Forgotten History

Nescire autem quid ante quam natus sis acciderit, id est semper esse puerum. Quid enim est aetas hominis, nisi ea memoria rerum veterum cum superiorum aetate contexitur?

To be ignorant of what happened before you were born is to be ever a child. For what is man’s lifetime unless the memory of past events is woven with those of earlier times?

–Marcus Tullius Cicero

Source: San Francisco History Center, SF Public Library

Mason and Market, 1905. Center left is the third incarnation of the Tivoli Opera House in the reconfigured Panorama Building at Eddy and Mason, across from the mansard-roofed Golden State Hotel and Spider Kelly’s saloon. In the distance, near the center of the skyline, is the Fairmont Hotel atop Nob Hill.

It is not hyperbole to say that I have indulged in a passionate love affair with midtown San Francisco ever since it became my home turf in February 2001. Following years of overwhelming loss and misery, I was ready to make a fresh start by embarking on a course of personal reinvention. The long-neglected central city embraced me as one of its own.

I loved living amidst the cadenced visual harmony of the district’s hive-like, century-old architecture. Memories of the neighborhood from earlier, kinder times gave me an historical perspective of my surroundings. Realizing early on that many familiar, old signs and structures would soon either change or disappear, I began documenting the central city landscape near the end of 2002. It seemed appropriate at the time to call my work the Hotel Project. It was in the fall of 2005, while preparing for an exhibit of my photographs at San Francisco City Hall, that I took my first, faltering steps towards developing an historical narrative for my images. A blog seemed promising as a platform for experimentation and feedback, and thus I created The Hotel Project on Blogger.

I worked hard to develop my writing skills. Having no formal training, I learned the rudiments of historical research the same way I learned about computers and photographic software: the time-honored “hard way,” through trial and error. In 2007-8, I had the great pleasure and privilege of working with architectural historian Michael Corbett* on an extensive survey of Tenderloin architecture that conclusively defined the extent of the Uptown Tenderloin Historic District and nominated it to the National Register of Historic Places, a sanction that was officially bestowed by the National Park Service in 2009. Photographing the district’s distinctive architecture most effectively demanded a deeper understanding of what I was seeing, so I applied myself to learning the language and symbolism of Classical Revival architecture. I also learned some things about proper historical research, thanks in large part to Michael’s patient willingness to answer all my questions. When my work on the survey was finished, during an abecedarian plunge into self-publishing in September 2008, I moved the Hotel Project blog to WordPress, where it soon metamorphosed into this very personal ongoing history of San Francisco’s central city, Up From The Deep.

*author of Splendid Survivors and Port City, two of the best books ever written about San Francisco’s architectural heritage.

My Personal History explains in detail my intimate and idiosyncratic relationship with the central city. An overview of this project and the story of its genesis are contained within the Project History. Central city history has been divided into three photo essays corresponding to the vicinities that comprise it: Sixth Street, Mid-Market, and The Tenderloin. In the Blog section you will find the histories of numbered blocks and individual buildings illustrated with my own photography and, where possible, historical images and clippings from various Bay Area archives. There, too, are narratives and anecdotes about characters both famous and infamous, as well as news of current neighborhood events and exhibits. Of course, there is also a search engine to help you navigate. Museum quality prints of my photographs can be purchased via the Prints page.

The underlying spirit of my historical exploration is best explained by way of anecdote. I have found that, as a general rule, people rarely look upward past eye level. They are most often surprised when their attention is directed above to something they have passed by without seeing, perhaps for years.Oasis-Arcade- One friend of mine had lived for a long time in a Central Towers apartment, across Turk Street from the old YMCA Hotel (now the Oasis Apartments). When he first saw one of my photographs of the Oasis, he asked me where the building was located. He was shocked to learn it was the same building his balcony window had opened onto all those years, for he had never noticed what was right before his eyes. He later told me that when out and about, he had begun to look upward and had discovered many beautiful and pleasing aspects of his city he had never before appreciated, which of course delighted me no end. Cast your gaze aloft every now and then just to see what is there . . . you might be surprised or better yet, inspired to do some documentation and research of your own.


Just about the time I began photographing the architecture of San Francisco’s central city, Serge Echeverria came into my life, offering not only his friendship, but also both encouragement and critical assessment of my work. To him, Up From The Deep is dedicated.

