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$1.2 Million. 13 Offers. $400K Over Asking. For This.

How a fading cottage by the sea became a parable for an ever-changing city.

SLIDESHOW

Forlorn, but not for long: The house at 1644 Great Highway

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The first-floor bedroom

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Kitchen

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Bathroom

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Staircase

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1644 Great Highway, 1975

Photo: Courtesy of Marjorie Alette

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1644 Great Highway, 1995

Photo: Courtesy of Marjorie Alette

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1644 Great Highway, 2015

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It had been nearly 20 years since she’d sold her house at 1644 Great Highway, but 85-year-old Marjorie Alette couldn’t help going back to spy on it. Every now and then, she would drive down 101 from her current home in Santa Rosa, cross the Golden Gate Bridge, and slowly wend her way to the outermost Sunset. On one of these furtive drive-bys a year or two ago, Alette noticed that the house had changed. “It looked very rundown,” she says. “It had a bunch of trash in front, and it hadn’t been taken care of at all.” During the 22 memorable years that she had lived in the two-story beach cottage—from 1975 to 1997—she had installed cedar shingles, finished the attic, and repaired the house from top to bottom. Suddenly, she couldn’t bear to look at it. “I stopped going by,” she says. “It made me sad.”

Alette’s former home was once a gleaming example of the funky eclecticism that’s indigenous to the Outer Sunset, where turn-of-the-century wooden shacks abut 1950s stucco houses, tangled succulent gardens frame painted suns, and empty birdcages overhang murals of frolicking sea creatures. Clad in dark-gray shingles and forest-green trim, a second-floor porch shading its entryway, the house at 1644 has a more reclusive look than most of its neighbors. Across the street is the edge of the continent, visible from many angles through the house’s large, asymmetrical front windows and peeking attic dormers. The home’s creaking architecture makes sense only in its surroundings: It was made for admiring the ocean, and the ocean has worn away at it ever since.

But it’s not just the elements that have laid waste to the home. Not long after Alette resolved to stop going by, the house became suddenly famous, a symbol of all the ways that time—and uncaring occupants—can destroy a property. On March 26, the local real estate blog Curbed SF caught wind of the home’s sale for $1.21 million—$411,000 over asking. Dubbed a “total disaster,” the house became an instant Internet phenomenon, chewed over by an army of bloggers as well as the Chronicle, the British tabloid the Daily Mail, and the home-renovation site KUKUN, which went so far as to virtually remodel two rooms. (“We had a blast unlocking this dilapidated disaster’s hidden potential,” its editors effused.)

The house was pegged as yet another example of the outrageous San Francisco real estate market, and the realtor’s photos of broken cabinets, grimy linoleum floors, and exposed sockets seemed to portend its inevitable teardown. But there were also elements—the interior colored-glass windows, the knobby staircases—that maintained their old allure and could conceivably dissuade a demolisher. Comments by readers ranged from indignant outbursts on the price of the house—“Shame on those who feed the greedy leviathans and agree to pay these exorbitant prices,” remonstrated one Chronicle reader—to explanations of why someone would buy it: “[The problems are] purely cosmetic,” wrote a Curbed commenter. “Watch this home transform.”

But despite being slapped with a “flip watch” by Curbed, the buyers who wrote the check last spring had no intention of either flipping or tearing down the house. Rather, they saw in it something that countless other inhabitants of the Outside Lands have grasped for the past century and a half: the rich, blinding allure of pure possibility.

 

The first people to put down roots in the mound of sand that later became 1644 Great Highway were not Ohlone Indians or Spanish rancheros, both of whom generally steered clear of the blustery dunes west of Twin Peaks. It was a group of nonconformists who turned abandoned streetcars into a beachside bohemian colony that became known as Carville. Ever since the United States government had surrendered the “Outside Lands” to the city of San Francisco in 1868, the dunes had been a no-man’s-land of squatters and speculators. Municipal services were close to nonexistent: Water had to be sucked from wells by windmills. Wild rabbits and beach potatoes were among the only reliable sources of food. But the few hundred San Franciscans who inhabited Carville shaped it into a fashionable, romantic place where artists caroused late into the night and swam in the chilly waters at the edge of the world.

Carville’s oddball utopia lasted only until around 1906, when the great earthquake and fire catalyzed a real estate boom that awakened developer interest in the Outer Sunset. Solomon Getz, a real estate broker who owned the Carville lot that would one day become 1644 Great Highway, sold the parcel in 1906 to a downtown watchmaker named Joseph Keith, likely for around $500. Because the dunes tended to bury any kind of marker, Keith would have had to hire a surveyor to find his lot in the graveyard of old streetcars.

