Before Now – Ocean Beach’s tornado house

We’re used to earthquakes. The 105th anniversary of San Francisco’s great earthquake and fire is approaching, a yearly reminder to change the batteries in the flashlights and switch out the water in the emergency box. (The San Francisco Department of Emergency Management has a nice checklist of what your preparedness kit should include.) I think we’re beginning to take the possibility of a tsunami seriously, despite the crowds of yahoos who run to the beach with their cameras when the alarms go off. An increasing multiplicity of emergency scenarios in which to imagine ourselves has arisen: gas explosions, floods and nuclear meltdowns. Now we can add tornadoes to the list.

On Saturday the Emergency Alert System warned of possible tornadoes in the Bay Area. One hit in Santa Rosa, ripping a shed to pieces with 100 mph winds. Then a waterspout touched down off Ocean Beach with a menacing, if mesmerizing, dance on the waves.

The Outer Sunset has been hit before. On Feb. 24, 1930, a mighty storm battered the Bay Area. Strong waves and wind swept a deckhand off a tugboat at the Ferry Building; lighting struck Oakland’s city hall, starting a fire; snow and hail fell in the Mission District. Then the police received reports of an explosion near the corner of 46th Avenue and Ortega Street.

The mass development of the Sunset District had only just begun, and huge areas were still open dunes. By 1930, only one house had been built on the block between 45th and 46th avenues, and Noriega and Ortega streets. Emergency crews arrived to find that house listing at an angle in the dunes, surrounded by broken lumber and debris. Rather than suffering an explosion, the house appeared to have been spun sideways off its foundation and screwed down into the sand. Mrs. James C. Crampton, who lived at 2243 45th Ave., reported that she’d seen an enormous funnel: “It seemed as if tons of sand were swirling round and round, and that the column would crush anything it happened to strike.”

Tornado house, Sunset District, San Francisco

The house at 1896 46th Ave. lies crumpled and askew after a tornado hit it in 1930. Photo: Randolph Brandt Collection, courtesy Emiliano Echeverria

The owner, John Voltz, had been at work at the time. He wasn’t immediately available to comment as emergency crews, reporters and curious neighbors crawled over his property, posing for photos on the steeply raked floors. The only other major damage in the area was the destruction of a garage in the backyard of 1800 48th Ave.

San Francisco’s four daily newspapers gave the tornado light coverage, and didn’t exactly know what to call the phenomenon that moved a house. “Freak squall,” “freak storm,” “a miniature twister” were three attempts.

Voltz estimated his losses at $5,000, but he didn’t seem to have given up on his Oceanside house completely. Go take a look at the tall house that stands at 1896 46th Ave. today. Compare its angled upper floor to the tornado-stricken structure alee in the dunes. Instead of retreating, Voltz rebuilt with bravado, taking his home even closer to the clouds.


Trivia Answer: Last column I asked what Ocean Beach bar near Playland had humorously risqué murals inside. The answer is The Gables, and I’ll show you one of those murals next column.

New Trivia Question: What business occupied the building at the northeast corner of Judah and La Playa streets before the popular Java Beach Café moved in?


Woody LaBounty is the founder of the Western Neighborhoods Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the history of western San Francisco, and the author of “Carville-by-the-Sea: San Francisco’s Streetcar Suburb.”

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  1. Up to about 1981 or so, Burt Bales was kind of a regular piano player there at Dick’s at the Beach. The bar was run by Pearl and her husband, whose name was Jack, but Pearl often referred to him as “my poor husband.” They lived upstairs. Pearl was always all dolled up with hairdo, jewelry, sparkly high heels, and she barked at people. I loved her.
    After Pearl and Jack sold the bar, the music continued for a while, memorably on Sunday afternoons with some great jazz players who got together under the leadership of Larry (__?__) and called themselves The Dixie Dicks. They were really bebop guys who made nods toward dixieland in their playing. The great Herbie Steward was usually there on reeds, a great trumpeter whose name I can’t remember (but I remember that his wife worked at Joe’s of Westlake), a valve trombonist who played the fewest notes ever, the flawless Al Obidinski on bass, and 3 regular drummers, Gus Gustafson (who kicked ass), a guy in his nineties, and another great drummer who had white hair and a white moustache and maybe wore glasses. Sometimes there was a younger woman named Lisa who wailed on tenor. They were all great, and had great guests show up.
    After Dick’s finally died and was reborn as Java Beach, some of the old Dick’s crowd called it “Yuppie House.”

  2. My Dad (Poly High, Dec. 1941) said they’d board the N Judah streetcar behind the school on Carl St. & at the end romp in the surf at Judah beach, then into “Dick’s Hamburgers” where Java Beach is now. He was All City swim team from Poly & they’d train in the surf at Judah beach.
    In the late ’70’s Dick’s had jazz sessions.

    Finian’s Rainbow was in Herb Caen’s column once for getting gypped by a deliveryman into paying $90 for cases of bananas “for your banana daquiris”. The morning bartender didn’t know they’d never made a banana daquiri in there.

  3. The way I remember…on that last block of Judah, all on the same side were: The Seagull, at the corner;
    The Red Mill, apparently built on a residential site mid-block; and Dick’s at the Beach, on the La Playa corner.
    The first two were not so attractive, Dick’s was OK.
    I really enjoy Java Beach, it seems a bit like the SF I remember, lots of relaxed, friendly and tolerant folks of all kinds.

  4. I have an old photo of Dick’s by the beach hanging on my livingroom wall.

    The muraled establishment is further down the road, near the windmill, forgot what it was called but it was
    a rough a tumble place, biker bar when I visited in 1972. I believe it now houses a resturant.

    The murals are still there and were painted as part of the back to work program in the 30’s

  5. Just looked-up the existing house using Google Maps Street View. Looks like the house later landed on a garage!

  6. It was Dick’s at the Beach, of course. Of the four bars and one restaurant within three blocks of my house (the one that Clarence Judson built on 47th Ave., thanks for filling in that bit of history for me), Dick’s was what I once called “the old people’s bar.” They had a “bring your own instrument” night on Friday nights, where you could bring your own musical instrument and a jam of one sort or another would ensue. They provided a stand-up bass, for those who knew how to play it, and couldn’t bring one of their own. The other bars were Finian’s Rainbow (48th and Judah, now a church) and The Reef (47th and Judah, now Pitsburgh’s Pub), and the restaurant was John’s Ocean Cafe (46th & Judah), now a church. John’s was a family affair: Dad was the chef, Mom was the waitress, and their son serenaded diners on some weekends, on guitar. You were always given a glass of white wine as soon as you were seated, “Compliments of the house.” Oh, and lest I forget, the Seagull (across from Finian’s on 48th), part restaurant, part bar, was the fourth bar. They had local bands on Thursday through Sunday nights. I’ve been told that it was once called The Red Mill.

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