by Paul DeLucchi, originally written in 1993, then revised and illustrated in 2021.
Elsie, Rudolph, Dora and Auguste Hagen, about 1905
All photos courtesy Paul DeLucchi, except where noted.
|Rudolph Frederick Hagen, the man who built the house at 703 San Bruno Avenue on Potrero Hill in San Francisco, was my great-grandfather. The following is what I know about that house and the people who first lived there. Practically all of this information comes from my father, Milton Rudolph DeLucchi, who lived there until age 9, and who in later years still vividly remembered that house and the people who lived there.|
Born in September 1864, Rudolph Hagen left his home of Hamburg, Germany at the age of 14, joining the Merchant Marine in Bremerhaven as a cook's assistant. He jumped ship in San Francisco, intending to find his way to the Alaska gold rush.
By 1882 he was back in San Francisco, where he met and married Auguste Barner, originally of Wagenfeld, Germany. Auguste’s three brothers had already emigrated to San Francisco and wrote favorably of it, inviting Auguste to come too. Around 1884 Hagen built, with his own hands, the house at 703 San Bruno Avenue, and moved in with his new wife and her brother Herman Barner. At various times other couples also shared the house’s two floors, among them Rosie and Johnny Sozzi, and later Henry Stearns and his wife.
Rudolph and Auguste Hagen had two daughters: Dora in 1896 and Elsie in 1900. Dora would eventually marry Charles Fischer. Elsie grew to be a strong, capable young woman, and in 1918 married Milton Joseph DeLucchi.
(left) 1910 Elsie on 19th Street; (right) 1917 Elsie at backyard barn
Born in San Francisco in 1896, Milton was an apprentice machinist and veteran of the Great War, who at age 14 had begun work as a driver for the White Motor Company. In 1919, son Milton Rudolph was born to Elsie and Milton J., and a second child, Henrietta, followed in 1924.
Rudolph Hagen worked as a steamfitter for the San Francisco Fire Department at a pumping station and firehouse located at the corner of 17th and Vermont streets. Meanwhile Herman Barner, along with his brothers William and Henry, became enterprising businessmen, at one point owning all four corners at 22nd and Howard Streets (that part of Howard was later renamed Van Ness Avenue South), as well as the saloon, apartment house and funeral home located there. Their businesses prospered; Herman retired at middle age.
(left) 1917 Milton DeLucchi, Private; (right) 1918 Elsie and Milton marriage; sister Dora at right
Around this time, the Hagens took in an apparently abandoned Hispanic boy of fifteen from the central valley town of Linden, with the idea of "making him behave" and teaching him a trade. Ed Galindo responded well and became part of the household (though he paid board). He was a dapper fellow, who played drums in a marching band and participated in the San Francisco Diamond Jubilee parade in 1924 as a conquistador, complete with black helmet and shining breastplate. Ed Galindo stayed with the Hagen family his entire life.
Galindo (right) at Neptune Beach, Alameda
1919 Baby Milton and mother on back porch
In the 1920s, the 700 block of San Bruno Avenue was home to families of Ukrainian, Austrian, German and Russian descent. The 600 block, in contrast, was predominantly Italian. Milton remembers these people as peasants in the best sense of the word: proud country people, ready to walk anywhere, to carry all manner of burdens, to help each other without waiting to be asked. They swept their sidewalks, kept their homes and fences painted, grew some of their own food, and lived with an eye to the future. Much later, several of the families moved down the peninsula to Menlo Park and Redwood City.
1913 Mario Yellenich
The corner grocery at 19th and Vermont was owned by Tony Yellenich and his brother Mario, who between them spoke as many languages as necessary.
Across the street was Patrick Henry School – a wooden structure, replaced in the 1930s with a stucco building. There Dora and Elsie – and later young Milton – attended classes. Milton had the same first-grade teacher as his mother Elsie had nineteen years earlier: Miss Crocker. Up at 20th Street, between Vermont and San Bruno, was a park at the crest of the hill, where wildflowers grew and Milton played ball with his Uncle Herman.
Patrick Henry School
San Bruno Avenue ran along the edge of a bluff which fell sharply off to the west, down toward the bustling, blue-collar Mission District. To get down the hill to Potrero Avenue, residents used a frail wooden stairway that clung to the western edge of 19th Street. (The Bayshore Freeway now cuts a deep channel through the shoulder of the hill, roughly parallel to San Bruno Avenue, as it swings into "Hospital Curve" around S.F. General Hospital.)
