Mystery Solved: Crowdsourcing a Vanished View of San Francisco

Eric Chesmar, Robert Aranda Jr. and Fred Lyon stand on upper Grand View Avenue in San Francisco, where the 93-year-old photographer shot 'Houses on the Hills' many years ago. (Patricia Yollin/KQED)

Sometimes, crowdsourcing works.

When it does, it can lead to improbable gatherings, like the one Friday morning in Noe Valley. There were five of us: a legendary lensman, an interior designer, a retired PG&E electrician, an engineer for United Airlines and me, a fan of photography and geography.

After my story earlier this month about 93-year-old photographer Fred Lyon, KQED asked readers to figure out where the picture “Houses on the Hills” was shot. The image can be seen in his current “San Francisco Noir” exhibition at the Leica Gallery and in his new book of the same name.

Fred Lyon has taken so many pictures that he doesn't always remember when or where they were shot. He and his wife have spent hours driving around San Francisco trying to figure out the neighborhood where "Houses on the Hills" is located.
Fred Lyon has taken so many pictures that he doesn’t always remember when or where they were shot. He and his wife spent hours driving around San Francisco searching for the location of ‘Houses on the Hills.’ (Fred Lyon)

Lyon, a fourth-generation San Franciscan, has taken tens of thousands of photos in a career that began more than 70 years ago. When I asked where the houses were located, he said: “That’s a question we’ve been wrestling with ever since we discovered this negative about a year ago. Penny and I have spent hours driving around, but to no avail.”

Lyon and his wife, interior designer Penelope Rozis,¬†believed he was looking west, because of the position of the sun, and suspected the houses were in the Excelsior or Crocker-Amazon. But it turns out they’re actually in Noe Valley, on Worth Street. Lyon’s photo, shot facing east from upper Grand View Avenue, captured the back of those dwellings.

Two San Francisco residents solved the puzzle separately — with very different approaches — after they spotted KQED’s call for help on Facebook.

Robert Aranda Jr. moved to the neighborhood 58 years ago with his parents, after they emigrated from Guatemala. He recognized the scene immediately because his house on 22nd Street is just steps from Worth Street. Eric Chesmar, on the other hand, relied on Google Maps and Google Earth.

“You did it with the new technology,” Aranda told Chesmar when we all met up on Worth Street. “Me, I live here.”

Chesmar said, “I spent a lot of time zooming in, trying to match the rooflines.”

Lyon was thrilled to meet them — and vice versa. “This has been the greatest mystery,” he told Chesmar and Aranda. “I was convinced they had moved a couple of large hills — the government does that, you know.”

He added, more seriously, “I was afraid the houses were gone.”

But those houses haven’t gone anywhere. And neither have most of the people who live on Worth Street, which is only one block long.

“People who live here have been here a long time,” said retired carpenter David Meites, 77, who I chatted with earlier in the morning and has lived on Worth more than 40 years. “It’s like a very small bar. Even if you’re not all that friendly, you’re pushed into saying hello.”

Although Worth Street hasn’t changed much since Lyon took his photo in the late ’40s or early ’50s, the same can’t be said for Grand View Avenue, where he was standing when he shot “Houses on the Hills.” He and Rozis could have driven around San Francisco for years without ever solving the puzzle.

That’s because a large brown-shingle house was built on lower Grand View in 1979, and it blocks most of the view that the photographer had enjoyed. After we’d made our way from Worth Street to upper Grand View, we saw how much things had changed. Lyon shuddered and shook his head.

“At that time there were many empty lots,” said Lyon, whose memory of being there quickly returned. “I came here because it was a viewpoint.”

Here’s a screen shot of an aerial photograph of Worth Street in 1938, on the website of the San Francisco Planning Department. (David Rumsey Map Collection)

Aranda was on a beach in Zihuatanejo, Mexico, when his wife spotted KQED’s request for help. “She said, ‘I bet you can figure this out.’ But I was leery I was correct until I saw the building behind the houses,” he said.

That building is Alvarado Elementary School on Douglass Street. It’s where Aranda, 63, a retired electrician at PG&E substations, went to grade school, not long after he arrived from Central America. The ornate cornices that can be glimpsed in the photograph are long gone, Aranda said, because of concerns about earthquake safety.

Robert Aranda Jr. takes a selfie on Worth Street in San Francisco with photographer Fred Lyon, whose work he has admired for many years. (Patricia Yollin)

Chesmar, a composite engineer with United Airlines at SFO who lives in Bernal Heights, used a different strategy, scouring satellite photos on Google Maps to pinpoint the location: He looked for a hill with a contour that fit Lyon’s picture and for a second taller hill nearby, from where the photo was taken. Since the sun was to the right of the hill — and too high to be west — Lyon must have been facing east or south. Then he searched for buildings with those shapes and windows.

That process consumed about two hours. But after he noticed the steep stairway on 22nd Street, between Diamond and Collingwood, it took only another 15 minutes to zero in on where Lyon was standing almost seven decades ago. Then he verified his conclusion on Google Earth.

“I had plenty of time,” said Chesmar, 56, who is recovering from a mountain bike accident on Mount Tamalpais that broke his femur six weeks ago. He was recently allowed to drive a car again, but is still on crutches.

