San Francisco, Here We Come (Part 3): Inner Sanctum

(Need to catch up? Read part 1 here. Read part 2 here.)

Living room at front of house

Living room at front of house

While telling Sal more about Ursula’s story, I realize we are sitting in the Cheshire’s front parlor, the room in which the antique photo album’s picture of 715 Baker Street was taken. I look through the double doorway into Sal’s guest room, imagining little Ursula singing and playing the piano that used to sit where the bed is now.

Left: The living room/parlor with double doorway. Right: Looking into the Cheshire's music room through the double doorway in the parlor

Left: The living room/parlor with double doorway. Right: Looking into the Cheshire’s music room through the double doorway in the parlor

Sal's guest room, the Cheshire's music room

Sal’s guest room, the Cheshire’s music room

After chatting for a little while, Sal suggests a tour through the rest of the house. At last! We enter the long hallway, lined with rich, dark-wood paneling along the lower portion of the wall.

Hallway_1I love seeing how other people live and decorate their living spaces. As we move slowly through the rooms, chatting along the way, I take in Sal’s eclectic artwork, furniture and décor. I feel a curious blend of HGTV-like voyeurism and an almost sacred awe at walking on the very floors Ursula padded down as a young girl, and through the very chambers she and her parents inhabited.

Ursula spent her early childhood there, from age one to about five. The Cheshires then moved to Los Angeles, but held on to the Baker Street home. When Ursula was 16, a few years after her father’s death, she and Clara moved back to San Francisco, setting up home again at Baker Street for the teen’s last year of high school.

One-year-old Ursula

One-year-old Ursula

Walking through the house, I imagine the presence of Ursula and her parents— vague, ghost-like figures going about their daily lives. I silently observe a bygone time, a mirage of the past superimposed over the clear, colorful present.

We pass the bathroom, actually two separate rooms—one with a sink and bath, the other with a toilet. Down the hall, Sal opens the door to his spacious, walk-in closet. We surmise it must have been Ursula’s small bedroom. I thrill at standing in the very room where she slept and cried and laughed and played.



A little farther down the hall is a modern kitchen, and, at the back of the house, a dining room with bay window and ornate, white-painted woodwork surrounding the fireplace mantel. Then Sal’s bedroom—probably Alfred and Clara’s in the past—also with bay window.


Dining room

Master bedroom

Master bedroom

Hallway and front door

Hallway and front door

Tour complete, we meander towards the front door to say our thanks and goodbyes. Before leaving, I ask Sal if it’s OK for me to share with “Mystery Dancer” readers some of the pictures I took inside the house.

Not only does he say yes, he also tells me I can post some professional photos he had taken for his home’s profile on…Airbnb! Whoa—what?! You mean I could actually stay in the Cheshire’s old family home, hanging out, staying overnight and breaking bread with the ghosts of Ursula, Clara and Alfred? Someday I will. And you could, too, dear reader!


Ursula at age 1, with Mama Clara

Mama and 1-year-old Ursula

San Francisco, Here We Come (Part 2)

(Continued from “San Francisco, Here We Come!”)


715-717 Baker Street, San Francisco, where Ursula lived as a little girl and teenager

Thankfully, I heard from Sal the next day—Monday afternoon! Through text messages, we arranged for me to come over at 11:30 am Tuesday, Michael’s and my last full day in San Francisco.I breathed a sigh of relief and smiled. I was going to get to see Ursula’s house!

On Tuesday morning, Michael and I said goodbye to our friends and their two fluffy cats, and got in our rental car parked out front. We drove in light rain down Lincoln Way along the south edge of Golden Gate Park, then catty-corner through the park and along the Panhandle. Turning left on Baker Street, we started looking for the house after a few blocks. After passing several other Victorian homes on the tree-lined street, we found a parking spot a couple doors down from our destination.

Entryway to 715-717 Baker St.

Entryway to 715-717 Baker St.

The rain had stopped and the sun had just broken through the clouds. A good omen, I mused. We decided I would introduce Michael to Sal and ask if it was OK if he tagged along for the tour. We walked up the 10 steps to the entryway, where twin, green-colored wood doors with oval windows stood side by side: 715-717 Baker St.

A small, hand-scrawled sign instructing visitors to knock was taped next to the apparently malfunctioning doorbell of Sal’s—and previously the Cheshire’s—flat. I rapped on the door a few times, and saw a handsome, somewhat sleepy-looking young man in pajama-like pantaloons and T-shirt walking toward the door.

He opened it and graciously welcomed Michael and me into his home. After smiles and handshakes all around, Sal, a doctor, explained his attire and bed-head by way of saying he’d been on call the night before. He invited us into his bay-windowed living room to chat for a while, before showing us the house. I couldn’t wait to see it!  (To be continued…)

Me in front of  the Cheshire's old house

Me in front of the Cheshire’s old house

San Francisco, Here We Come!

SanFran_PostcardMy husband, Michael, and I were planning to visit friends in San Francisco this past January, and I thought it would be a perfect time to see the Cheshires’ old Victorian house at 715 Baker Street, which they had bought and moved to when Ursula was one year old. I’d wanted to visit it ever since I learned a couple of years ago it was still standing.

