The Cottage by the Reservoir (and the Day it Was Demolished)

Here’s a special celebrity guest post by Vicky Walker of the excellent Bernal History Project. Vicky shares a charming tale about a charming house that sat on Elsie Street, alongside the College Hill Reservoir, for 100 years. As a special bonus, she also brings the Interweb premiere of a home movie that shows the sad day in 1971 when the cottage was torn down. Take it away, Vicky…

The College Hill Reservoir was built on the edge of Holly Park in 1870 by the Spring Valley Water Company; the reservoir-keeper’s cottage at 336 Elsie Street was built next to it in 1871. It is described in Here Today thus: “This simple farmhouse, set in a well-maintained garden, looks as if it really belongs on the San Mateo coast. From its lot next to a reservoir, the home commands a fine view of Twin Peaks.”

It was one of only four Bernal Heights buildings considered to be architecturally significant by the Junior League of San Francisco in 1968 (the others are 450 Murray Street, 34 Prospect Avenue, and 3340 Folsom Street) and the only one of the four that no longer survives.

Peter B. Quinlan (1813-1903) was a longtime employee of the Spring Valley Water Company who rose from the position of plumber to superintendent, registrar, and then financial adjuster. While he never lived in Bernal Heights, Peter Quinlan may have helped a relative find work with the company: one Thomas Quinlan is listed as the reservoir keeper from 1880, and was still living there in 1915.

The reservoir’s expanse of open water seems to have beckoned many Bernal residents. An April 1892 Chronicle story tells of how Thomas’s wife, Caroline (described in the headline as “An Old Woman” – she was 53!), accidentally or deliberately fell in and drowned. “He and his wife frequently wandered around the edge of the basin,” the article reports. “About 4 o’clock the old man missed his wife from the house and went to the pond. To his horror he saw her body floating in the water a short distance from the shore.”

One morning in December 1877, Mrs. Peter Brickley of Cherubusco Street strolled naked (except for a wand tipped with several brightly colored ribbons) up to the reservoir. Once there, she took a leisurely bath first in a water trough and then in the reservoir itself. The reservoir-keeper’s aged father “shut his eyes tight and tried to fight her off with a garden rake,” but she managed to evade him. Finally, one young man jumped in to nab her; she was pulled to shore and wrapped in an assortment of clothing provided by the women of the neighborhood. The article concludes, “Mrs. Brickley was conveyed to the City Prison and thence to the House of the Inebriate, and her neighbors are using well water for a few days.”

In January 1916, the determinedly suicidal Agnes Graham of 24 Heyman Avenue was spotted by Holly Park Station relief firefighter Edward Ford, “who, noticing something queer in her actions as she hurried toward the reservoir,” jumped into the water after her and wrestled her to shore. She survived; he sustained severe bruises.

The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission decided to demolish 336 Elsie after it fell into disrepair; there were attempts to turn the building into a teenage dancehall before it was destroyed. This two-minute home video was shot by sisters Betty Mikulas Kancler and Janet Mikulas Thompson from their home on the other side of Elsie Street, sometime in 1971. It didn’t take long to reduce the century-old building to a pile of timber and rubble, as you can see in this silent home movie filmed on the day the cottage was demolished:

PHOTO: Top, 1891 photo from Bernal hill shows the houses at 418 and 412 Eugenia in the foreground. The keeper’s house is beside the uncovered reservoir, all by itself on Elsie Street. Courtesy of Andrea Cochran. Clean version of the photo here.

14 thoughts on “The Cottage by the Reservoir (and the Day it Was Demolished)

  1. Great story. It is a tragedy that the cottage was knocked down in the 70’s. To make up for it perhaps we could start a yearly parade through the neighborhood in honor of Mrs. Peter Brickley of Cherubusco Street.

  2. I think perhaps I have seen the ghost of Mrs. Peter Brickley of Cherubusco Street wandering the neighborhood at night. Very spooky.

  3. I love the grandmother and little kid walking by at the 1:02 mark. They don’t even look at the craziness happening right over the hedges, and they’re walking right into the dust cloud! It’s hard to believe they can’t see it (or at least hear it). I can’t imagine a kid not being transfixed by such a display of destruction. Maybe this kind of thing was happening all the time in SF in the early 70’s?

  4. The cars parked on the street and the passers-by on the sidewalks! How funny is that? Now the streets would be cordoned off for blocks around such a job site.

  5. At the 1:50 mark, they’re filming a woodpecker pecking away at a tree. It’s in the middle/center of the shot. I missed it the first time I viewed the video as the bird blends in with the branches.

  6. Hearbreaking! But, I agree that we must all parade though the streets naked with a ribbon wand and dip in kiddie pools full of wellwater each year in honor of Mrs Peter Brickley!

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  9. Thanks for the picture and article; never saw the reservoir as in that 1870 photo. I lived on Gladys Street on the west downhill side of the reservoir in the 1940;s with our house butting up against the fence (If the reservoir ever collapsed, there was no possible way to survive; we’d be washed down Mission street all the way to the Bay.) Also one of my fellow students at Junipero Serra was from the caretaker family (I think the name was Reese) who lived in their cottage within the north side of the reservoir. From the east side, you could see the water and the huge exit spillway; a rowboat was also tied up near the side. Fear of that monster drain kept us from chancing ever getting into the reservoir.
    During World War 2, two soldiers were stationed for the first two years inside the fence on the east side; folks used to bring them food and snacks, that was pretty good but lonely duty! During this time, you could no longer see the depth of the walls surrounding the reservoir since the area had been filled in and huge trees were on the Appleton side. Nests of black birds lived in those trees and attacked us like dive bombers as we walked down that side of Appleton. In those years, I delivered the morning Examiner, starting from my house at 81 Gladys, taking a right at Santa Marina and then on Elsie Street and beyond.
    At this time, I didn’t realize that my grandfather worked for the Spring Valley Water company too, tending to the Twin Peaks reservoir,, a very lonely job which he loved from 1899 to 1941. But that’s another story. Pat O’Brien.

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