Photo by Theo Rigby

Photo by Theo Rigby

Except where otherwise indicated, text and photos on this site are copyright © 2004-2015, Mark Ellinger. Any use and/or duplication of this material without prior written permission from the author is prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Mark Ellinger and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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112 responses to “Forgotten History

  1. Edward ("Eddie") Wilson

    Hi Mark —

    It was great running into you today at the corner of Ellis and Leavenworth Streets. Anyhow, I look forward to staying in touch with you. I’ll email you my contact information directly. Let’s stay in touch, O.K. Once again, Sunday Streets in The Tenderloin is next Sunday, April 13!

    Take care and be well,


  2. I received a valuable life lesson several days ago, but have only begun to understand it today. I’ve learned that it is unwise to assume you understand what you do not. Assumption so often precludes truth, and has the potential to cause irreparable damage and distress to others. Assumption suggests an arrogance of attitude that robs one of compassionate human connection. The lesson was, regrettably, a painful reminder that our efforts to understand and appreciate others, and respond to their creative energies, sometimes fails. Still, I believe its important to keep trying. We must continue painting, writing, composing, documenting–doing whatever it takes to find beauty in our differences– in our changing world.
    “Thanks for the trouble you took”.

  3. Hello Mark. I have met Helen before. I didn’t realize it until I phoned her an hour ago. She is part of a small discussion/critique group I joined several weeks ago. She is an extremely interesting person with a great deal of knowledge. I think we’ll be seeing more of one another in the months to come. We’ve begun talking about the possibility of a small joint exhibition in the gallery. I am still astounded that there are these circular connections between us. How very strange….
    Will say goodbye for now. My studio flooded two nights ago when the temperatures rose, melting masses of snow and ice around the foundation. Eric is out there swabbing up pools water. Must go lend a hand.
    Breathe in some warmer air for me–will you? 🙂 -12, strong winds and bright blue skies here. No sign of spring.

  4. Very nice to connect with you after all these years, Mark. I’m happy to provide a small memory–nice for me too.

    I’m really impressed with the work that has gone into this project–the historical research, the beautiful photographs–old and new, and the anecdotes that bring it all into focus. And, I must mention I had never heard of a “blade sign” before, but your photographs conjure up memories and have inspired me to keep my eyes open, though its unlikely I’ll see many in rural Nova Scotia.

    I’ve passed along your web site to another photographer, in Bear River, an artist who also appreciates the texture of architectural decay, though of a different sort.

    I look forward to seeing new images as you post them.

    Kind regards,

    • Thank you for your very kind words about my creative efforts, Donna. What a pleasure to connect with you. I have another friend, Helen Opie, a painter and quilt-maker, who lives in Nova Scotia. We have never met in person, but have been carrying on a long distance correspondence for a number of years. I especially love her architectural paintings and quilt work. I will pass your gallery page along to her.

      Also, do you remember Jan Neel (now Jan Stang)? I reconnected with her about a year ago. She’s living in Atlanta to be close to her daughter and grandchildren. We, too, have been corresponding, which has been a delight.

      Do keep in touch, if you have the time and interest, Donna. I would love to hear from you again.

      • It appears Helen Opie is a member of ARCAC, as am I. (ARCAC in an artist run centre in Annapolis Royal) I don’t know Helen, but I’m sure we’ll meet at some point since I’m becoming more active in the group. Isn’t that strange…she must live not far from Annapolis Royal which is just 15 minutes from my home, and you and she are friends! What a co-incidence. I like her quilts as well, especially Seagulls and Crows. Thank you for sharing a link to David Kaye Gallery with her.

        I’m not sure I remember Jan–unless she was the tall brunette who sang first soprano–the one with the clear, bright voice. Would that be Jan? Was she part of the Mixed Ensemble? Unfortunately I don’t have contact with anyone from that time. I was outside a circle of friends all through high school. I just … made art. And sang occasionally. When I moved to Canada I severed any remaining ties. I did, however go to the reunion of ’97–my only trip back to Ohio. I experienced culture shock and an unsettling sense of stepping back in time. I feel as though I’ve lived two lives, one as a citizen of the United States and the other as a Canadian, and those two realities are significantly different.

        Yes, I would enjoy staying in touch. You may email me at if you like Mark. Its been absolutely delightful talking with you.

