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San Francisco’s “Cow Hollow” Neighborhood — From Barns to Boutiques

Find out how San Francisco’s Cow Hollow neighborhood went from green pastures to shopping destination.

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Cow Hollow is old-time vernacular for the valley lying west of Van Ness Ave. between Russian Hill and the Presidio.

The name nowadays is applied mainly to the locality around Union Street’s 1600 to 2200 blocks, a patch of ex-cow country where shoppers have replaced the milkmaids and cash registers ring more briskly than the cow bells ever did.

In post-Gold Rush days, this district was a green dale watered by the surrounding hills and small creeks seeking the Bay. The first dairy was established there in 1861, and 30 others followed. Soon hundreds of cows shared the grasslands with wild ducks, quail and rabbits.

Besides supplying early San Francisco’s milk, the Hollow was the communal washbasin. Fresh water was scarce along the Barbary Coast in the 1850s, so much that rich miners sent their laundry to Honolulu and even to China to be washed. Consequently, the little lake located in the area roughly bounded by Franklin, Octavia, Filbert and Lombard streets became a drawing card.

Laguna Pequeña, as it is referenced to on early maps, was used by the robust washerwomen who took in laundry from the Presidio officers and by thrifty housewives who congregated there from all over town on washday outings. The locals dubbed it Washerwoman’s Lagoon.

The bucolic era ended with the 1800s. Tanneries, slaughterhouses and sausage factories crept into the valley. They were tolerated for a while...until their offensive odors reached the nostrils of the bonanza kings and affluent businessmen building homes nearby in Pacific Heights.

Washerwoman’s Lagoon was filled in 1882 when tannery wastes fouled its waters. The cows were banished by the Board of Health in 1891. After that, Cow Hollow developed into a district of sedate residences and modest stores.

By the middle of this century outer Union Street was a nondescript service area running heavily to hardware stores, garages, groceries, five-and-dimes, laundries, barber shops and the like, with a few houses in between. Then things took a Cinderella turn...imaginative merchants, began to see possibilities in Cow Hollow’s old clapboard dwellings, its converted carriage houses and surviving stables and barns. Members of the decorating industry had discovered the pre-earthquake buildings of Jackson Square and were already in the process of turning a run-down warehouse area into a San Francisco showplace.

Union Street’s regeneration began in the late ‘50s with a few stylish antique shops and home furnishing showrooms. The movement quickly gathered momentum, and by 1964 Cow Hollow had evolved into a neighborhood with a flair...a flourishing shopping sector with a turn-of-the-century flavor.

Cow Hollow is best reconnoitered on foot because of its tucked-away charms, few of which can be seen from a passing car. Passages lead between buildings to flower-filled courtyards bordered by boutiques. In fair weather, business overflows through Dutch doors into doll-size patios. These intriguing apertures are an invitation to browsers.

To get there from downtown San Francisco’s shopping-hotel district, take the No. 45 bus westbound from the Financial District on Sacramento St. of along Columbus Ave. in North Beach. Get off the bus at the corner of Union and Franklin streets and walk west, or ride to the Steiner St. intersection and walk east.

This seven-block stretch of Union Street abounds with home furnishings showrooms; antiques and handicraft galleries; shops purveying custom clothes, art, objects, imports, books, gifts, linens, specialty foods, fabrics, feminine fripperies and odds-and-ends emporiums.

The Hollow’s handsomest accessories are the clusters of old Victorians, faintly reminiscent of London’s mews, which have been artfully refurbished and transformed into smart shopping compounds. Fine old facades are painted subtle shades with black gingerbread trim. Wrought iron fences have been retained and, in some places, gas lights reinstalled.

Cow Hollow harbors an international array of eating spots, many of them with garden or veranda service. Its crannies are crammed with restaurants, pubs, and cafe-delicatessens offering seafood, American, Armenian, French, Indian, Irish, Italian, Japanese, Mexican and Vietnamese cuisine in settings which reflect the street’s flair for decor. Several feature entertainment.

Especially noteworthy along the route are:

Corner of Gough and Union streets — The Octagon House is a perfectly preserved (1861) Cow Hollow heirloom restored inside and out by the National Society of Colonial Dames in America. It’s open to the public the second and fourth Thursdays of every month from noon to 3 p.m. — donations optional.

Charlton Court — A cul-de-sac off the south side of Union’s 1900 block, it is said to have been a milk-wagon loading yard. A trio of 1873-1896 Victorians at Nos. 2, 4 and 5 has been genteelly recycled into residences.

1980 Union St. — This is one of the district’s most striking Victorian compounds fashioned from three circa 1870 residences. Including a pair of “wedding houses” (identical bungalows joined by a common center wall). It is now home to several shops and restaurants.

1981 Union St. — The old Laurel Vale Dairy building is virtually all that remains of Cow Hollow’s dairy industry. It’s now a sports apparel shop.

2040 Union St. — This three-story mansion built around 1870 by James Cudworth, one of Cow Hollow’s first dairymen, is now boutiques. An office at 2044 Union now occupies the barn originally belonging to the big house. It was a first aid station during the 1906 earthquake and fire, as well as a hideout for a pair of notorious looters, “the Gas Pipe Thieves.”

2164-66 Union St. — This carriage yard and remodeled barn is home to hair salon and dog bakery.

2963 Webster St. — The Vedanta Society Temple was built in 1905-1908 as a reflection of Hindu religious philosophy. It’s visible from Union St. as an amazing amalgam of Moorish columns, lobated windows, cusped arches, crenellated towers and onion domes.

2221 Filbert St. — One block north of the Union-Fillmore corner, it began life around 1895 as a carriage house and stables. The hoist for the hayloft was located in what is now an upstairs window.

3011 Steiner St. — Three doors north of Union, this two-story vintage clapboard with carriage entrance housing Terzo restaurant was a Wells Fargo stagecoach stop in the 1880s.

2325 Union St. — This vestige of Cow Hollow lingers in the rustic grounds of St. Mary the Virgin Episcopal Church. Its Eternal Fountain is fed by a spring, which once watered the district’s herds.