In Which We Explore an Aerial View of Bernal Hill, Circa 1924


Courtesy of our friends at the Bernal Heights History Project, we bring you this never-before seen aerial view of Bernal Hill. The photo comes via a private collection that was shared with BHHP, and it was likely taken sometime during the mid 1920s.

Why the mid-1920s? And when, exactly? There are a few clues that hint at the date, but first, let’s zoom and enhance to take a closer look:


Okay, so the most obvious indication of the date is the fact that the Sears Department Store has not yet been built on Mission Street near Army (Cesar Chavez). The Sears opened in 1929, yet in this photo the site is not yet under construction, so that likely means this photo was taken at least a few years before the grand opening.

The 1920s were a period of rapid transformation for this particular corner of Bernal. As La Legua rebel leader and archival history geek Burrito Justice has documented, suring the first two decades of the 1900s, Mission Street just south of Army had been home to a cluster of horse-related businesses — stables, harness manufacturers, and the like. Here’s what Mission Street at Precita looked like in May, 1923. Notice all the carriages in front of the McTigue Livery on the left:


Within a few years, the horse-related industry was quickly supplanted by car-related industry.  Here’s the same spot, in August, 1927. McTigue Livery has been replaced by Mission Chevrolet. There are also two new three-story apartment buildings next door, which today are the proud homes of El Rio and Virgil’s Sea Room (former Nap’s):


But returning to our new aerial photo, notice that none of this new development is present. The McTigue stable building from 1923 appears to have been torn down, but the the three-story El Rio/Virgil’s buildings have not yet been built:


All that tells us our photo is likely from sometime between 1923 and 1927.

Meanwhile, to the northeast…


South Van Ness (which was still called Howard Street at that point) still does not yet connect to Army — as had been the case back in 1888. The grand church of St. Anthony’s stands on Army near Folsom, right across the street from the campus of the Cogswell Polytechnical College. Streetcar tracks loop around Precita Park via Folsom, and those darn pedestrians have worn a path in the grass while taking shortcuts across the western end of the park.

That takes us to the summit of Bernal Hill, as seen from the southeast:


There’s no Bernal Heights Boulevard yet; that was a WPA project during the 1930s. Here, however, we can see a cluster of houses between Anderson and Ellsworth that was condemned and removed to make way for the road a decade later.

Two small quarries had been excavated from the south side of the hill, and as we all know, the scars from those operations remain quite vivid to this day.

Most surprising of all, however — at least to our precious contemporary sensibilities — is the giant advertising lettering at the top of this detail, on the northwest face of Bernal Hill, promoting  Maxwell automobiles. Apart from revealing a great deal about period attitudes toward landscape vista preservation, the Maxwell sign is also a useful chronology clue, since Maxwell was absorbed and discontinued by Chrysler in May, 1925. That suggests our photo likely predates the Maxwell shutdown.

Here’s a clearer shot of the Maxwell sign, as seen in the 1920s from around the intersection of Army and Valencia, again courtesy of the Bernal History Project. Notice those insane tilt-up automobile silhouettes at the summit of Bernal Hill!


Putting all the pieces together, we’re going to go out on a limb to say that this new photo likely dates from around 1924.

This is a photo-forensic field day for one and all, however, so if you see any other interesting details, or any other clues that might assist or conflict with our photo dating, please chime in via the comments.

Finally, hooray, Bernal Heights History Project!

24 thoughts on “In Which We Explore an Aerial View of Bernal Hill, Circa 1924

  1. These photos are fabulous. Does anyone have any photographs of the South Slope in the 19teens, 1920s, 1930s? I’m particularly interested in the area south of Cortland.

  2. somehow I think your new photo is pre 1919,,,,I found a newspaper under the linoleum in my closet when I moved in from 1919 so I have always assumed that it was built that year…the permits however were taken out in 1907… the photo my house should be just east of the bend in Mirabel st… I see my neighbors on the west side of my house but don’t see anything next door…see where the scratch is on the picture? that ends right where my house should be…

  3. My house, which was supposedly built in 1926, on Folsom next to St. Anthony’s church is not in this picture. When was that church built? And neither is our neighbor’s house, and I always thought their place was one of the first structures on this hill. I was told it was the carriage house for the big house up the hill (now dubbed “the doctor’s” house) that was the primary living quarters for whatever farmer owned this land before it was all built up… guess we’ve got some history mixed up?

  4. At last, my place! Thanks for sharing this, I’ve been looking for old photos of Coleridge for ever and this is the first one I’ve seen.

  5. Looking at the Mission/Precita photos from the UC Library, it’s interesting to see that in 1929 Disernia’s Pharmacy (which only went out of business a few years ago and was replaced by the barbecue place) was in full swing, but in a prior photo from 1926 it appears that workmen are fixing up the storefront getting ready for a grand opening of Disernia’s.

    In the old days of the 1920s and 30s, Disernia’s, like a lot of druggists, made up their own drug concoctions. I have seen a bunch of bottles and jars with their name on them, some still with dubious contents inside. Today, of course, no pharmacy makes their own drugs; they just take pills from big bottles and put them into small ones.

  6. What’s up with the east side of Coso right where it splits off from Precita (where that triangular park is)? It looks like one big structure going up the hill.

    • Hi Bill,

      I think it is the same homes that are there presently. The roofs are shingled with identical/similar material resulting in the impression that it is one building as opposed to discrete homes.
      On another note, it is glaringly clear Alamo Square is fashioned after the suave and sophisticated look of our Coso row of Victorians. Copy cats!


  7. Interesting to see a complete lack of automobiles in the aerial and street shots, such a different scene than today where they are not the luxury items they once were.

  8. Nice researchery!

    I was talking about this with Allan/MissionMission yesterday on Burrito Justice Radio — he suggested the cars might be part of the Maxwell ad?

    Bill W, I think that’s just a trick of the light — the existing row of houses shows up in the 1915 Sanborns.

    BTW, the Coso park used to be a quarry in the late 1800s.

    • Whoa, Burrito Justice you’re blowing my mind with that map!
      First, Coleridge was one of the many streets names California (and Power was “Powell”)?
      Also weird is that there’s an address (and footprint shown) to my place on the 1900 map, but my records indicate it wasn’t built until 1914. Is it possible they assigned addresses to lots, despite what’s shown there is uncannily the shape of my place?
      Also, do you have a link to a key, I’m wondering what those notations mean (like B.C., D. etc.).

  9. Thank you for the response, I dug around and found that as well (and B.C. = brick chimney, which my place certainly has). It looks as if my (recorded as) 1914 was there in 1900 already, as the footprint and details line up perfectly with the map you posted. Perhaps it was subdivided around that year? Either way, thanks for those links, without knowing the streets had changed names, I never would have found that. Now, to find out when it was actually built…

  10. Pingback: A History of the Former McTigue Harness Shop on Mission Street, as Shared by His Great-Great Grandson | Bernalwood

  11. I think the closeup photo shows the younger Moreton Bay Fig next to St. Luke’s, We were looking for a historical photos showing it while it was being landmarked, and not sure if this one was found at the time.. Sadly, neglect by CPMC/St. Luke’s ‘arborists’ have greatly reduced its once more magnificent stature.

  12. Pingback: A Peek into the Neighborhood Around Cogswell Circa 1924 | Cogswell College Blog

  13. Pingback: What You Missed When You Missed Glenn Lym’s Talk About the Lost Geology of Bernal Heights | Bernalwood

  14. Pingback: Help a Bernal Neighbor Working to Beautify Part of Mission Street | Bernalwood

Comments are closed.