Inside the oldest house in San Francisco's Richmond District, which just hit the market

A view of 806 47th Avenue, in the Outer Richmond near Ocean Beach.
Amanda Bartlett/SFGATE
Photo of Amanda Bartlett

A growing number of people have been stopping by a peculiar abode with a stark purple paint job on the corner of 47th Avenue and Cabrillo Street in the Outer Richmond. But not all of them show up because they’re in the market for a new home — they want the chance to go inside the oldest house in their San Francisco neighborhood for the first time.

And 806 47th Ave. isn’t just any old house. 

I found myself in front of the property on a recent Wednesday morning, peering up at an aging plaque with an inscription that denotes its unusual history. Built in 1878 at its original location three blocks away on the Great Highway, it was previously part of the Golden Gate Park lifesaving station, a rescue service led by a crew that braved the churning ocean waters to save sailors and fishermen who found themselves shipwrecked or at risk of drowning along Ocean Beach, Seal Rocks and Lands End. When Congress established the United States Life-Saving Service in 1871, the station was the very first in the state of California.

The staircase inside 806 47th Avenue.

The staircase inside 806 47th Avenue.

Johnny Racusin/Aerial Canvas
An interior view of 806 47th Avenue, in the Outer Richmond near Ocean Beach.

An interior view of 806 47th Avenue, in the Outer Richmond near Ocean Beach.

Johnny Racusin/Aerial Canvas
An interior view of 806 47th Avenue, in the Outer Richmond near Ocean Beach.

An interior view of 806 47th Avenue, in the Outer Richmond near Ocean Beach.

Johnny Racusin/Aerial Canvas
A view of the kitchen inside 806 47th Avenue, in the Outer Richmond near Ocean Beach.

A view of the kitchen inside 806 47th Avenue, in the Outer Richmond near Ocean Beach.

Johnny Racusin/Aerial Canvas
Some of the newly remodeled rooms inside 806 47th Ave. (Johnny Racusin/Aerial Canvas)

“There’s been a lot of curiosity about this house,” real estate agent Liz Scheidl tells me as I follow her up a speckled staircase to the front door of the home, which is constructed with old-growth California redwood. “Now that it’s open every weekend to show, many, many people are telling me they’ve always wanted to see the inside of this house, people who are interested in coming to see what it looks like.”

She pauses and grins. “And a few people that are looking to buy a house, too.”

Scheidl shows me around the three-bedroom, two-bathroom home, which is on the market for roughly $1.3 million — a far cry from the $75 the original owner and former lifesaver Carvel Torlakson paid for it when he bought the property in 1923 and moved it to the once-vacant lot where it stands today. It’s a fascinating place that still offers glimpses of its past. A chipped banister lines the carpeted stairwell. A curiously tiny closet is tucked away in the corner of one bedroom with a sloped ceiling. Medallions adorn the corners of door frames with intricate hinges. The original floorboards and wainscotting are still preserved on the upper level, and a small, sunny deck overlooks a shared backyard and garden as the Sutro Tower looms on the horizon.

The house originally served as the keeper’s quarters — a modest government-allocated residence where the head of the station ate and slept after leading the crew on miles of beach patrol and dusk-to-dawn rescue missions. When I find a forgotten seashell on a shelf in one of the rooms upstairs, I can’t help but imagine him shuffling in late at night, exhausted from hours of battling the unrelenting ocean current.

Details views from inside 806 47th Avenue, in the Outer Richmond near Ocean Beach.

Details views from inside 806 47th Avenue, in the Outer Richmond near Ocean Beach.

Amanda Bartlett/SFGATE
Details views from inside 806 47th Avenue, in the Outer Richmond near Ocean Beach.

Details views from inside 806 47th Avenue, in the Outer Richmond near Ocean Beach.

Amanda Bartlett/SFGATE
Details views from inside 806 47th Avenue, in the Outer Richmond near Ocean Beach.

Details views from inside 806 47th Avenue, in the Outer Richmond near Ocean Beach.

Amanda Bartlett/SFGATE
Details views from inside 806 47th Avenue, in the Outer Richmond near Ocean Beach.

Details views from inside 806 47th Avenue, in the Outer Richmond near Ocean Beach.

