A 100-Year Secret in San Francisco’s Sunset District

- by Bruce E. McKinney


Discoveries are the gold standard for collecting

These days houses in the Bay area are bought and sold rapidly.  If your house hasn’t been rebuilt within 5 years it’s called tired.  It’s almost inevitable that recently purchased homes will be rebuilt.  It’s what the market expects.  And of course every house has a story but most disappear under coats of fresh paint.


A young couple bought a house in San Francisco and decided to rebuild their new home and during demolition found diaries and documents relating to the family that bought their house 110 years ago.  For its new owners the dairies they found told them about the lives of the first owner and his first love.  The house provided a blank canvas and the diaries context and drama.


I encountered the story online at the San Francisco Chronicle.


Books, manuscripts, maps and ephemera come in many forms and are found in different places.  Many show up online, in shops, at shows and in catalogues but others simply appear.  Voila!  When such things are found occasionally a curious person takes the time to reconstruct their history and meaning.  Such items are fortunate for that attention and sometimes turn out to be examples of the gold-standard of collecting.


Over the years, collecting the history of New York state’s Hudson Valley, I’ve encountered exceptional examples of Ulster and Dutchess County manuscript material both because my searches have been relentless as well because I’ve become sensitive to what seems unusual.  Nothing is better than the unexpected and inconsistent.


But as a collecting strategy it’s difficult to explain.  Collecting needles in the haystack seem all but impossible.  The San Francisco Chronicle took their shot at it on Sunday 22 August and hit the bullseye.  And they knew it was an important story, using 40% of their front page to put an exclamation point on it.


Here’s the story.


Their headline:  From basement ceiling falls tale of love long ago.  An owner / rebuilder found a 100-year-old diary in their newly purchased home.  What was inside changed her life.


When you renovate you don’t know what you’ll find but certainly do not expect to find interesting documents falling out of the ceiling.  Most such things end up in the rubbish but occasionally end up in sympathetic hands.  Such was the case when Christina Lalanne in San Francisco found diaries and letters between the ceiling joists of their soon to be rebuilt home and uncovered the secret history of the house they recently bought.


Collectors buy things but rarely learn their back stories.  Almost every item has one but such stories take luck and diligence to be discovered.


Among the papers found were two diaries covering 30 years in different hands written in Danish.  Ms. Lalanne, a historian with a master’s degree in preservation, used online resources to identify the names and found the principal writer, Hans Jorgen  Hansen, was the original builder of their new  home in 1910.  For the identity of the other writer, Anna, it took more time, including finding a Facebook community in Denmark willing to help her translate the diaries.


Mr. Hanson had once known Anna in Denmark and exchanged letters and their stories emerged in their diaries over 30 years that were buried between the rafters.  Given that Mr. Hanson had married another woman, Christina, it’s understandable he hid his relationship with Anna.


Did they ever marry?  No, although Anna moved to San Francisco and in time lived nearby.  Some details have simply slipped away.


For Ms. Lalanne the story will live on.  The Chronicle’s writer, Sarah Feldberg, has brought it to life.  A book will be published and a movie is being considered. 


You never know what you’ll find, when it’s a book, manuscript, map, ephemera or house.



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