A streetcar ran along Potrero, turning at 26th Street toward Mission, or one could just walk west on 19th Street the eight blocks to Mission Street. Most daily shopping was done on Mission, but the bakeryman came door-to-door, as did the milkman, and every Friday the fishman. Then there was the rag-bottle-and-sack man, who collected these items and paid a few pennies.
1926 Etta and young Milton at backyard shed
Number 703 was painted a cream color with blue trim. Inside the front door stood a large wooden hat-rack and mirror. On the entry wall just opposite hung a pay telephone (number: MIssion 5079). Once a month, to the delight of young Milton, the man from Pacific Telephone and Telegraph would come by and empty all the nickels out onto the dining room table, count them and roll them up in paper.
To the left of the hall was Ed Galindo's room. The dining room was on the right, with tall corner cabinets; it was also used as a sewing room. Mrs. Fitcher, a seamstress, would come by every few weeks to help make and mend clothes. Mrs. Hagen would bring in coffee and cake, mid-morning. (These two women would become lifelong friends). A pair of sliding doors separated that room from the kitchen, where a coal-burning stove was used both for cooking and for heating water. It was supplemented by a two-burner gas range out on the porch. This outdoor range served to heat water in a large oval copper vessel, as well as to melt lead for making fishing sinkers, boil water for cooking crabs, and heat the hair-curling iron and the double-handled waffle iron. Milton remembers wonderful kitchen smells of baking bread and German-style cakes, and the big, hearty meals. Directly above the first-floor kitchen was another kitchen, similarly outfitted but with a bigger stove. All clothes-washing was done by hand, with a mechanical device to facilitate the sloshing of suds, along with a wringer. Wire clotheslines on reels ran from the house back to the barn; one of these was later used as the antenna for Hagen's crystal radio set.
Also in the kitchen was a blackboard and chalk, to help with school homework. Milton remembers, "Grandpa Hagen was a kind but firm man, was great to me, and included me – even as a small child – in everything. He participated in my homework and provided me with a child's toolbox, a toy sailboat, and books of adventure, among them David Goes to Baffin Land and Swiss Family Robinson."
The house had a bathroom on each floor, but toilet facilities were outdoors on the back porches. The upstairs bath was spacious, with white fixtures. The downstairs bath was a tiny room off the central hallway, and was also accessible via a narrow stairway leading down from a counter-weighted trap door (they called it "the klop") in the floor of the upper front bedroom. Above the second floor was a large attic, divided into front and back sections, used for storage and as a play area for the children. This attic had windows front and back; from these high lookouts the view was astonishing: Twin Peaks to the west, Marin County to the north, and Oakland to the northeast. My father recalls sitting happily on the upper porch of the front stairs with his parents, eating cantaloupe and ice cream, enjoying the panorama of the city in the late afternoon sun.
1925 At the White Truck Company, 11th & Mission Streets. Milton J on the left.
Life was not all contentment, even for a small boy. Milton remembers when his mother left for Franklin Hospital to give birth to Etta. She wore a tan sweater over her dark print dress, and said goodbye to him in front of the house with Grandpa Hagen. Though Milton was only five years old, something in his mother’s face told him that this was a very somber parting. Later he understood more fully how serious childbirth was for Elsie. Just two or three weeks before Milton's own birth Elsie had had surgery for appendicitis. This was long before antibiotics. Milton was born prematurely and there was some doubt whether he would survive. Indeed, his Aunt Dora's first child died at birth. Going to a hospital was always regarded as cause for deep concern.
Holidays, on the other hand, were times for celebration. The top front room on the south side of the house was the parlor, the nicest room in the house and not to be entered casually. Each Christmas, a tree lit with candles would fill the window; young children were prevented from seeing the tannenbaum before Christmas Eve. Hagen himself played St. Nick, first pretending to be called away to a meeting at the firehouse, and then appearing in full costume. Santa had a sack of gifts and carried a long pole decorated with red ribbon, on which he would lean as he moved around the parlor. As part of the festivities, each child was expected to recite a poem or sing a song.