He must have found it eventually, because in 1907 he hired local contractor C.E. Bateman to build a weekend cottage there. Bateman fashioned the house from planks of cheap, plentiful, but not particularly fog-resistant redwood (the cedar shingles wouldn’t be added until much later). During the 1910s, while Keith and his wife were possibly using the house as a getaway from their residence on California Street, the Great Highway gained a reputation as a lawless place where womanizers prowled and drunks crashed their cars into the dunes. Owners of the weekend cottages became so annoyed with the drunken debauchery on the beach that a group of them burned one of the last Carville streetcars in 1913. Keith, perhaps fed up with the unruly neighborhood, sold 1644 the next year. During the following six-plus decades, 1644 Great Highway changed hands seven times. Eighteen residents in that period left traces in voter registries and city directories, but the house likely hosted many more. As construction continued to fill out the Sunset, the antiquated Great Highway beach houses became the least valuable properties in the neighborhood. “The people who lived at the beach in the ’30s and ’40s were at the edge of society,” says local historian Woody LaBounty. “They were the people who couldn’t afford the newer houses further east.” While Great Highway houses sold in the early 1930s for around $1,500, new stucco houses in the avenues sold for over three times that amount. Thus, 1644’s midcentury inhabitants were working-class cooks, mechanics, and musicians. Their surnames—Doolan, Ross, Campbell—hint at where they came from, but their daily lives remain hazy.

The 1966 fire that reduced the Sutro Baths to a series of brackish holes in the ground punctuated what was already an era of decay in the Outside Lands. Playland at the Beach, a 20-minute walk down the shore from 1644, had been falling apart for years; in 1972, the last of its once-glorious rides were auctioned off. Teenage gangs with names like White Punks on Dope drank and smoked on the corners and fought turf wars with their fists. Drifters lived in parked cars and the front yards of the outermost houses, and the sparsely streetlit Great Highway remained the scene of rowdy midnight drag races.

“Things that had been built in the 1920s and ’30s were run-down and falling apart,” says LaBounty, who has spent his life in the Richmond and the Sunset. “The Great Highway in the ’70s was a dingy, seedy place.” Nobody who had enough money to fix up a beach house wanted to live in the neighborhood. All around 1644, developers bought and bulldozed houses as package deals. Crumbling lots at 1576 and 1682 were replaced by vapid apartment buildings. When a developer placed a bid on 1644 in 1975, Joseph Keith’s old beach cottage seemed headed for a similar fate. Instead, it was rescued by an angel.

 

Marjorie Alette first noticed 1644 Great Highway because it stuck out. Frustrated with the cookie-cutter Sunset houses suggested by her realtor, the medical photographer took a drive down the Great Highway and noticed a For Sale sign on the little cottage, then marketed as a duplex and covered in a coat of striking red paint. Instantly, she was in love. She placed a bid of $75,000, beat out the developer, and gave the house a new lease on life. She modernized the second-floor electricity, which had previously been routed through tangled extension cords plugged into a single socket. She turned the backyard garage into a darkroom where she practiced her photography.

Occasionally, Alette rented rooms in the house to people who found its kooky mystique as alluring as she did. One of herearliest tenants, Michaela Mougenkoff, won the $640-per-month rental by stuffing a rambling, impassioned letter into the mailbox explaining why the house was her favorite on the block. To Mougenkoff, the house’s uncommon details—the amber-glass windows, the giant claw-foot bathtub, the lack of closet space—were endearing. Although the location “felt like Siberia” to her friends in the rest of the city, she didn’t mind. Most of all, she loved the attic, which she and her husband used as their bedroom. It was up a staircase that was too narrow to fit a bed frame, “so we stacked two mattresses to make a bed,” she says. “We would open all of the dormer windows and let the fog in and just feel the ocean breeze.”

Though the fog could be beautiful, it also caused constant problems. “I used to say that if you were very quiet,” says Alette, “you could hear things rusting.” The fog ate through vehicles parked outside the house, including Mougenkoff’s husband’s motorcycle; pipes rusted; and the home’s exterior red paint peeled so quickly that Alette eventually replaced it with shingles. Carol Quackenbos, a transplant from New York who rented in the cottage from 1994 to 1998, remembers having to drag herself out of bed during months of socked-in summer fog. “I started going a little crazy,” she recalls. But the house’s constant fog shroud wasn’t its only quirk. Tim Childs, a photography student who moved in to the first floor in 1990, eventually fled to escape the raccoons that invaded his bedroom every night through a door intended for Alette’s cats. “The raccoons would turn on the lights when I was sleeping,” he says. “I’d keep hammers by my bed to throw at them.”