Through my previous research, I had found out who owns the house now and where he works. On a Wednesday, a few days before we were to leave for San Francisco, I wrote a letter explaining who I was, who the Cheshires were, and that I would love to see the house if it wasn’t too much of an imposition. I had planned to e-mail the letter to him, and called his office for his e-mail address. They wouldn’t give it to me, but sent me through to his voice mail instead, so I left a brief message.

House rendering

A modern rendering of the Cheshires’ Baker Street home

Twenty-four hours passed, and I hadn’t heard back from him. It was now Thursday, two days before our scheduled departure, and I was chastising myself for leaving this to the last minute. I really wanted to see the inside of the house, so I decided to FedEx him the letter. Right before my husband was going out to send it for me, my phone rang. A San Francisco area code!

It was Sal, the current owner of 715 Baker Street, calling from his cell phone! I excitedly told him everything I had said in my unsent letter, and acknowledged it must sound weird, me a total stranger asking to see his house. He laughed and said to call him when I got into town.

This wasn’t exactly a “yes,” but it sounded promising.

Ursula Cheshire 2 years old

When Ursula was 2 years old (as shown in this photo), her parents ran a help-wanted ad in the San Francisco Call for a “neat girl for general housework and plain cooking.”

Michael and I landed at SFO Saturday night. We had a late dinner with friends, our overnight hosts who lived just a 10-minute drive away from the Baker Street house. I planned to call Sal the next day to see if I could, indeed, come see the home where Ursula lived as a little girl, and later as a big girl, when she (at age 16) and her mother moved back to San Francisco from Los Angeles.

On Sunday at 1:01 pm, in the sunny guest room where purple and pink orchids graced the dresser, I picked up my phone and punched in Sal’s number. My heart beat a little fast. I was nervous about inviting myself over for a tour of this perfect stranger’s house. Would he think it an unwelcome imposition? An annoyance? Would he turn out to be an ax murderer? Hmm, I’d better bring Michael along for safety’s sake—plus, he’s good at chatting with strangers…

Alas, there was no answer, so I left a voice message telling him when I’d be available to come over.

By Sunday evening, I hadn’t heard from him and began to worry he had decided that, for whatever reason, he didn’t want to open up his home to me. I would be disappointed if that were the case, but at the very least, I could drive by the house and take some pictures of the outside, right?

(To be continued…)


Fire! From Wildcat Canyon to Zeta Tau Alpha

The Zeta Tau Alpha house where Ursula lived with her sorority sisters

The Zeta Tau Alpha house where Ursula lived with her sorority sisters on Euclid Avenue in Berkeley, California

Monday, September 17, 1923 began like any other day. In her last year at UC Berkeley, Ursula Cheshire likely had breakfast with her sorority sisters at Zeta Tau Alpha house at 1700 Euclid Avenue before walking to classes on campus. But little did she know she would never step foot inside that house again.

As the hours passed, the day grew hot and windy, with low humidity. At noon-time, about three miles north of Berkeley, a gale blew down a high-voltage wire in Wildcat Canyon, starting a grass fire that steadily spread to a grove of eucalyptus trees.

“[Then,] sweeping over the grassy dry hills, fanned to a tremendous speed, the flame soon devoured the obstacles in its path, and hurled itself over the brow of Hangman’s peak to the top-most houses on Shasta street…” (From The Daily Californian, September 19, 1923)

The September 17, 1923 fire that swept down the hills to Berkeley was big news in the bay area. According to The Daily Californian, "Beautiful homes, spacious fraternity houses, apartment blocks, and business structures were razed, leaving thousands of University students and townspeople homeless and destitute.”

The September 17, 1923 fire that swept down the hills to Berkeley was big news in the bay area. According to The Daily Californian, “Beautiful homes, spacious fraternity houses, apartment blocks, and business structures were razed, leaving thousands of University students and townspeople homeless and destitute.”

Between 2 pm and 6 pm, the fire swept down the hillside toward the bay and the university, laying waste to residential districts in the northern section of Berkeley, including Cragmont and Euclid Avenues. Described in the San Francisco Chronicle as the worst fire the east bay had ever known, the conflagration raged for hours despite the efforts of 7,500 fire fighters from Berkeley and surrounding communities (including San Francisco) to distinguish it. (Below is a video from the Prelinger Archives with incredible footage of the fire and people trying to save their possessions.)

Thousands of UC Berkeley students and other Berkeley townspeople had also “thrown their force into the battle.” A row of homes at the edge of the fire zone had even been dynamited to stay the spread of flames. While male students helped fight the fire, the women of the university banded together to form relief units, providing the men with sandwiches, coffee, cigarettes and first aid.

The Daily Californian (September 19, 1923) attributed the speed of the fire to a fierce north wind that “carried sparks and blazing embers for blocks,” and a lack of water pressure in the hillside districts. Around 4:30 pm, a sudden change of wind slowed the blaze and helped the fire fighters wrestle it under control.

