living room, does anyone know who to get this?

  42. Posted by dub dub

    @anonarch — actually, I bet this house would sell pretty easily, if that’s what he wanted. If the lifestyle green houses sell, I see no reason a themed one like this wouldn’t. It seems pretty cool!
    But it takes *alot* of imagination/vision/drive (and looks like $$$) to do something like this, and I’m not sure the typical person has it in them.

  43. Posted by michiko

    anonarch,
    You could ask Ohmega Salvage in Berkeley – I remember hearing they had Muni rolls at one time.

  44. Posted by fluj

    @ incredulous,
    THAT is what some people think a city view looks like? Spending a million dollars to live on a hill overlooking a gas station and calling it an urban lifestyle, who would have thought? The view past and present reminds me of a depressed Colorado mining town. Paris on the Pacific INDEED!”
    So, view from street level in direction of large hill = opposite view back at city from large hill?

  45. Posted by David

    Which is precisely why I’ll never shell out the money to live in the fog bank. It’s not “urban living” at all here, it’s just overpriced crud.
    I’m sticking to the East Bay; have enough urban living there, and if I need SF, it’s pretty close.
    Again, you want real urban living for half of SF prices, go to Lincoln Square/North Center/Roscoe Village/Bucktown in Chicago. Real local, good restaurants that don’t all serve the same “pan-Asian” crud. Enough mass transit so that you really don’t need a car. Trees on the streets. Screens on the windows. Insulation in the houses. Little things the rest of the country discovered long ago that actually improve quality of life. SF sucks and is equivalent to a poor suburb of a third world hole.

  46. Posted by fluj

    “Real local, good restaurants that don’t all serve the same “pan-Asian” crud.”
    To be fair that was like two food trends ago. But nice reading hatred nonetheless.

  47. Posted by David

    Yep. Needed to vent.
    I just need to switch careers out of biotech and get it to stick so I can move somewhere livable.

  48. Posted by Joe

    Ok whats the deal with all the wood frame homes in SF being painted with that same flaking grey paint? Munsters chic?

  49. Posted by Dan

    Pan-Asian? That was the last Millenium.
    Now it’s all about sustainability and salumi.

  50. Posted by wheelchairgirl

    Joe – that’s free gray paint, which is what you get when you mix all the other colors together. SF Recycling apparently now offers a range of shades, but it used to be all gray. They give it away free, so poor or penny-pinching building owners use it on everything. It’s ugly, but it may still be better than no paint at all.
    http://www.sfrecycling.com/sfhhw/recycled_paint.php?t=d

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