The Parsonage: A Shared History

by Lauren Daley

Recently I had the pleasure of sitting down with Joan Hull and John Phillips, owners of the Parsonage Bed and Breakfast at 198 Haight Street, where they recounted some of the memories they have accrued over the past thirty years of living in Hayes Valley. Joan is a retired Unitarian Minister and John is retired from a position at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. They moved to the neighborhood at a time when it was prostitution-ridden and there was rampant drug abuse. The only real community anchor in the neighborhood was the Zen Center and they spoke of how influential the Zen Center and its participants have been and continue to be in providing stability to the neighborhood. Joan and John have witnessed the neighborhood clean up, grow, and change and were spearheads in many community efforts along the way.

The house Joan and John moved into is listed as #164 on the San Francisco Historical Registry. It was built for the McMorry family in 1883. Designed by architect Thomas J. Welsh, the house is an excellent example of late Italianate style and originally featured twenty-two rooms, a detached stable, six fireplaces, two water closets, and one bathroom with a tub. The house was kept and lovingly maintained by the McMorry family for three generations, finally being handed down to the last two sisters, Alice and Grace.

Originally willed to the San Francisco Catholic Archdiocese of San Francisco by the two sisters, Joan and John were able to purchase the house in 1983 before it formally went on the market making them only the second family to own the home, which is quite rare for a house that was already one hundred years old. They raised their two children at 198 Haight Street and acted as neighborhood pioneers, helping to clean up the area and give it a sense of community. From the start, Joan and John opened their home to neighborhood and church events and often gave people of the community and Joan’s congregation a place to stay in times of need. Over time their house became known as the “Parsonage” and when Joan and John opened their bed and breakfast in 1995 to the public, the name stuck.

Because the house was so well maintained by the previous family, Joan and John had to do little restoration. They altered a few things to make their home unique to them. One of the most striking additions is a wall fresco adorning their entire dining room. It captures the essence of Northern Italy and incorporates some of the most treasured places they have visited such as Agrigento, a Greek temple located in Sicily. The fresco took over three and a half years to complete: the result is stunning. They also added more modern features like electricity, a fire sprinkler system, and an elevator.

Oral history passed through generations has preserved the knowledge of the personal-lives and stories of the previous people who called this grand place home. Joan was told a story of a maid who lived in the house many years ago. During that time, the neighborhood fire station was located north of Laguna in the hilly southeast part of the Lower Haight. The firemen exercised their horses on Laguna because it was flatter. Apparently, one of the firemen caught the housemaid’s eye and everyday she held up a queen of hearts playing card in the window in hopes that he would notice her. Eventually her persistence paid off. He knocked on the door, asked for the housemaid, and later they married. Of course, Joan thought the story was too good to be true. But, while she was doing some house cleaning in the old servant’s quarters, she found a dusty queen of hearts card in a bureau that confirmed the story! After she recounted this story for me, she promptly produced the same card, now in a beautiful gold frame.

Long gone are the times when the house was occupied with family and with their attendants. Against the devastating fires following the 1906 earthquake, avoiding destruction in the name of Redevelopment, beyond the freeway’s reach and through Hayes Valley’s general decline, the home stood firm. Joan and John said they never felt like Hayes Valley was unsafe, just extremely unwholesome and neglected. Interestingly, they pointed out that because Hayes Valley was so undesirable for so many years, large-scale developers had their attention focused on other areas, allowing Hayes Valley to be more adaptable, vibrant, and intimate for us to enjoy now. Some positive changes they’ve witnessed are people strolling on the street, people taking care of their properties and sidewalks, and people participating in the community. They especially enjoy the diversity and the youth in the neighborhood now. They said that one of the biggest positive changes is the improvement in attention paid to the neighborhood by the police and they gave the late Patricia Walkup a lot of credit in helping to get that accomplished.

Currently, Joan are John are thoroughly enjoying their bed and breakfast, the guests that stay with them, and the Hayes Valley neighborhood they helped to shape.