Henry Doelger's Iconic Sunset District and Westlake Homes

The history of what was once affordable housing in San Francisco and Daly City through the homes built by developer Henry Doelger.

In an earlier blog, I wrote about industrialized affordable housing in the 1950’s and‘60’s.  As an extension of that discussion, there was a description of Lustron Homes and the demise of the company that built them.  At the same time in San Francisco however, Henry Doelger was building affordable homes the traditional way in my neighborhood, the Sunset and Inner Sunset District of San Francisco. This is the area just north of Daly City and south of Golden Gate Park, along the shores of and inland from the Pacific Ocean.  I happen to be living in one of these structures with my wife for the last 27 years.

Typical Sunset District Homes today (photo by Photo by Torehan Sharman on Unsplash).

By the time he was 38 years old, Doelger was framing 2 buildings a day in the Sunset. This  was in the 1920’sand ‘30’s when the area was just sand dunes stretching to the ocean. But it made him one of the largest residential builders in the west.  His market was working class families that previously could not afford a home.  Doelger made it affordable:

Data re-posted from the San Francisco Examiner.
A historic brochure for the district.
Left, Doelger at his office and
another view of the Sunset District houses (photo credit: Rob Keil).

Doelger Sunset Housing

But equally important were the site-built wood stud framed (stick built if you will) single family homes in the newly planned community called Westlake in Daly City, just south of the San Francisco city limits.  Though successful, Doelger did not achieve the notoriety of Joseph Eichler, doing similar things, north in Marin County.  Westlake was in 1947, after the very successful run of single and duplex apartments and single family home development in the Sunset as described above. (Interspersed occasionally with Oliver Rousseau designed fairytale houses, different subject, different blog).

The 1963 folk song written by Malvina Reynolds and sung by Pete Seegar titled “Little Boxes” mocks this particular Westlake development in an arrogant and superior way. This song has always made me angry.  Affordable housing, done in this somewhat creative way is something to be proud of, not mocked.  Terms such as “ticky tacky” in truth does not apply to the construction methods used. Today these houses are in fine shape and have been kept up by their proud owners and from the outside at least appear to be in pretty much their original condition.

As far as the land planning and architectural design of the Westlake development, it befell to 2 men working in-house at Doelger headquarters on Judah Street (more later on this).  Chester Dolphin and Ed Hageman.  Dolphin had done most of the floor plans for the tightly planned streets in the Sunset, but at Westlake there was a bare piece of ground to do the curvilinear street layouts and land plan areas for parks and schools as evident on the image below.

Aerial view of Westlake.

Westlake, Daly City

Dolphin then set a series of 940 sf, 2 bedroom, split-level single family detached houses throughout each phase.  However, Doelger wanted the facades to be differentiated to a degree, and he was not yet satisfied with what he had.  Enter Ed Hageman to bring in some pizazz.  So Ed goes full Jetsons on it:

Homes in the Westlake development. There is an excellent book by Rob Keil called, Little Boxes: TheArchitecture of a Classic Midcentury Suburb (now out of print)which offers lots of photos and a comprehensive history of the area. Lower left photo courtesy of Barnoski Painting all others by David Tritt.

Backstory on Hageman: In the 1920’s he was a child in the neighborhood near the offices of Henry Doelger in the Inner Sunset area of San Francisco. Doelger was in the habit of occasionally taking neighborhood kids to his Healdsburg ranch as a country excursion and on one of the trips he noticed that the young Hageman could draw.  Doelger told Hageman when he grew up to come work for him designing houses.  Fast forward to 1937 when the young man was 19 years old and working downtown as a department store window dresser. One day at a lunch counter sat down next to Doelger having his own lunch.  They had not seen each other for a good 10 years.  Doelger made Hageman an offer that he could not refuse: $19 a week to come work for him designing houses, a significant increase from the $15 a week that he was making at the time.  Hence their working relationship was born, and Hageman designed all of the street facades in the Sunset that Henry was building, so in 1947 Doelger asked him to come design the facades of all of the houses he was planning in Westlake. “Just make them interesting” was the mantra.  So the end result is the rich and fanciful selection of affordable housing that, as Hageman has said, “got people into homes who never thought they would get into homes”  He has said of Doelger: “ I loved the guy”.  Later, in 1973, Hageman became a licensed architect and has designed by his own estimation over 5,000 homes in the bay area.

A couple of other architects, Charles Clausen and Mario Ciampi (architect of the Westmoor High School in the new Westlake District, photo below), came into the mix as well. From 1932 to 1940 Clausen designed the main headquarters for the expanding Doelger “archibiz” empire near the corner of Judah and 9th Avenue in San Francisco.  The same neighborhood in which Henry ran a hot dog stand at 7th and Lincoln, before he got involved in construction and residential development in his 20’s. The building is now on the San Francisco register of historic places:

Above: Westmoor High School. Below: the Doelger building in 1940
(photo from the San Francisco Planning Department) and today (photo by David Tritt).

1940 Today

So in the end my neighborhood has a history of its own as well as a precursor of the more flamboyant Westlake District farther south.  In any case, Henry Doelger, Chester Dolphin, and Ed Hageman have had a large effect upon my life: Chester did my floor plan, Ed designed the façade of my home, and Henry made it happen. Thanks, guys!

Article Written by David Tritt, Senior Architect.

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