1928, Hagen and the 1917 Overland
Rudolph Hagen was a remarkable man. He had little formal education, but he spoke and wrote English well, and studied the literature of every subject he encountered. Fascinated with all technology, he was always the first to acquire an automobile, or electric saw, or Victrola or radio set. His 1917 Overland car was kept in a garage on 19th Street, and although Hagen proudly owned the car he never learned to drive, entrusting that task to others. In the back yard at 703 San Bruno, Hagen raised chickens and planted many kinds of vegetables, including pole beans along the north-side fence. The soil was exceptionally fertile, thanks no doubt to the chickens. The yard was divided halfway back by a white picket fence and gate.
At the back of the lot was a large sturdy shed, two stories tall, providing storage for coal and garden implements. Hagen kept a leather shop in the loft, where he repaired shoes for himself and others. He worked canvas and knew knots, learned in his seafaring days, which is probably when he got his tattoos: elaborate naked ladies on both arms, holding crossed flags in strategic locations. The shed also held his duck-hunting paraphernalia, fishing rods and crab nets. Fishing line would rot if wound on its spool when wet, so the rafters were usually spun with long, fine linen threads. The room was filled with tools and equipment, and was rich with intriguing smells. Hagen kept exhaustive notebooks on everything he did, from construction to fishing to farming to cobbling, as well as a considerable library of other books, especially histories. He was proud of his industry and self-sufficiency.
That pride might explain why a house with two bathtubs, two kitchens, a telephone – and a "klop" – still had no electricity until 1925. Lighting was primarily by kerosene; among Milton's boyhood chores was to clean and refill the lanterns. Hagen had mastered an impressive array of technical skills, but electricity was still mysterious. He looked upon it with distrust even after it was installed. In those days the voltage was less consistent than today, so fluctuations in lightbulb intensity were often noticed. People would hold up pieces of frosted glass, to filter the light from a clear-glass bulb, believing they could thus "see" the electricity moving, making light.
703 San Bruno was the scene of frequent and lively parties. The Hagens and DeLucchis loved festivities. They'd decorate the rooms and put out enormous spreads of food and drink. (During Prohibition, Elsie would transport liquor in a baby carriage, the jug carefully wrapped in a knitted blanket and bonnet.) There'd be dancing to music from the phonograph, and Hagen would play the accordion or the harmonica, stomping his feet. He was full of rhythm and knew any song requested, as well as his sea songs. After several glasses of homemade wine he would give never-ending formal speeches. Among the guests at these parties were a Mr. and Mrs. Pulasky—gypsies—whom my father remembers as being marvelously dark-skinned. Mrs. Pulasky would tell fortunes, to the intense interest and credulity of the other women present.
In 1928, Hagen retired from the fire department and bought acreage in the hills above Redwood City. There he built a comfortable house with large porches on all four sides and several outbuildings. The Hagens, along with Herman Barner and grandson Milton, moved there, though they kept 703 San Bruno for five more years. Elsie, with her husband and daughter moved to 470 Otsego Street in the Balboa Park area of San Francisco; they had another daughter, Doris, 13 years after Henrietta. Milton J worked for the White Motor Company for 37 years at their factory at 11th and Mission, then 14 years with the S.F. Municipal Railway. In 1947, young Milton R. married Betty June Clark of Redwood City; that couple had three children, of whom I am the eldest.
In the mid-1930s Rudolph Hagen suffered from debilitating arthritis, and died of pneumonia in 1937, a week after his grandson's high school graduation. Auguste Hagen lived on until 1961. The Redwood City house (rented out at the time) burned down that same year, taking with it all of Rudolph Hagen’s many notebooks—a lifetime of written records.
The house at 703 San Bruno was sold to the Ross family in 1932 and appeared to deteriorate steadily over the years. In 1990 the house was bought by a Czech immigrant who climbed to the roof of the condemned structure and was enchanted by the sweeping view. He determined that Hagen's craftsmanship had resisted decades of neglect well enough that the 100-year-old house could be rescued. The new owner and his American wife began a complete restoration and renovation. Their son was born the same week as their purchase papers were signed. Milton R. DeLucchi visited them in 1993, entering the house for the first time in 64 years, delighted to see his revitalized boyhood home.
PS: A copy of this story has been hidden inside a wall of the house at 703 for a future owner to discover.