The Bell of St. Mary's (Park)

One San Francisco neighborhood has a design best appreciated from above.

The Bell of St. Mary's (Park)
One San Francisco neighborhood has a design best appreciated from above.

I probably learned about the Nazca lines in Peru from an In Search Of episode in the 1970s. This was the heyday of “ancient alien” theories. Massive drawings scratched in the Peruvian desert—giant spiders, hummingbirds, and big-headed humanoids—could only be properly appreciated from the air, so obviously E.T.s had something to do with them. I ate that stuff up as a 10-year-old. 

Monkey and "astronaut" Nazca lines in Peru.

San Francisco has its own only-from-the-air (or on a map) geoglyph. Although not on the scale or majesty of the Nazca lines, the St. Mary’s Park neighborhood has an interesting story and a colorful (if terrestrial) creator.

St. Mary’s Park is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. Laid out on the southeast side of Mission Street between the Bernal Heights and Excelsior neighborhoods, it has grassy medians and gently curving streets lined with stucco homes. It’s also shaped like a bell:

1938 aerial by Harrison Ryker with some wayfinding notes by me. St. Mary's Park, with its bell-shaped street plan, lies on the left . (David Rumsey Map Collection)

The bell of St. Mary’s honors a college by the same name that once occupied the land, founded in the 1860s when the city’s southern neighborhoods were artichoke fields, dairies, tanneries, and grassy gullies.

Less than 100 years ago the roaring traffic river that is Interstate Highway 280 was a grassy gully. The St. Mary's Park neighborhood was laid out on the left side of this former rail right-of-way. (Alemany Boulevard planning, Department of Public Works photo, February 18, 1926.)

Roman Catholic archbishop Joseph Alemany bought 60 acres of land from Jesus Bernal for $1,600 and laid the cornerstone for St. Mary’s College on August 3, 1862. The campus ended up with some fairly large Gothic buildings designed by architect Thomas England:

St. Mary's College was in San Francisco from 1862 to 1889. (Louis Nagel lithograph, circa 1870s, BANC PIC 1963.002:0886--F, Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley)

After 26 years in the San Francisco countryside, St. Mary’s moved to the warmer climes of Oakland in 1889, and eventually to the wooded hills of Moraga, California, where it still is today.

The old college buildings in San Francisco were used for various purposes by the archdiocese, including the creation of St. John’s parish.

St. Mary's College in the early 1870s, when it apparently ran a Christmas tree lot as a side business. (That's a Woody joke.) (Carleton Watkins stereograph photo #2398)

The city finally grew into its southern fields with the go-go house-building boom of the 1920s. There was money to be made and Archbishop Riordan decided to subdivide and sell the old college campus.

The piece of the WPA-funded 3-D Model of San Francisco featuring the bell of St. Mary's Park. (LisaRuth Elliott photo from FoundSF)

The bell street plan is the work of Mark Daniels, one of my favorite landscape architects (OK, I only know the names of like three landscape architects, but still…)

Daniels wrote a lot of essays on his craft and comes off as creative, humorous, and pretentiously arty. He designed the Forest Hill neighborhood with a giant staircase to nowhere, did a bit of work on the ritzy Sea Cliff development (from his resume you’d think it was all his idea), and when he got the plumb job of being the National Park Service’s first superintendent, spent most of his short tenure trying to redesign the ranger uniform.*

movie poster
In 1924, Mark Daniels didn't yet have Ingrid Bergman to inspire him, but he did have the song "The Bells of St. Mary's."

In creating the street grid for the archbishop’s new neighborhood, Daniels likely was inspired by the popular song, “The Bells of St. Mary’s,” published in 1917.  (You may know it from Bing Crosby’s rendition and his 1945 movie of the same name, a Christmas-time staple on television.) Street names—College Avenue, Justin, Genebern, Agnon—also honored the old school and some of the earliest administrators.

Work went fast in the 1920s, when everyone was building and seemingly everyone was buying. The archdiocese contracted with architects Punnet & Parez—old hands in the residence-park business—to create an entry gate and the sales office building in January 1924. The street plan for St. Mary’s Park was adopted by the Board of Supervisors in February 1924. The official opening announcement for the new development came in April. By August 2, 1924, one hundred houses were under construction.

View of St. Mary's Park being built up on October 22, 1925. College Avenue at left and Justin Drive at right. (Detail of Department of Public Work photo by Horace Chaffee. OpenSFHistory/wnp36.03282)

A variety of experienced developers bought sections of St. Mary’s Park on speculation and constructed the popular Mediterranean Revival style tract homes that were simultaneously going up in the Sunset District, West of Twin Peaks, and Marina Districts. The prodigiously productive architect C. F. Strothoff, who specialized in stucco bungalows, designed the first residences.

Sales ad for St. Mary's Park. Initial offering prices ranged from $14,500 to $8,500.

Working under one sales agent (R. D. Blake & Co.), F. W. Varney, Gordon W. Morris, the Stoneson Brothers, the Meyer Brothers (who had Miraloma Park), all took their bite of St. Mary’s Park.

Agnon Avenue homes.

That an architectural cohesion was achieved within the bell speaks either to the tract’s well-crafted design guidelines or the follow-the-herd business plan of the mid 1920s developers. The mindset was generally build what sells—fast—and move on to the next job.

A bit of color seen between 39 and 45 Justin Drive.

Despite having multiple builders, as a master-planned “residence park,” St. Mary’s had construction restrictions so residents could enjoy perks like front set-backs, breathing space between homes, and no overhead wires.

Love that zig-zag on the tower entry of 40 Justin Drive.

Residence parks also typically had racist covenants prohibiting occupancy or ownership by minorities, deed restrictions which were not made illegal until the 1940s. Did Archbishop Riordan let such discrimination fly? I haven’t done the research yet, but probably.

Coming from the urban grit of outer Mission Street and dipping into the well-maintained loop of St. Mary's Park is refreshing and strange. Here is the definition of an enclave.

College Avenue

The broad, grassy median of College Avenue has a pole flying the American flag and, just below, a yellow, blue, red, and white one emblazoned with the neighborhood name.

How many neighborhoods have a flag pole? It is otherworldly, if not alien.

* Daniels admittedly did some other good stuff while leading NPS, including recommending not having a landscape architect run the nation’s parks.

Have a Pint with Me Tomorrow

Heritage Happy Hour at the Plough! Thursday, April 11, 5 pm to 7pm

Woody cross-promotion! Come enjoy the monthly Heritage Happy Hour with me at The Plough and the Stars, 116 Clement Street, tomorrow evening, April 11, 2024, from 5:00 to 7:00 pm. We can celebrate a legacy business and talk about 1970s television shows. And I can buy your drink because... see below!

Register! (Or don't. It's free.)

Woody Beer and Coffee Fund

Always great to catch up with Susan and David F. (F.O.W.) when they are in town. Thanks for the coffee, Java Beach on Sloat!

I may be in the max-beverage-consumption era of my life and I am loving it. (This city is a great one for cafes and bars and interesting people to talk to, as you all know.) Thanks to all who chip in to keep me sociable. Is it your turn? Let me know when you are free!


“Building Contracts,” The Recorder, January 12, 1924, pg. 6.

“Old Spanish Grant to Be Converted into Home Tract,” San Francisco Examiner, April 5, 1924, pg. 6.

“100 Homes Are Being Built in St. Mary’s Park,” San Francisco Bulletin, August 2, 1924, pg. 6.

St. Marys Park Improvement Club website

50 Justin Drive by David Otero and Tami Bobb

Nikki Collister, St. Marys Development (FoundSF)