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Filbert Steps © Kārlis Dambrāns/Flickr
Filbert Steps © Kārlis Dambrāns/Flickr
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Murder, Mayhem & Dynamite Created San Francisco’s Filbert Steps

Picture of Brixton Key
Updated: 21 November 2016
In film noir a pleasing face inevitably softens a violent past, so it’s no coincidence that the lush gardens alongside San Francisco’s Filbert Street steps cover up an unsavory past. Perhaps that’s why exteriors for Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall’s classic movie, Dark Passage, were filmed outside a magnificent Art Deco apartment block where the steps intersect Montgomery Street. There’s a cinematographic vibe on the steps, fantastic views, quiet cottages, lush gardens, raucous wild parrots screeching over motorcar hum. Even the gardens owe their existence to a retired movie set designer. The story of the sheer face hill rising above Sansome Street has all the makings of a movie plot, and that includes murder.     

Quarry rock face on Sansome Street

Quarry rock face on Sansome Street © Brixton Key

 

In Dark Passage, Bogart plays an escapee wrongfully convicted of his wife’s murder who splits the bounds of San Quentin’s walls into Bacall’s capable hands. His well-known face is altered by a plastic surgeon during a surrealistic scene of Daliesque terror, and when the dressings are removed Bogart’s familiar face gives him passage to a new life south of the border down Mexico way. The Filbert Steps were given their steep inclined face by dynamite blasting away the bayside of Telegraph Hill. It seems so unlikely now. Explosions in another San Francisco area that’s really come into it’s own with a gentle gentrification that took decades.

Dark Passage

Dark Passage © Brixton Key

 

It’s seems even more unlikely that a quarry would be operating on the Greenwich side of Telegraph Hill in the mid 1800s. The area was becoming densely populated as the city grew. North Beach shops, homes, rooming and doss houses, bars and restaurants began lining the hill along footpaths and extended ledges. The land, once used for cattle pasture, became one of San Francisco’s first thriving communities. Further up the hill, a trek through winding streets, short cuts, and garden paths, the cheaper land attracted the lucky working class families who’d stowed enough money away to buy themselves a small plot. By the 1850s, cottages were built at weekends from pre-cut prefabricated boards manufactured where fast streams cut through Marin forests. Down on the Bay the docks were expanding and there was plenty work laboring port-side and downtown in boomtime California.  

When the 1906 April earthquake shook the city and North Beach, Telegraph Hill mostly escaped the fire contained in part by military explosions designed to clear fuel from the firestorm destroying wood buildings. Yet on the working class side of the hill, shakes and shuddering, kegs of dynamite blasting away at rock slides, were constant, frequent and terrifying. San Francisco’s then-notorious and politically connected quarrymen, the Gray Brothers, were blasting away once again on their property to quell the city’s never-ending need for building materials to keep the port moving and expanding.

The Sansome and Filbert Street quarry began creating the eastern cliff in 1867, the gentle sloping hill sheared away from the Bay with an initial blast of 90 dynamite kegs. Over the next 30 years, George and Harry Gray’s quarry never skipped a beat until expediency, profit, lawsuits, and rioting locals shut down their landscaping. Their Diamond Heights quarry was less hassle to operate. Then following the earthquake, in response to the massive building in its aftermath, the quarry began operating once again to supply rock for the building of a seawall on the Embarcadero.

Embarcadero View

Embarcadero View © Brixton Key

But their operation was now endangering more than building foundations. Falling rocks injured children and adults as the quarry encroached closer to housing. There were lawsuits, meetings, angry voices raised, and a final blast as local lore has it, timed to detonate in 1909 while Independence Day fireworks exploded. The year George Gray’s secretary was slain. Was her murder due to the quarry? Well that’s a fact lost to time. However, soon after her death, the city finally closed the enterprise down.  

 

Victorian Cottage Landing

Victorian Cottage Landing © Brixton Key

Revving up their Diamond Heights quarry, becoming millionaires, George Gray, himself was murdered by a former employee over an argument regarding unpaid money. It seems that George was the dominant brother in their rocky concern and the company soon went bankrupt. Their sheared cliff face grew stairs, short streets, cottages, and apparently by 1950s mounds of rubbish.

Keep the steps beautiful

Keep the Steps beautiful © Brixton Key

 

Today the Filbert Street steps begin between two architecturally industrial buildings. The concrete steps steeply rising over the old quarried rock. As spectacular city and Bay views begin to expand just before wooden steps start at Napier Lane, the lush gardens begin their magic.

Step cottage

Step cottage © Brixton Key

 

It’s impossible resting on the stairs, investigating alleys lined by quaint bespoke cottages, for the windows not to conjure up a past of children playing hoops and ball games. A jaunty Dickens world that can’t exist in California because there’s no local literature to support it. It’s more Charlie Chaplin, the parts coming together from all over the world. The plants are quite happy, mostly from temperate climates, even hardy Himalayan geraniums, amongst Cecile Brunner climbing roses and banana plants.  

Grace Marchant Gardens

Grace Marchant Gardens © Brixton Key

 

Urban pioneers, the sheer poetry of place, and of course, reasonable rents and real estate values, brought them to the steps following WWll. It was all a bit shabby by 1949. The cottages were showing their age, absent landlords, rotting planks, and mountains of garbage. And then Grace Marchant stepped into the picture. In her sixties, with a colorful past as a Hollywood stuntwoman, a film studio wardrobe mistress, and an Embarcadero dock worker, Grace took over a cottage and burnt the rubbish. The gardens today are as exotic as Grace Marchant for whom they’re named and maintained. The wild parrots extend her legacy.

Two years before she moved into the Victorian cottages, flights above on Montgomery Street, Bogart and Bacall hung out at the locations for Dark Passage. The Art Deco apartment building featured in the movie designed to resemble a ship. It’s really a cool building that worth more than the glancing photo op that most hurried visitors appear to take.

 

The concrete beginning

The concrete beginning © Brixton Key


In fact the stairs truly are slightly Chaplin-esque, they propel visitors upwards and downwards at a brisk pace as if in a race thither to the
Coit Tower topping with its Depression-era murals depicting the Californian working people’s lives.

Up the garden path

Up the garden path © Brixton Key

But the steps are best taken at a gentle pace, for in slower motion the rhythm of an up and down hillside village becomes apparent. There’s postmen delivering the mail, some amazing statues and garden art, let alone the plantings in Grace Marchant’s beloved gardens. Anyone planning to plant a carefree thriving backyard environment in San Francisco would do well to visit here. It’s pretty water tolerant owing its foundation to similar plantings that thrive in the South of France and the Italian Riviera. The hill also has quite a few black cats keeping the wild parrots on their toes. They’re a cool place to visit on the warmest of days, and when fogged in the abounding blue bay vistas brighten grey skies. A gentle place, a super vibe cool stroll up a path grounded in a violent San Francisco past.