For 16 years, a unique San Francisco landmark has stood at the corner of Sixth and Howard streets. It’s an abandoned old hotel, its exterior crazily adorned with couches, chairs and doors seemingly caught in the act of flying out its windows.
The 1997 installation by artist Brian Goggin is a superb example of public art, but it may not last much longer: Plans are afoot to raze the 104-year-old Hugo Hotel next year and replace it with a nine-story apartment complex featuring 67 units of affordable housing. Goggin says his work, aptly titled “Defenestration,” is a commentary on the downtrodden neighborhood and its inhabitants, many of whom are people society has thrown out. It’s an eloquent message.
But that frozen flying furniture also carries another, inadvertent meaning – a much darker one. For it was just across the street from where the Hugo Hotel now stands that the most appalling tragedy of the 1906 earthquake and fire took place.
In the early 20th century, the South of Market area was the most densely populated part of the city outside of Chinatown, home to thousands of working-class and poor people, many of them immigrants and transients. Sixth Street was lined with cheap hotels and boarding houses. Most of them were two- or three-story wooden structures, but many corner lots featured five-story rooming houses that could contain up to 300 small rooms.
One such building, the Brunswick House, stood on the northwest corner of Sixth and Howard, across the street from today’s Hugo Hotel. Three other, smaller, rooming houses stood next to the Brunswick, going north toward Natoma Street: first the Ohio House, then the Lormor, and finally theNevada House, on the corner of Sixth and Natoma. These four wooden buildings contained more than 1,000 rooms.
Area was swampland
Until the late 19th century, much of the South of Market area was swampland, part of the extensive wetlands that ringed old Mission Bay, which was once an actual bay that extended deep into the Mission District. The area around Sixth and Howard had once been known as “Pioche’s Lake,” a sunken area created by the Hayward Earthquake of 1868 then filled in. In an earthquake, “made ground” tends to liquefy. San Franciscans knew that even then, but it did not deter them from building on landfill: No less than one-sixth of the city’s 1906 population of 410,000 lived atop some type of reclaimed land.
The quake hits
At 5:12 a.m. on April 18, 1906, a massive earthquake took place on the San Andreas Fault near Mussel Rock in Daly City. Its shock waves raced toward San Francisco at 4,000 miles an hour. When they hit Sixth and Howard, they literally pushed the land under the buildings eastward. Watery soil under the foundations liquefied. Unbalanced structures began to tip. Then they started to fall.
It was a hideous game of dominoes. As the Nevada pushed against the Lormor, the Lormor fell on the Ohio House, which in turn fell on the Brunswick House, knocking it over and ramming it into the middle of Howard Street.
William Stehr was in his third-floor room in the Nevada House when the quake hit. Stehr was trying to decide whether to jump out the window to the Lormor House next door when the Lormor suddenly collapsed in a “cloud of dust from which I could plainly hear the agonizing screams of the inhabitants,” according to a recounting printed in the Argonaut journal in 1926.
Stehr was trying to open his door when “I felt the floor tilting and sinking under me, and I knew the house was going down like the others. So I hung on instinctively to the door handle while the whole floor dropped. As it sank, I felt three distinct bumps as the lower floors collapsed in turn under the weight of the roof and top story. With each bump came a frightful crash and cracking of timbers and glass and the cries of other people in the house who were being destroyed. The cries of the people who were being killed, especially the women, were dreadful to hear.”
The carnage was horrific. Two female doctors quickly arrived at the Brunswick House, but it was too late to save those trapped in the wreckage.
A terrible cry
One of the doctors wrote, “There was a terrible, low-heart-rending cry of utter resignation” from the people inside the ruins. Flames quickly consumed the wrecked buildings and everyone still alive in them.
The total number of those killed near Sixth and Howard will never be known, but it could be 500 or more. Eyewitnesses estimated that 150 to 300 people died inside the Brunswick alone. Whatever the final toll, Sixth and Howard was the place where the most people died during the earthquake and fire. And the permanently falling furniture that adorns the Hugo Hotel is a grimly appropriate reminder of that horror.