In 1997, the 67-year-old Alette had to move up to Washington State to care for a family member, so she put 1644 on the market. While her home had changed significantly in the 22 years of her ownership, the neighborhood had been undergoing an even more dramatic transformation. Surfers and families were moving in, and new shops were opening on Judah Street. Asked when the neighborhood started to appeal to a population beyond artists and introverts, Sunset historian LaBounty sums it up tidily: “I can tell you the exact day—no, the exact moment—when it changed. When Pat Maguire opened Java Beach Café.”

 

In the early 1980s, when Mougenkoff moved in to 1644 Great Highway, 15-year-old Pat Maguire was already getting into fistfights around the corner. “I think that’s how I got to know every guy I met back then,” he laughs. At the time, his neighborhood (he grew up on 44th Avenue and Kirkham Street) was a wilderness of dive bars, crusty doughnut shops, and teenage gangs. Most days, Maguire would drift past the old cottage at 1644 to his brother’s place four houses down, where local toughs drank and loitered and listened for the next rumble. His brother’s home, like almost every other house in the area known as the Flats, was falling apart. “The door fell down, the fence fell down, a window broke,” Maguire says. “If anything fell apart, we’d never fix it, because we thought that we were going to bulldoze it eventually.” A vicious pit bull guarded the empty doorjamb (and likely caused the demise of one of Mougenkoff’s cats). As he got older, Maguire would wander out into the foggy nights to house parties along the Great Highway. “There were these open-door, trippy parties,” he recalls. “I shouldn’t say what I did, but I’d always find some strange adventure down there.”

But after Maguire quit drinking in the early 1990s, he could find nowhere in the neighborhood to socialize. Looking for a sober hangout, he stumbled upon the cafés in North Beach—a world away from the dive bars that he was used to. Girls hit on him, community members mingled, and the coffee tasted great. But when he asked North Beach café owners to open a branch in the Sunset, their response was always the same: There’s nothing out there, kid.

And they weren’t wrong. After the recession of 1990–1991, many of the shops that Maguire had frequented as a teenager went out of business. One old biker bar, Dick’s at the Beach, sat boarded up with a woeful For Rent sign for five years. At Judah and La Playa, three blocks down from 1644 Great Highway, Dick’s was an eyesore among eyesores. Before they were old enough to go in, Maguire and his friends had enjoyed throwing firecrackers into the bar and then fleeing into the depths of the nearby Judah Tunnel (which has also since closed).

One day in 1992, Maguire sat on the corner with a “no-good” cup of coffee in his hand, pondering the ruins of Dick’s at the Beach. He crossed the street and peered through the boarded-up windows into the darkened bar. “It’s like I got a little flash—bam!” he says. “And that’s when I pictured the whole thing, the neighborhood as it is now.” He saw the interior of his café, his neighborhood friends chatting at its tables. He saw shops opening along the surrounding streets. He saw fountains and parks at the N-Judah turnaround. Maguire, who is well versed in the story of his neighborhood, got the impression that the ghosts of Carville were trying to tell him something. “It sounds crazy,” he says, “but I felt like they tapped me on the shoulder.”

One year later, Java Beach opened. The café was greeted by locals with a mixture of pride and bemusement. But because Maguire was a familiar face, everyone pitched in when he needed help. He knew nothing about carpentry, so a friend rounded up a bunch of locals from a nearby bar who spent a week helping him build the sales counter. Painters offered their services at no charge, and the landlord gave him a year of free rent. In exchange for a case of vodka, a group of homeless men called the Animals protected the café from other equally unsavory types. On opening day, Maguire already had a line out the door.

To explain how his café served as the seed of the neighborhood’s blossoming, Maguire offers an analogy: “It’s as if someone were walking on the beach and found a beautiful vase. They take it home, put it on their coffee table, and realize that the coffee table looks shabby in comparison. So they fix up the table. It’s contagious.”

Of course, things didn’t transform overnight. Across from Java Beach, the Great Highway medians were filled with trashed furniture and shopping carts. The Animals dealt out street justice to anyone who bothered Maguire and his customers, but drifters from the N-Judah train still haunted the corners. It was 1993; La Playa Park was 11 years away, the Outerlands brunch hordes 16 years away, the second tech invasion 20 years away. But the turning point had come.

