1879: Stoddard, Stevenson, and Rincon Hill

Sometime in 1879:
The house on Rincon Hill

Last week I read to you from In the Footprints of the Padres, Charles Warren Stoddard’s 1902 reminiscences about the early days of San Francisco.

That piece recounted a boyhood adventure, but this book is full of California stories from the latter years of the 19th century; some deservedly obscure, but some that ring pretty loud bells.

Todays’ short text is a great example of the latter, one that dovetails beautifully with two other San Francisco stories, both of which I’ve talked about at Sparkletack: the story of the Second Street Cut and the visit of Robert Louis Stevenson.

The now all-grown-up Stoddard had returned to San Francisco after the Polynesian peregrinations that would inspire his best-known work, and Stevenson had just arrived from Scotland in hot pursuit of the woman he loved.

The two authors hit it off, and — as you’ll hear at the end of today’s Timecapsule — it’s to Stoddard and the house on Rincon Hill that we owe Stevenson’s eventual fascination with the South Seas.

charles warren stoddardSouth Park and Rincon Hill!

Do the native sons of the golden West ever recall those names and think what dignity they once conferred upon the favored few who basked in the sunshine of their prosperity?

South Park, with its line of omnibuses running across the city to North Beach; its long, narrow oval, filled with dusty foliage and offering a very weak apology for a park; its two rows of houses with, a formal air, all looking very much alike, and all evidently feeling their importance. There were young people’s “parties” in those days, and the height of felicity was to be invited to them.

As a height o’ertops a hollow, so Rincon Hill looked down upon South Park. There was more elbow-room on the breezy height; not that the height was so high or so broad, but it was breezy; and there was room for the breeze to blow over gardens that spread about the detached houses their wealth of color and perfume.

How are the mighty fallen! The Hill, of course, had the farthest to fall. South Parkites merely moved out: they went to another and a better place. There was a decline in respectability and the rent-roll, and no one thinks of South Park now, — at least no one speaks of it above a whisper.

As for the Hill, the Hillites hung on through everything; the waves of commerce washed all about it and began gnawing at its base; a deep gully was cut through it, and there a great tide of traffic ebbed and flowed all day. At night it was dangerous to pass that way without a revolver in one’s hand; for that city is not a city in the barbarous South Seas, whither preachers of the Gospel of peace are sent; but is a civilized city and proportionately unsafe.

A cross-street was lowered a little, and it leaped the chasm in an agony of wood and iron, the most unlovely object in a city that is made up of all unloveliness. The gutting of this Hill cost the city the fortunes of several contractors, and it ruined the Hill forever. There is nothing left to be done now but to cast it into the midst of the sea.

I had sported on the green with the goats of goatland ere ever the stately mansion had been dreamed of; and it was my fate to set up my tabernacle one day in the ruins of a house that even then stood upon the order of its going, — it did go impulsively down into that “most unkindest cut,” the Second Street chasm. Even the place that once knew it has followed after.

charles_stoddard_second_street_cutThe ruin I lived in had been a banker’s Gothic home. When Rincon Hill was spoiled by bloodless speculators, he abandoned it and took up his abode in another city. A tenant was left to mourn there. Every summer the wild winds shook that forlorn ruin to its foundations. Every winter the rains beat upon it and drove through and through it, and undermined it, and made a mush of the rock and soil about it; and later portions of that real estate deposited themselves, pudding-fashion, in the yawning abyss below.

I sat within, patiently awaiting the day of doom; for well I knew that my hour must come. I could not remain suspended in midair for any length of time: the fall of the house at the northwest corner of Harrison and Second Streets must mark my fall.

While I was biding my time, there came to me a lean, lithe stranger. I knew him for a poet by his unshorn locks and his luminous eyes, the pallor of his face and his exquisitely sensitive hands. As he looked about my eyrie with aesthetic glance, almost his first words were: “What a background for a novel!” He seemed to relish it all–the impending crag that might topple any day or hour; the modest side door that had become my front door because the rest of the building was gone; the ivy-roofed, geranium-walled conservatory wherein I slept like a Babe in the Wood, but in densest solitude and with never a robin to cover me.

He liked the crumbling estate, and even as much of it as had gone down into the depths forever. He liked the sagging and sighing cypresses, with their roots in the air, that hung upon and clung upon the rugged edge of the remainder. He liked the shaky stairway that led to it (when it was not out of gear), and all that was irrelative and irrelevant; what might have been irritating to another was to him singularly appealing and engaging; for he was a poet and a romancer, and his name was Robert Louis Stevenson. He used to come to that eyrie on Rincon Hill to chat and to dream; he called it “the most San Francisco-ey part of San Francisco,” and so it was.

It was the beginning and the end of the first period of social development on the Pacific coast. The little glimpse that Louis Stevenson had of it in its decay gave him a few realistic pages for The Wrecker.

If you’ve read this far, you’ve got to read those “few realistic pages” of Stevenson’s — and here they are.

Robert Louis StevensonFaces on the City Front

from The Wrecker, chapter 8:

The first of these incidents brought me in acquaintance with a certain San Francisco character, who had something of a name beyond the limits of the city, and was known to many lovers of good English.

I had discovered a new slum, a place of precarious, sandy cliffs, deep, sandy cuttings, solitary, ancient houses, and the butt-ends of streets. It was already environed. The ranks of the street-lamps threaded it unbroken. The city, upon all sides of it, was tightly packed, and growled with traffic.

To-day, I do not doubt the very landmarks are all swept away; but it offered then, within narrow limits, a delightful peace, and (in the morning, when I chiefly went there) a seclusion almost rural. On a steep sand-hill, in this neighbourhood, toppled, on the most insecure foundation, a certain row of houses, each with a bit of garden, and all (I have to presume) inhabited. Thither I used to mount by a crumbling footpath, and in front of the last of the houses, would sit down to sketch.

The very first day I saw I was observed, out of the ground-floor window by a youngish, good-looking fellow, prematurely bald, and with an expression both lively and engaging.

The second, as we were still the only figures in the landscape, it was no more than natural that we should nod.

The third, he came out fairly from his intrenchments, praised my sketch, and with the impromptu cordiality of artists carried me into his apartment; where I sat presently in the midst of a museum of strange objects, — paddles and battle-clubs and baskets, rough-hewn stone images, ornaments of threaded shell, cocoanut bowls, snowy cocoanut plumes — evidences and examples of another earth, another climate, another race, and another (if a ruder) culture.

Nor did these objects lack a fitting commentary in the conversation of my new acquaintance. Doubtless you have read his book. You know already how he tramped and starved, and had so fine a profit of living, in his days among the islands; and meeting him, as I did, one artist with another, after months of offices and picnics, you can imagine with what charm he would speak, and with what pleasure I would hear.

It was in such talks, which we were both eager to repeat, that I first heard the names — first fell under the spell — of the islands; and it was from one of the first of them that I returned (a happy man) with Omoo under one arm, and my friend’s own adventures under the other.