Spirits of the CityUncategorized

Spirits of the City: Stepping Into History

By Gary Kamiya and Paul Madonna

Paul Madonna

The Lyon Street steps offer a singularly beautiful view in a singularly patrician setting. They were built in 1916 by architect Louis M. Upton, a society favorite who designed many Pacific Heights mansions, including the 1917 Italianate home right on the steps at 2640 Lyon. This is the residence of Senator Dianne Feinstein, which she and her billionaire husband, Richard Blum, bought in 2006 for $16 million. Upton also built the 1912 mansion a block away at 2900 Vallejo Street, a former Getty residence that sold in 2019 for a modest $27 million.

The steps themselves are wonderfully designed, with formal landings, elegant beaux-arts balustrades and superb landscaping. They offer a spectacular view of the Bay and, directly below them, Bernard Maybeck’s Palace of Fine Arts, which was constructed a year before the steps for the 1915 Panama- Pacific International Exposition. Small wonder that the beautiful homes lining the two-block-long steps are among the most sought after in the City, although their occupants’ dearly purchased tranquility is probably challenged by the endless procession of sweating plebeians who use the steps all day long as the world’s swankiest StairMaster.

The view from the top of the steps at Broadway is the most panoramic, but it’s what’s at the bottom that’s the most fascinating. Between Vallejo and Green streets, where the steps begin, is an odd indentation in the otherwise ruler-straight Presidio wall. This notch, occupied by six houses, is a cryptic reminder of one of the first houses built in San Francisco, and one of the most extraordinary women in the history of California — Juana Briones.

Briones was born under the Spanish flag in 1802 at Villa de Branciforte, a retirement home for soldiers. In 1812, her family moved to the Presidio, next to El Polin Spring in the newly daylighted Tennessee Hollow watershed. In 1833, her husband, a soldier at the Presidio named Apolinario Miranda, was granted land about half a mile to the east, on another spring called El Ojo de Agua Figueroa. The grant included a small portion of the Presidio land — hence the notch in the wall. When Briones, Miranda and their seven children moved into the house they built on the spring, they became the first people in San Francisco to live somewhere other than the Presidio or Mission Dolores.

Briones went on to leave her abusive husband, then built an adobe in North Beach, opened a dairy ranch in what is now Washington Square, adopted a Native American girl, and eventually bought and successfully ran a large cattle ranch in the Santa Clara Valley — all extraordinary feats for an illiterate woman who had to make her way alone in the world. Briones died in 1889 at the age of 87, having lived under three flags and while seeing the hamlet she helped found become one of the largest cities in the United States.

According to Adah Bakalinsky’s Stairway Walks in San Francisco, the Ojo de Agua Figueroa is located under the central oval on the cul-de-sac near Green Street. The presence of redwood trees is a clue that there’s groundwater on this site, which Bakalinsky says used to be the watering hole for Presidio horses. Along with the cryptic notch in the wall, this verdant oval is a lovely link to one of the earliest chapters in San Francisco’s colonial history.

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