RIP Bernice Van Eckhardt, 99, Elsie Neighbor and Expert Practitioner of the San Francisco High Life



Neighbor Bernice Van Eckhardt lived on Cortland at Elsie for 40+ years. She died on January 11, just a few months short of her 100th birthday.

Neighbor Bernice moved to Bernal in 1972, when she was in her 60s. By the time she settled down in a former farmhouse here, she had already spent the previous 40 years living the high-life in San Francisco, most notably in the secret penthouse apartment hidden atop the fabulous Phelan Building on Market Street at O’Farrell downtown. (More on that in a moment.)

Because Neighbor Bernice lived on the corner of Elsie, and because the close-knit residents of Elsie near Cortland take great pride in calling themselves the “Best Block in Bernal,” Elsie-ians naturally embraced Neighbor Bernise as a neighborhood institution. The photo all the way up top above shows Neighbor Bernice at center stage during the fabulous Elsie Street Block Party last September.

Elsie Neighbor Michael Nolan wrote this wonderful bio and obituary for her:

Bernice Margaret Menasco Van Eckhardt
Born June 21, 1915
Died January 11, 2015

She was born in 1915 in Oregon in a town called Wendling, outside of Eugene. She died at her home in San Francisco in 2015, about five months short of her 100th birthday.

Her maiden name was Menasco. Her parents were Henry Clay and Mattie Menasco from Texas and Oklahoma respectively. In the 1920 Census when they lived in Portland, Henry was a street car conductor. On Jan. 15, 1920 when the census was taken of their family, Henry was 38, Mattie was 36, Lois was 15 and Bernice was 4 1/2.

Bernice came to San Francisco at age 22, about 1937. She lived on or near Stanyan Street and then Danvers Street. Her first marriage ended after 4 1/2 years. Then she met Frank Van Eckhardt, 20 years her senior, at a wedding. He was an advertising photographer for The Emporium. They
moved into her apartment at that time at Clement & 5th. They were married at the Presbyterian Church on Van Ness. Bernice worked as a hat check girl at the Palace Hotel.

About 1955, they moved into the Phelan Building Penthouse and lived there for 25 years. Various articles were written about their lovely abode, its outdoor garden and great views of the City. The Penthouse was built by Senator Phelan as a place where he could entertain visiting dignataries. It may have been the Fire Department that finally made the Van Eckhardts move because there was no fire escape.

Frank was born in Holland and came from a prominent family. One of his uncles was the Governor of Borneo when that nation was a Dutch possession.

Bernice bought her home on Cortland, at the corner of Elsie, in Bernal Heights in 1972.

Here’s a photo of Neighbor Bernice and her husband Frank Van Eckhardt enjoying the view from their bungalow penthouse atop the Phelan Building during the 1950s:


Here’s a shot of the Van Eckhardts living large inside the small penthouse, which they shared with four cats, a Collie, five parakeets, two goldfish, and a large turtle:


In 1963, The San Francisco Examiner did a glamorous article and photo spread (PDF) about the couple’s schwanky pad. The article notes that closet and kitchen space was extremely limited, but the couple enjoyed a 1200 square-foot outdoor garden on the deck that Bernice maintained. That’s Bernice, in the photo on the left side:


The Examimer’s style critics were impressed with Neighbor Bernice’s proto-Ikea interior design acumen:


In 2010,  a few decades after Neighbor Bernice settled into her Bernal Heights low-rise, Neighbor Michael Nolan took her to visit the Phelan Building penthouse for the first time since the 1970s:


Neighbor Bernice was clearly an expert at the fine art of living, and her decision to settle down in a Bernal Heights farm house was just the final chapter in a lifetime spent living well.

Her awesome neighbors on Elsie already miss her…

PHOTOS: Block party and 2010 photos courtesy of Michael Nolan and Elsie Street Neighbors. Penthouse photos via this and this, with special thanks to Marcin Wichary.

13 thoughts on “RIP Bernice Van Eckhardt, 99, Elsie Neighbor and Expert Practitioner of the San Francisco High Life

  1. I’m really curious about what she actually did with her life besides live in a penthouse and live in Bernal. Did she have a career? Hobbies? Interests?

    • For many years, she worked as a hat check girl at the Palace Hotel. She loved animals and had ducks and a tortoise when she lived in the Phelan Building Penthouse and cats here on Bernal. She was a frequent donor to the SF SPCA. I’ll try to find out more information about her career from her family.

  2. Yeah, it’s odd how people live long lives and all that is written about them will fit into a sentence or two. People often do some extraordinary things and yet not much is remembered about what they did. Thanks for looking into this.

  3. She was also a housewife, gardener and entertained relatives and guests at their penthouse. Frank Van Eckhardt was a successful commercial photographer for The Emporium whose studio and darkroom were on the floor of the Phelan Building below their apartment. It was my pleasure to bring Bernice back to the Penthouse in October of 2010. The elevator only went to the floor below but she mustered the strength at age 95 to climb the long staircase.

    • Thank you Mike for the thoughtful obit and pics of Bernice. I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Bernice for close to 20 years, living on Virginia for the past 10. Bernice participated in ‘The Little Theater’ for many years at Mt.Talmapais. Both acting and sewing costumes. She had her own sewing/tailor shop
      in the Castro in her twenties. She remembered sewing the costumes for the staff at the restaurant next to Finocchios on Broadway. She worked at a bank downtown for awhile.
      Bernice attended the 1939 World’s Fair on Treasure Island and was seated near Frida Kahlo & Diego Rivera. While working as a Hat Check Girl at a swanky club on the top floor of one of the downtown hotels, she met many celebrities and had lots of juicy stories.
      She bought several houses with her second husband Frank and loved refurbishing them. She had
      a knack for design, decorating, landscaping and above all rescuing animals. She had the biggest heart
      when it came to all animals!
      She wanted to visit her childhood home, so in June 2013 we drove to Portland and found it. I was under the impression she was born there. I have pics that I’ll try to upload. We had a great ‘girls
      road trip’. Through the redwoods, Klamath Falls and along the coast. We were planning another
      trip this summer for the big 100!
      Rest in peace Bernicey! You were such an inspiration to many people. Loved by many, you will be sorely missed! We celebrate you-

      Pam Wainman

      • What a lovely tribute, Pam. Would love to see the photos of your trip to Portland. I believe she was born just outside Eugene OR and then grew up in Portland.

      • Thanks for the very nice post! Y’see, people are a lot more than what house they lived in and where they went to school. I’m happy to have read a little insight into what she was about.

      • Agreed, David. And that’s why I’m so grateful to Todd Lappin for Bernalwood where many writers can collectively contribute to the creation of richer stories about people, events and our wonderful hilltop neighborhood.

  4. R.I.P. Bernice. I saw her last this Holloween, dispensing candy. Thank you mikeyno for taking her back to the Phelan Building. What a memorable occasion!

    • Bernice’s ashes will be buried in the crypt next to her older sister, Lois, at Riverview Abbey Mausoleum, overlooking the Willamette River, in Portland, Oregon, the town where Bernice was raised.

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