 

When Sandy Troxel and her then fiancé, Dave, first saw 1644 Great Highway in 1997, it was damp, with moldering carpeting and a faltering roof. Another buyer might have gutted the house or torn it down—but to Sandy and Dave, it was perfect: “We wanted it instantly.” They liked its attic, its old lathand- plaster walls, its big backyard, and the fact that it was detached from its neighboring houses, increasing the natural light.

After giving Marjorie Alette $333,000, they began to make it their own. Dave transformed Alette’s beloved darkroom into a workroom for his budding custom skateboard enterprise. They added a new roof and a hot tub in the backyard, planted a vegetable garden and a palm tree.

Sandy and Dave found a tight-knit community around them, especially among the surfers, who had long since traded their tradition of burning tires at Kelly’s Cove for a place in the morning line at Java Beach. Half of their neighbors, Sandy estimates, were surfers—many of them diehards who braved the fog in the mornings. Sandy was content to sit on the dunes watching pelicans soar over the activity on the beach. “One time I saw a wedding party,” she recalls. “The bride was in white, and you couldn’t see her through the fog!”

As the dot-com boom kicked in and real estate prices skyrocketed, formerly ignored properties in the Outside Lands became covetable. Families who couldn’t afford Noe Valley and the Castro began to see the Sunset as a place to raise children. Local police, who, according to LaBounty, had not regularly patrolled the Great Highway for years, began to crack down on drifters. The installation of traffic lights and bike paths along the highway furthered its transformation from a scene of midnight drag races into a place to walk beside with a dog. Community members formed neighborhood watch groups and began cleaning up the medians across from Java Beach. Residents even began noticing less fog in the summers, an effect, many surmised, of a warming ocean. By the time Joseph Keith’s cottage at 1644 Great Highway marked its 100th birthday, perceptions of the Outside Lands were rapidly changing.

In June 2008, after more than a decade of living in the house, Sandy and Dave were ready to cash in and move out of the city. The real estate market was starting to make them queasy. When a realtor representing a middle-aged man offered them $935,000 in cash (over $600,000 more than they’d paid 11 years earlier) with no conditions, they took the offer. “We thought when we sold the house that he would restore it,” Sandy says. “He didn’t.”

 

Asked to describe her first impression of 1644 Great Highway, listing agent Nana Meyer nearly spits her mouthful of tea on the floor. When she first entered the house in the fall of 2014, six years after the Troxels had sold it, so much clutter had been left by previous inhabitants that she couldn’t tell the condition of the floors or walls. The back garden was overgrown and infested with fleas, Sandy’s hot tub was filled with junk, and water had leaked through the unsealed windows in Dave’s old skateboard shed. Though the house was structurally sound, it was a mess. “There was no way I was going to have an open house,” Meyer says. “It was in a deteriorative state.”

Any building exposed to salt and fog for a century will present some problems—but under the neglectful tenancy of the middle-aged man who had moved in after the Troxels, 1644 had declined into an unprecedented state of decrepitude. It had soon become clear to neighbors that the man, who could not be reached for comment, was incapable of maintaining the building and should not have been living alone. He had apparently moved in to 1644 Great Highway with modest aspirations, planning to live in it as it was—but for a place over 100 years old, that wasn’t enough.

The final turn for the worse came with the house’s penultimate change in occupancy. Though the middle-aged man did not own 1644 Great Highway (it was held in a trust of which he was a beneficiary) and thus had no right to rent it out, a group of squatters convinced him to turn it over to them. In the fall of 2012, he moved out, and they, and their dogs, moved in. Calling themselves the Great Highway Squatters, they seemed to relish their occupation of 1644: For two years, they treated it callously, all but destroying it, while charging rent for extra rooms. When the trustees found out, they took the squatters to court and had them removed by San Francisco sheriff’s deputies in 2014. By the time that Meyer arrived to sell the house, only the fleas remained.

After fumigating the old cottage and ripping out its carpets, Meyer put 1644 Great Highway on the market for $799,000—$136,000 less than what it had sold for in 2008, before the recession. To her surprise, the listing was a runaway success. “Fielding inquiries became a full-time job,” she says. “I’d make an appointment for one buyer, and by the time I drove to the house there were already eight others there.” After showing the house to more than 100 people, Meyer received 13 offers—12 more than Sandy and Dave had netted in 2008. The lowest bids were from contractors looking for a flip, but higher offers came from people who looked at the rusty carpet tacks and widespread dry rot and saw not a teardown, but an improvement project.