      • Jan is the only person besides you that I’ve reconnected with in all these years. I can’t imagine ever going back to Ohio. I no longer know anyone there, except for my adoptive sister from whom I’ve been estranged since ’92, when my adoptive father died and my adoptive mother disinherited me.

        I do hope you connect with Helen. She’s a wonderful artist, as well as a wonderful friend, though as I said, our friendship has been entirely via email, snail mail, and shared pictures. I’ll be sending you an email soon, Donna. So glad you wish to remain in touch with me.

  5. Hello Mark. I’ve enjoyed exploring Up From the Deep. I find it a highly creative and engaging piece of material.
    Unusual perspectives and compositions of your photos are very interesting. I also like the jewel-like colour and light you’ve captured in many photos. Your name, your reference to Ohio and 1968, and that you play piano…I wonder, did you ever sing in a choir? I’m a visual artist living in Canada. I paint. David Kaye Gallery in Toronto represents me. I think perhaps we knew one another quite a long time ago. Good luck with your work. Donna.

    • I like your abstractions, especially the pastels on paper. Indeed, I sang in my high school choir and the OSU Symphonic Choir the year before I moved to San Francisco. I assume your last name is not your family name, as I can’t say that I recognize it.

      • Thank you for your kind comments about my work, Mark.

        Would it have been the Eastmoor Sr. High school choir? My name then was Donna Woodburn. I was a member of the Girls and the Mixed Ensemble. I think you were an Ensemble member as well. I also studied under Dr. Wilbur Held, of OSU, who was the choir director at my church, Trinity Episcopal on Broad Street in Columbus, Ohio.

        I was surprised to read you went on to study art in San Francisco. I don’t recall you having an interest in art in our senior years. But then, we barely knew one another. I think the one time we spoke at any length was during an exchange choir event in some small town in Ohio where we were billeted at the homes of the local choir members. We must have been about 17. My father had recently passed away. You and I took a walk and talked about it. You invited me to a party after the choir performance, but I didn’t stay–I had never had a beer–or any alcoholic drink, and there was some serious partying going on that evening. My host was the prom queen and we had a Monopoly game to play with her family–they were waiting for me. Do you remember any of this? It was 50 years ago. I remember it because it was a pivotal time in my life. My family had had a major loss. We were struggling. You were kind at the right moment. There was a little buzz about us for a few weeks–you were very popular, handsome, smart and…talented. I was completely focused on getting into art school, but it was nice to have been noticed. We didn’t interact again outside choir. I received a 4 year scholarship from the Columbus College of Art and Design, however I moved with my mother and brother to Canada when she remarried in 1968. I picked up my studies at the New School of Art in Toronto. I lived in Ontario for many, many years, until my husband passed away. I moved to Gabriola Island in B.C. where I lived with one of my children until 2008. I’m now living in Atlantic Canada with my husband, Eric, who is a writer. I don’t sing any longer, although I recall those few years at Eastmoor Sr. High as rich and formative. We had talented and dedicated instructors. Some of the most beautiful voices I’ve ever heard were those of the young members of our high school choir–so many gifted young people. …Actually, now that I’m thinking about it, I remember you giving me the gears because I was often a fraction of a second too late in cutting off my voice during competitions. But you know, we sang very well. We won awards. We definitely worked very hard, and we had fun. I think our choir even made a record.

        Life has taken me, and apparently you as well, on some difficult and unexpected twists and turns. And life in Ohio, in the 60’s, seems almost surreal. I’m still making art, taking a few photographs, printmaking and watching my family grow and expand. I’m happy. I hope you’re happy now as well.

        Cheers, Donna.

      • Now I remember you, although I’m afraid having no visual references for the first fifty-one years of my life has clouded my memories of many people, places and things. I really can’t fully express how grateful I am that you took the time to share your own memories with me. Life in Ohio in the ’60s seems utterly surreal. I can’t imagine ever going back there again.

        Life is often a struggle to survive, but I am content in what I do and at peace with myself.

        I see that you’ve read my personal history, so perhaps you’ll understand when I say that memory and personal continuity are at the core of what I now do. I have saved your comment in my personal files as an aid in anamnesis. Really, you have no idea what this means to me. Thank you, and all the best to you.


  6. charles

    i came across your website today and have spent hours reading thru and looking at the images. wonderful project. beautiful redemption. can you tell me anything that you know about the bel air hotel next to boedekker park. its one of the few i couldnt see you made reference to !

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