Tornado House

When a twister hit San Francisco's Sunset District.

Tornado House
When a twister hit San Francisco's Sunset District.

After more than 80 San Francisco Stories, you should know I’m attracted to odd buildings: telephone exchanges that look like pagodas; music schools that look like accordions; streetcar-houses; portable cottages for earthquake refugees; castle bars, castle clubhouses, any structure, single or multi-storied, with a storied past.

There are kindred spirits. A gentleman named Adam Goldstein is into tank houses These 19th century towers were constructed to store water, but now are frequently used as residences, offices, or studios. He produced a cool map with his own beautiful sketches of East Bay survivors. He leads occasional tours. You can click through lots of examples and watch a talk he did on the subject:

Adam Goldstein talk on East Bay tank houses for the Oakland Heritage Alliance.

San Francisco has a few examples of these tank houses—there’s one tucked in a backyard just a couple of blocks from my house. But this structure shown below on 46th Avenue and Ortega Street in the Outer Sunset District, despite its looks, isn’t a tank house:

1896 46th Avenue just off Ortega Street in the Sunset District.

When the house at 1896 46th Avenue was constructed in 1911 it was the pioneer of San Francisco’s Block 2082 bounded by Noriega and Ortega Streets, 45th and 46th Avenues:

1915 Sanborn Map showing a single dwelling on the block of 45th and 46th Avenues, Noriega and Ortega Streets, at top.
Detail of the house, then addressed 1882 46th Avenue. The outbuilding on the right was built in what would later be Ortega Street. Whoops.

That is what the maps said. But the real world said, “Streets? nope, just scrub and sand dunes here, buddy.”

sand dunes
Aerial view of the Outer Sunset in 1914, with the future corner of 46th Avenue and Ortega Street circled. (Courtesy of Hiller Aviation Museum)
aerial of house
Detail of the previous photo. Today's 1896 46th Avenue is at center with 46th Avenue just a sandy path and Ortega Street not cut through the dunes yet. A neighboring property has a windmill and water tank tower.

Back then the best directions to the house might have been “Walk south along the beach. When you hit the radio towers of the telegraph company, turn east.”

Aerial view of Ocean Beach and the Outer Sunset in 1914. Federal Telegraph towers on the block between 47th and 48th Avenues. House at the corner of 46th Avenue and Ortega Street circled. (Courtesy of Hiller Aviation Museum)

The towers went up at the beach in 1910 and came down in the mid 1920s after technology advanced, Outer Sunset real estate became more valuable, and a big storm had its say.

Damaged Federal Telegraph tower between 47th, 48th, Noriega, and Ortega Streets, circa 1925. (OpenSFHistory/wnp30.0126)

Large-scale development of the outer dunes ramped up in the 1920s, but in 1929 hadn’t reached as far south as 46th and Ortega Street. Real (ish) streets were scratched out to define Block 2082, but 1896 46th Avenue was still the only house on the block.

1929 aerial facing south across the Outer Sunset District. Block 2082 is still almost completely sand dunes and vegetation. (Department of Public Works copy of commercial photo, OpenSFHistory/wnp36.03797)

Early the next year, on February 24, 1930, another big storm battered the Bay Area. Strong waves and wind swept a deck hand off a tugboat at the ferry building; lighting struck Oakland’s city hall and started a fire; snow and hail fell in the Mission District. Then the police received reports of an apparent explosion at the corner of 46th Avenue and Ortega Street.

Emergency crews arrived to find a house listing at an angle in the dunes and surrounded by broken lumber and debris. There had been no explosion, but the building had been knocked off its foundation and apparently screwed down into the sand. Newspapers reported (it seems inaccurately) that it had been spun 90 degrees.

damaged house
1896 46th Avenue damaged by a storm on February 24, 1930. (Emiliano Echeverria/Randolph Brandt Collection, OpenSFHistory/wnp30.0124)

A neighbor who lived at 2243 45th Avenue reported seeing an enormous funnel. “It seemed as if tons of sand were swirling round and round, and that the column would crush anything it happened to strike.”

Owner John Volz had been at work. Emergency crews, reporters, and curious neighbors crawled over his property, posing for photos on the steeply raked floors. The only other major damage in the area was the destruction of a garage in the backyard of 1800 48th Avenue.

Newspaper photo of the damage and inaccurate claim of the house shifting 90 degree from the storm. (San Francisco Examiner, February 25, 1930, pg. 3.)

The four daily newspapers didn't exactly know what to call the phenomenon that moved the house: “freak squall,” “freak storm,” “a miniature "twister.”

Volz estimated his losses at $5,000, but he didn’t give up on his house. Rebuilt with a ground-level garage, the unusual home at 1896 46th Avenue still has its pre-tornado tapering top floor with its west-facing bay window.

Instead of demolishing and rebuilding new, Volz reconstructed with bravado, taking his home even closer to the clouds, defying the skies to take another shot.

1896 46th Avenue in 2024.

Woody Beer and Coffee Fund

Beer AND Coffee, an ideal meet-up with Don A. and Steven C. at The Irish Bank.

A big thank you to Linda G. for her contribution to the Woody Beverage Fund. She sent a note: “I now live in the (gasp) East Bay but your stories connect me to the City I was born in. Thanks!”

You’re welcome to come back anytime, Linda. Or maybe I can take a trip east and meet you for a coffee? I’ll start packing...

Who’s turn is it to buy a round? I know I look like a gadabout, but I usually need some prodding to be sociable (Just ask Nancy). The fund activates my Catholic guilt to schedule something. It’s a system that works. 😄


“Freak Squall Wrecks Home in Oceanside,” San Francisco Chronicle, February 25, 1930, pg. 3.

“Storm Kills Two, Lashes Bay Region,” San Francisco Examiner, February 25, 1930, pg. 1; “Plaything of the Winds,” San Francisco Examiner, February 25, 1930, pg. 3.

David Gallagher and I talked about this house way back when in the Outside Lands San Francisco podcast for Western Neighborhoods Project.