Amanda Bartlett/SFGATE
Some of the architectural details inside 806 47th Ave. in the Outer Richmond. (Photos by Amanda Bartlett/SFGATE)

Following its inception, the Golden Gate Park lifesaving station was lauded as “the most perfect example of a life-saving station in America,” according to an 1886 article published in the Examiner, though a few others dotted the coast near San Francisco Zoo, Point Bonita and Baker Beach, and they often coordinated rescue efforts. 

BEST OF SFGATE

Hiking | SF's easiest and prettiest hike ends at a waterfall
Travel | The story of Giant Rock, a mythical 7-story rock in the desert
Local | How the last pirates of Sausalito fought the man, and won
Culture | How Treasure Island ended up in an iconic 'Indiana Jones' film

At the time, the crew of six was divided into northern and southern beats, with three members patrolling the beach as far north as Point Lobos while the rest trekked about 4 miles south of the station. Each crew member wielded hand lights to search capsized vessels in the dark and small clocks locked into leather cases to record that they had walked the entire length of their beat.   

A plaque on the side of the home at 806 47th Ave. commemorates its historical significance in San Francisco. 

A plaque on the side of the home at 806 47th Ave. commemorates its historical significance in San Francisco. 

Johnny Racusin/Aerial Canvas

The keeper made the call as to how each rescue would be performed, and if one method didn’t work, they’d resort to the next. The lifesaving service often relied on carts equipped with cannons that would fire a projectile with a rope that spun through the air, unreeled and landed just beyond a sinking boat so the people inside could grab onto it and make their way back to shore, author and historical consultant John Martini told SFGATE. The crew also used surf boats that were drawn by horses and launched into the water to save a ship in distress. You can see one of these boats in the photograph below — the keeper’s residence is the structure just behind them.   

Lifesaving service crew members maneuver a rescue boat on a horse-drawn carriage circa 1900. Such surf boats were launched into the water to save ships in distress.

Lifesaving service crew members maneuver a rescue boat on a horse-drawn carriage circa 1900. Such surf boats were launched into the water to save ships in distress.

OpenSFHistory / wnp70.0243

Rescues required extensive training, and the lifesaving crew’s drills made Ocean Beach a popular destination for crowds of people hoping to see it in action. The lifesaving service crew members had to be prepared for emergencies around the clock and were paid just $40 or $50 a month each — roughly $1403 by today’s standards — while the keeper made about $75, or $2339. 

Martini told SFGATE that many of the men died affecting rescues and are still buried today in the U.S. Life-Saving Service Cemetery at Point Reyes National Seashore. 

“It was backbreaking, life-threatening work,” he said. “It’s pretty amazing what these fellows did.” 

In 1914, the station became part of the new U.S. Coast Guard, and by the 1920s, the original lifesaving service buildings started to get replaced by new structures. Torlakson, a former lifesaver, purchased the keeper’s residence — he was the only bidder — and had it transported three blocks inland to an empty lot (the garage level was added later on.) While moving an entire house might seem like a challenging endeavor, it was a frequent occurrence at the time. All you had to do was cap off utilities like indoor plumbing before jacking up the house and placing it on a platform made of massive timbers. Then, a team of horses or mules aided by a steam-powered winch would slowly move it through the city streets. The process would usually take days to complete, Martini said.

A crowd observes lifesaving drills at Ocean Beach circa 1910.

A crowd observes lifesaving drills at Ocean Beach circa 1910.

OpenSFHistory / wnp26.735

Meanwhile, as technology improved and new methods like helicopters were used to perform rescues, the lifesaving service was rendered obsolete and ended sometime in the 1950s. Other buildings at the station were eventually demolished, but the keeper’s quarters remained in Torlakson’s family for a number of years. It was his daughter Vivian Goodwin, the former chief librarian of San Francisco, who had the plaque made for the house. She lived there until her death in 2009, according to an article published by the Western Neighborhoods Project in 2019. 

“People who were born and raised in this neighborhood have come by and told me she was their teacher growing up,” Scheidl said. “She really loved this place and was passionate about its history.” 

Records show the home was last sold in 2018 for $810,000. View the current $1.3 million listing on Coldwell Banker’s website

An aerial view shows 806 47th Ave. in the Outer Richmond near Ocean Beach.

An aerial view shows 806 47th Ave. in the Outer Richmond near Ocean Beach.

Courtesy of Liz Scheidl/Coldwell Banker