The remains of an apartment building at Euclid Avenue and Ridge Road, just a couple blocks from Zeta Tau Alpha house. (September 1923. Photo courtesy of Berkeley Public Library.)

The remains of an apartment building at Euclid Avenue and Ridge Road, just a couple blocks from Zeta Tau Alpha house. (September 1923. Photo courtesy of Berkeley Public Library.)

While the flames spared the university campus, they devoured nearly 500 homes north of it—including some of the city’s finest—rendering 3,000 people temporarily homeless. Among the residences destroyed were those of Benjamin Ide Wheeler, president emeritus of the university, and architect John Galen Howard. More importantly to Ursula, Zeta Tau Alpha house was one of 18 fraternity, sorority and club houses burned to the ground that day.

According to the Berkeley Daily Gazette (September 20, 1923):

“Personal losses of clothes and furnishings were felt by all members of the various houses. Some students barely escaped with enough clothing to enable them to make an appearance on the campus. Many are now wearing borrowed clothes.”

A reporter for The Daily Californian offered this description of the streets that evening:

“…consuming flames showed some mercy to goods stored in the open streets…[The] streets and vacant lots are littered. Phonographs, chairs, dressing tables, pictures, a baby’s crib, a handsomely carved teakwood cabinet, a washing machine, three cups and saucers set along a cement retaining wall, bed clothes…On the street below, a grand piano stands in isolated grandeur…”

Picking through the rubble in north Berkeley. (September 1923. Photo courtesy of Berkeley Public Library.)

Residents pick through the rubble in north Berkeley. (September 1923. Photo courtesy of Berkeley Public Library.)

Perhaps that piano was the one belonging to the sisters of Zeta Tau Alpha, the one they saved, as Ursula notes in this story that appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle two days after the fire:

“One of the first Greek-letter sorority houses to be rebuilt in Berkeley will be the Zeta Tau Alpha house. There at the scene of wreckage yesterday the girls of the sorority poked about in the ruins, bringing to light pieces of broken china bearing the crest of the national sorority and twisted, melted pieces of silver upon some of which could be still traced the shield and crest. According to…Miss Ursula Cheshire, senior, the girls of the house saved the greater part of their clothing and the piano. The rest of the house furnishings were burned. The building did not belong to the Berkeley organization. The chapter plans to rebuild immediately upon a new lot already owned by it next door to the present Theta Chi house on Le Conte avenue.”

Or, perhaps the piano Ursula played and sang along to with her sisters at ZTA was the salvaged upright piano spiritedly played by a young woman at the 4:37 mark in this rare footage of scenes during and after the fire:

Ursula was lucky: her mother still lived in their family home in San Francisco. I imagine Ursula inviting some of her sisters to stay with her there until they could find alternative living arrangements. Thankfully, few students were hurt and nobody died that day, but it sure was a dramatic start to Ursula’s last year as a college coed!

A Photographic Mystery Solved

Due to impending work deadlines and an upcoming vacation, this post is a self-contained aside, and I will pick up Ursula’s UC Berkeley chapter on the first Tuesday in March. Enjoy!

On November 4, 2014, I published several photos from the second photo album, which I had recently discovered. I was unsure of the location where one dramatic photo had been taken, thinking it was possibly Golden Gate Park in San Francisco.

Thanks to Berkeley-based researcher Maria Brandt, I now know I guessed wrong. I was fascinated to learn from her that the photo below was taken in Sutro Heights Park, San Francisco, in the area now known as Lands End. Created by self-made millionaire Adolph Sutro in 1885, the park today is part of the National Parks Service.

Left to right: Aunts Mathilde and Jeannette, mother Clara, and little Ursula. Golden Gate Park?

Left to right: Aunts Mathilde and Jeannette, mother Clara, and little Ursula in Sutro Heights Park, San Francisco, around 1905 or so

According to the National Parks Service:

“…Sutro intentionally designed the grounds to capture the views of the Pacific Ocean, the Golden Gate and the Marin Headlands…Sutro Heights was a fantastic collection of flower beds, forests, elegant walkways, hedge mazes…”

The park also included a platform plaza that overlooked the nearby Cliff House. If you are ever in San Francisco, the present-day Cliff House is worth a visit. Now a restaurant (try the delicious French toast!), it affords close-up and stunning views of the Pacific Ocean.

The statue in the above photograph (behind Ursula’s aunts) was one of the 200 concrete replicas of Greek and Roman statuary that Sutro imported from Belgium. Over the years, Sutro Heights Park fell into disrepair. After the park joined the National Parks Service in 1976 as part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, the remaining statues were removed for storage and cataloging, and the Parks Service cast reproductions of them (reproductions of the reproductions!) and re-erected them on the site.

I look forward to visiting Sutro Heights in person next time I’m in San Francisco, and walking where Ursula, her mother and aunts walked before!

Main Gate, Sutro Heights, circa 1900s.  (Source:

Main Gate, Sutro Heights, circa 1900s.

P.S. The National Parks Service website has a lot of great material on the history of Sutro Heights.