Charming book chronicles streetcar bohemia

Just before the turn of the century in San Francisco, a few years after architect Tim Pflueger was born in 1892, a quirky community sprouted up among the desolate sand dunes of Ocean Beach.  Some enterprising real estate men and hardy pioneering souls turned a host of obsolete horse-drawn street cars into coffee stands, homes and weekend seaside cottages.

Carville Cover

New Carville-by-the-Sea book

This fascinating development of a beachside bohemia is chronicled in a just-published book, “Carville-by-the Sea, San Francisco’s Streetcar Suburb” by Woody LaBounty, a San Franicsco historian and founder of the Western Neighborhoods Project.

The beautifully designed book is a treasure trove of vintage photographs, postcards, newspaper clippings and old city maps, presented as an old scrapbook. LaBounty has colored some of the black and white photos, which adds more depth and drama. Some photos feature the old street cars tilted among the sand dunes, “looking as though a gigantic box of toys had been spilled and scattered there,” described the Overland Monthly in 1908. Others show these makeshift homes raised on platforms.

This engaging book is full of anecdotes and lively characters, such as Colonel Charles Dailey, one of the earliest settlers. LaBounty guides us through the history of what became known as Carville, from a few lone outposts in the sand dunes to its evolution as a fin de siecle gathering place for writers and artists, to its ultimate demise in 1913.

Traces remain today in the Outer Sunset

LaBounty also takes us to the present, where one can still find remnants and a survivor out in Ocean Beach.

Ever curious about San Francisco history and architecture, I drove out to 1632 Great Highway, which LaBounty says may be the last Carville house in San Francisco. You can’t tell from the front of the house, but thanks to LaBounty’s photos, one can see that this non-descript structure is indeed made of two former horse cars.

LaBounty begins a whirlwind series of lectures tonight at the San Francisco Museum and Historical Society at 7:30 pm at the Jewish Community Center.  The book is reasonably priced at $35 and can be found at Green Apple books, or from LaBounty at many of his upcoming lectures. He will also be giving a walking tour in the Outer Sunset.

UPDATE: Just found Carl Nolte’s story in Sunday’s Chronicle with photos of the surviving house and an interview with LaBounty.

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