Neighborhood History

God, Guns and Gherkins

As the 19th century turned into the 20th, German and Irish immigrants flooded Noe Valley and neighborhoods south. Upper Noe is home to the grandest mark made by the Catholics among them: St. Paul’s Church. The church, completed in 1911, took 14 years to build, and much of the labor was done by parishioners who were builders by trade, according to local history.*

Built in American Gothic Revival style, the church has been the backdrop for the movie Sister Act, and has appeared in two episodes of the Streets of San Francisco, a popular television drama in the 1970s.

St. Paul’s was surrounded by its convent, two elementary schools and a high school. Most of the old school buildings were torn down—its present elementary school is in a new building adjacent the church—but one former school located on Valley and Sanchez streets is now condominiums.

The last vestige of German presence is Lehr’s German Specialties, where marzipan and beer stein lovers alike can find what they need. Unfortunately, the very popular Speckmann’s Delicatessen closed in 2001.

Quiet as it is, the south end of Noe Valley is not without its explosive events. For years, Billy Goat Hill at 30th and Castro streets was the site of one of three quarries run by the infamous Gray Brothers at the turn of the 20th century.

George and Harry Gray were accused of producing substandard bricks, stiffing their employees and recklessly using explosives. Flying debris not only damaged nearby homes, it also injured children and adults alike.

Though many lawsuits were filed against the pair, it was a disgruntled employee who brought the company to an end. In 1915, former worker Joseph Lococo went to the Upper Noe quarry to demand his back wages of $17.50. George refused (and perhaps waved his arm in the air dismissively—reports are mixed), and Lococo shot him dead.

Lococo escaped on a street car, then turned himself into police. His trial was closely watched, and when he was acquitted by reason of temporary insanity, the courtroom reportedly erupted in cheers.

Noe Valley as a whole is named for José de Jesús Noé, the last Mexican mayor of Yerba Buena, as San Francisco was known until the 1840s.

Awarded by the governor, Noé’s 4,443-acre Rancho San Miguel spread from The Castro in the north nearly to the Daly City border to the south. The land remained Noé’s after the Mexican-American war ended in 1848, and he began selling off bits and pieces until his death 14 years later.

The piece that became Noe Valley was sold for $285,000 in 1854 to John Meirs Horner, who began laying out and naming streets. Upper Noe’s Duncan Street is thought to be named for Chapman Duncan, one of Horner’s friends and a fellow Mormon.

Much of Noe Valley was built at the end of the 19th century and at the beginning of the 20th century. The neighborhood contains many examples of Victorian and Edwardian residential architecture for which San Francisco is famous.

As a working-class neighborhood, Noe Valley houses were built in rows, with some of the efficient, low-cost homes being more ornate than others, depending on the owner’s taste and finances.

*Noe Valleyan Bill Yenne has written an excellent history of the neighborhood. You can visit his website at www.billyenne.com.