Eric Chesmar, left, brought his iPad and Fred Lyon brought his camera to the very spot on upper Grand View Avenue in San Francisco where Lyon shot ‘Houses on the Hills.’ (Patricia Yollin)

Days earlier, when I told Lyon where the houses were situated, he said, “That makes perfect sense — and proves once again that one’s brain and memory are totally unreliable. I assumed that the camera was pointed west, into the afternoon sun. Actually, it was east, and the morning sun. It’s an incredible relief to know where that is.”

Leica Gallery director Alex Ramos, who was immensely curious about the location of the houses, also thought it was a sunset photograph with afternoon fog. “My guess was way off,” he said. “Fred must have gotten up early to make this one.”

On Friday morning, Lyon and Rozis marveled as Chesmar used his iPad to explain his methodology. “What great detective work,” Rozis remarked. “I can’t tell you how amazing I think it is that you identified this,” Lyon said.

When KQED readers took a stab at the elusive location, they were as mystified as Lyon had been. Their guesses included: Potrero Hill, Bernal Heights, the Excelsior, Crocker-Amazon, Daly City, Silver Terrace, the Portola, South San Francisco, the Mission District, Hunters Point and the Inner Sunset.

Lyon stood on upper Grand View Avenue — the spot where he’d been with his 4×5 Linhof and tripod around the middle of the last century — and took a few pictures of what is now a vastly altered view. “A lot has changed, but a lot is still the same,” he said of the city.

These days, Lyon is usually in discovery mode, looking at old photos and deciding what to keep and what to toss. He continually spots new things — and so do some of the people who look at his pictures.

Lyon described his image of three men pushing a cable car at the Powell Street turnaround. A woman told him that her father was one of them — his pipe was clenched in his mouth and he always wore his hat that way. “And I thought, isn’t this a sweet moment,” Lyon recalled. “And then she said, ‘One day he took the family Cadillac and his secretary, and nobody’s seen him since.’ Don’t tell me these things. I’m a romantic and I don’t want to know that.”

Unlike many of the photographs Lyon made for Life, Look and other publications, “Houses on the Hills” is horizontal. “I realized early on that magazine pages were vertical and you got paid by the page,” he said. “I didn’t want to settle for horizontals, so I forced verticals. And I thought that was fine because I was starving.”

“You’re not now,” Aranda said.

“No,” Lyon agreed. “If anything, I’m overfed.”

Fred Lyon gave Robert Aranda Jr. a digital print of his "Houses on the Hills" photograph. It is temporarily keeping company with tequila bottles on Aranda's dining room table in the Noe Valley neighborhood of San Francisco.
Fred Lyon gave Robert Aranda Jr. a digital print of his ‘Houses on the Hills’ photograph. It is temporarily keeping company with tequila bottles on Aranda’s dining room table in the Noe Valley neighborhood of San Francisco. (Patricia Yollin/KQED)

When it was time to leave, a grateful Lyon presented Aranda and Chesmar with digital prints of “Houses on the Hills.” Aranda started to choke up. When I mentioned that the silver gelatin version on display at the Leica Gallery is priced at $5,000, they looked even more stunned.

Aranda, a big fan of Lyon’s work, said he’ll get the photograph matted and framed as soon as he can. We walked over to his house and he showed me exactly where it will go, in a prominent spot in the front hallway. Then he propped it up on the dining room table. surrounded by tequila bottles, and admired the view Lyon had enjoyed — one that has seemingly vanished.

But there is a way to see it. Vincent Galea, 80, who has lived on Worth for 40-plus years, invited me to climb to the top of his terraced backyard garden, behind his house on the west side of the street. That is where Lyon’s houses on the hills can still be seen.

Galea’s home, in fact, is one of those houses. But he hadn’t realized it until that moment, when we looked at a photocopy of the image that I’d brought along.

“I’d seen the picture before and I didn’t put it together,” Galea said. “But I knew it was in the neighborhood.”

The backs of the Worth Street houses that Fred Lyon photographed decades ago can still be seen behind the home of Vincent Galea, at the top of his lush terraced garden. (Patricia Yollin/KQED)
Mystery Solved: Crowdsourcing a Vanished View of San Francisco 20 November,2017Patricia Yollin

  • Hurray for 22nd Street! Bummed I didn’t recognize this myself, I used to live across the street from Robert. (and since this is what I do all day for here’s the view looking the other way in 1926

    • Dan Brekke

      That’s a beautiful shot, David Gallagher. Thanks for the link.

  • Marina Costabile

    Interestingly the map mislabeled Eureka Street as Diamond. Great set of articles though. Definitely will check out the exhibit next week.


Patricia Yollin

Pat Yollin has written about lots of stuff, including organ transplants, wayward penguins at the San Francisco Zoo, the comeback of the cream puff, New York on the fifth anniversary of 9/11, a Slow Food gathering in Italy, and the microcredit movement in Northern California. Among her favorite stories: an interview with George Lucas at Skywalker Ranch that broke the story about his plan to build a cultural museum, and a pirate Trader Joe’s operation in Vancouver that prompted the grocery chain to sue — and lose. She joined KQED in 2013 and was previously a reporter and editor at the San Francisco Chronicle, the Hearst-owned San Francisco Examiner and the Hayward Daily Review.

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