Walk by Alamo Square’s row of Painted Ladies on any day between May and September, and you’re sure to see a swarm of tourists taking photos of the iconic Victorian houses. People from far and wide flock to the site, but few wander just half a block past the row, down Grove Street. If they did, they’d notice an even grander house built in the 1800s, one obscured by a large, chained security gate, its facade sagging. A grand mansion built by a pickle baron, 930 Grove St. is vacant and crumbling.
In a city suffering from a disastrous housing crisis, combined with a slew of wealthy people who keep their Victorians in impeccable condition, what gives?
First, a little history. The 8,220-square-foot Classic Revival mansion was built in 1897 for John Koster, president of the California Barrel Company, which dealt mainly in the shipping of vinegar and pickles. He ran with a wealthy crowd at the turn of the 20th century, and hired well-known architects Martens & Coffey to construct his San Francisco abode, with 33 rooms to accommodate his seven children comfortably.
After Koster’s death, the mansion was used as a Jewish Community Center. During World War II, the federal government took over the property to house military personnel, and it was subsequently converted from a single-family home to 12 small apartments.
In 2004, it was sold for $2.35 million to Phuong Thanh Pham, who owns the building today.
But despite its rich history, the mansion’s care fell through the cracks along the way, and it’s been getting more and more dilapidated as time goes on. From 2002 to 2010, 32 complaints were reported to the Department of Building Inspections, most from tenants who lived in the place. There were claims of mushrooms growing out of the floorboards, a lack of hot water, plumbing disasters, and asbestos hazards.
Tenants left 930 Grove St. in 2011, and the mansion has stood empty since — although neighbors have reported squatters breaking into the stately home. Twice in 2016, the San Francisco Police Department responded to reports of people living in the building, at one point sending a dozen officers and a fire truck to remove dwellers and their belongings.
This presence of squatters, and the obvious disrepair of the house, has neighbors concerned.
“The house had been neglected for so long, it is a timber box,” says Peter Farmer, who lives nearby. “Whenever homeless or drifters stay there, they do prepare food, which often involves open flames. After the Oakland [Ghost Ship] disaster when all Bay Area officials talked about preventing similar disasters in their cities, I assumed the city would finally do something. But again, mostly words and no actions.”
Pham’s involvement in the place — or lack thereof — is puzzling. Based on a notice posted on the gate by DBI, her registered address is a small Outer Sunset bungalow on 44th Avenue. It’s not the type of home you would expect someone who owns a multimillion-dollar mansion in the heart of the city to live in.
An East Bay Times article from 2005 alleges the real-estate mogul and her son, Dong Pham, were sued for “allowing uninhabitable conditions” at five of the 18 Oakland apartment buildings they own. Residents complained of cockroaches, leaks, and mold. The plaintiffs sued the Phams for $10 million.
It’s unclear if they got the money, but if the Phams were forced to settle, it would offer a financial explanation as to why the Grove Street mansion has only fallen into further disrepair. (Pham bought it a year before the Oakland lawsuit was filed.)
In 2014, 10 years after purchasing the house, Pham tried to offload it — at a shocking markup. Despite having done almost no repairs during her ownership, she listed the mansion at $6.6 million. The listing boasted about its capacity to be returned to a single-family home, and photos were only taken in areas of the home that were fairly intact.
Three months later, the price dropped by $200,000. But it still didn’t sell. After 157 days, on March 12, 2015, the house was taken off the market.
Moldy steps leading up to the grand entrance of 930 Grove St.(Photo by Nuala Sawyer)
DBI has paid numerous visits to the house, discovering exposed piping, electrical wiring installed without required inspections, and unauthorized demolition, including the tearing down of walls. There are pieces of plywood haphazardly nailed across windows.
But the mansion’s owner has been difficult to get hold of. On March 7, DBI noticed a broken padlock on the gate. Officials tried to contact Pham, but noted in their inspection notes “no answer from number provided. … Number does not accept voicemail, unable to leave message.”
After years of seeing the home falling into an increasing state of disrepair, a number of neighbors have contacted their supervisor, filed complaints with building inspectors, and tried to find someone to take responsibility for the crumbling historic facade and the potential dangers the mansion holds. We were forwarded an off-the-record email chain between neighbors, building inspectors, and Supervisor London Breed’s staff that dates back last October. (It’s still going.)
This effort to keep the property safe and functional shouldn’t fall on residents, according to Gus Hernandez, President of the Alamo Square Neighborhood Association.
“930 Grove St. is a historic resource in the Alamo Square Historic District,” he says. “Keeping these rent-controlled units off the market during a housing crisis is really unconscionable, but the solution is not to simply re-issue a permit for a dilapidated building. Why is the city not doing its job? This shouldn’t fall on neighbors, figuratively or literally.”
For those who walk by every day, it may seem as though the city is doing nothing — but DBI is slowly inching 930 Grove St. through its flowchart of documenting, reporting, and notifying the owner about the extensive issues. Pham has been either unwilling or unable to pay to remedy the violations. And as the building is also vacant or abandoned, it needs to be filed with the city as such — a process that requires the owner to sign their name and commit to the preservation of the house’s exterior facade and yard. Despite being served with the requirement to do this back in January, Pham has yet to comply. Soon, she will be charged for the time that the city has spent to process this negligence.
In light of the steadily growing stack of code violations, the case has now been transferred to the City Attorney’s Office. Last year, then-Supervisor Scott Wiener introduced legislation that would help streamline the process once code violations arrive at this point. City Attorney Dennis Herrera is now allowed to file a suit against code violators without a formal referral from a city department, giving the office more power. And if violators of “qualifying small properties” are unable to pay to bring their buildings up to code, there is an option for them to receive a low-interest loan — the entire yearly budget for the whole of San Francisco is $4 million.
Meanwhile, S.F.’s modern-day developers are pitted against neighborhood associations, supervisors, and the Planning Commission if they want to get housing built. Just across Alamo Square Park, a mere three blocks from 930 Grove St., a 65-unit condo building has been stuck in Planning for three years while battles are fought in regard to Divisadero Street’s zoning changes, nearby nightlife legislation, historic building definitions, and changes to affordable housing requirements.
The irony of this is that less than half a mile away, an enormous mansion with the potential to provide 12 units of housing in a central, transit-rich area of the city is slowly melting into the earth.