Todd Wiley’s buyers saw that and much more. When he noticed the house on the market, Wiley, a real estate agent who has lived in the neighborhood for 26 years, immediately contacted his clients, a family from the East Coast who prefer not to be named. They had been eyeing the Great Highway for almost a year—a close friend lives on 1644’s block—and “when this one popped up, they said, ‘What do we need to do to get it?’” Wiley recounts. Aware that it was attracting a lot of interest, the family offered $50,000 more than Wiley’s estimate of its true market value (as is often the case, the $799,000 asking price was likely intentionally low balled). Among the stack of offers that Meyer received, this one—$1.21 million, all cash, no conditions, the highest in the pack—made the agent’s decision easy. An attached letter detailing why the family wanted the 108-year-old cottage convinced her that she’d found buyers who would do justice to the home.

Within 24 hours, the house was theirs, and their agent could exhale. “I didn’t think we’d get it,” Wiley says. The bidding war finished, 1644’s new owners were overjoyed, ready to spend time in the house and decide how to begin its rehabilitation. Two days later, the Curbed story hit the Internet.

 

Learning of the $1.21 million sale of a place she used to rent, Carol Quackenbos gasps. Tim Childs laughs. Michaela Mougenkoff yells to her husband. Marjorie Alette chuckles ruefully: “Maybe I should have stayed a little longer!”

Though the news catches them off guard, it surprises no one. Alette, Childs, and Sandy Troxel count 1644 Great Highway as among the best places they’ve ever lived. Both Quackenbos and Mougenkoff would have bought the property in an instant if they could have afforded it. “If you look at the house itself, maybe you would say it’s not worth it,” says Mougenkoff. “But if you look at the spirit of the house and how it feels, yes. It’s magical.”

The lofty sale price of 1644 also makes sense to watchers of the local real estate market. The block between Lawton and Moraga is in high demand because of both its proximity to shops and transportation on Judah and its large number of original homes. “If that house were four blocks east, I’d think it was the apocalypse,” says historian LaBounty of the seemingly high sale price. “But trying to reclaim a beach house on the Great Highway—that’s always going to happen.” Wiley believes that in the long run, Great Highway houses always keep their value: “There may be peaks and little recessions, but overall it’s an upward arrow.”

Indeed, it’s becoming apparent that Wiley and his clients may have scored a deal. A few blocks east, a house on a lot half the size of 1644’s just closed for $1.4 million. Further south on the Great Highway, another house, on an even smaller lot, recently sold for $1.38 million. Though the Great Highway, always more eccentric, has in recent decades, more expensive than the rest of the neighborhood, nearby avenues are catching up: According to Zillow, houses as far inland as 40th Avenue can be worth seven figures. Maybe LaBounty’s apocalypse is here.

Did Pat Maguire foresee million-dollar houses when he looked through the boarded-up windows of Dick’s at the Beach? “Actually, that bit was a little foggy,” he says (no pun intended). But he’s not surprised either. It’s natural, he says, that home values should rise as the neighborhood beautifies from within—for the same reason that you’d upgrade your coffee table if you found a pretty vase on the beach. And the Outer Sunset is careful to protect what it has painstakingly built over the last two decades: A 2003 attempt to open a Starbucks on Judah Street was shot down, and community members regularly negotiate with developers to prevent the entry of unwanted chain stores. All others, however, are welcome. “I’m not bitter,” Maguire says of the encroaching gentrification. “I knew it was supposed to happen.” The ghosts of Carville showed him.

 

On a blustery day a few months ago, 1644 Great Highway basked in the formerly rare but now increasingly common Ocean Beach sun. Wind whipped through the gangly legs of the front deck, which displayed a large sign: Sold. The new owners have offered renovation plans to the city and their neighbors, beginning the long, collective process of determining 1644’s future look. The proposed changes are significant (including a possible expansion of the attic), but they won’t happen overnight—Wiley predicts that the planning process could stretch for a year or longer.

Next door to 1644, at 1648 Great Highway, a persistent banging echoed against the wind. Also built in 1907—on land also purchased by Joseph Keith from the same original broker, Solomon Getz—the classical revival has retained much of its charm despite a century of weathering. Three workers unloaded wooden planks from a truck and placed them side by side, the first steps in erecting a scaffold that would wrap around the house’s white columns and peeling pastel-green walls.

What was the scaffolding for?
“Owner wants a new coat of paint,” one worker answered.
After the paint, then what?
“We’ll see.”

 

Originally published in the November issue of San Francisco

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