Blogging from A to Z: E is for Earthquake Cottages

eIn what I refer to as my past life, I was a Department of Defense civilian employee.  I worked on the Presidio of San Francisco, primarily in Public Affairs.  Behind our building was the U.S. Army Museum, and behind that building were two small green huts, about 8’x8′ square.  These were the last two earthquake cottages built for displaced San Franciscans after the 1906 earthquake.

Earthquake Cottages on the Presidio of San Francisco (U.S. Army Photo)

If you read In The Eye of The Storm or Through the Opera Glass, you will have seen references to these little buildings.  Claire, Veronique, and their neighbor Maeve share one near to the U.S. Army Hospital (the building that eventually became the museum) because Claire is volunteering there in the aftermath of the disaster after her family is displaced.

Earthquake Village, 1906 (National Park Service Photo)

The Army’s Department of Lands and Buildings built literally hundreds of these little houses in the wake of the earthquake, and also managed two tent cities:  one on the Presidio and one in Golden Gate Park.  The earthquake villages, which were scattered all over the city, were patrolled by military police, and the denizens were fed.  Often it was just earthquake stew, which was heavy on potatoes and light on meat (I’ve had it), but it was nourishing.

After the Presidio of San Francisco was closed as a military base, the Golden Gate National Recreation Area became the new landlords.  The two remaining earthquake cottages were moved to the San Francisco Zoo’s Conservation Corner.

22 thoughts on “Blogging from A to Z: E is for Earthquake Cottages

  1. I didn’t know about the earthquake cottages. It makes sense, though. I’m interested in the earthquake soup recipe. Even though I’m not a vegetarian, I tend to prefer less meat in my food. Do you have any idea what the ingredients are? Was it good enough to be recreated?


    1. The cookbook containing the recipe lives in the archives of the Berkeley Library (I linked to it). We did a reenactment during an Army Days celebration in which the mess hall cooks recreated it. It was pretty bland, to be honest … mostly potatoes and carrots in a very blond roux with a little bit of ground meat. I’m not a big stew fan to begin with, so this didn’t do much to change my mind.


  2. First time I’m seeing these cottages. Ironically, today abodes of this size are sometimes touted as “small living” alternatives for overcrowded cities or by folks seeking alternatives to large, energy-consuming houses. How times change.


  3. Very interesting. Knew about the earthquake, of course, but sadly admit I never gave much thought to where the many displaced were put. My father, now retired, worked for the DoD in DC and Virginia.


    1. There are laws now that preclude using military labor where civilian labor could be used. During the 1906 earthquake, Maj. Gen. Frederick Funston pretty much declared martial law; he announced that the City was under the Army’s control, and he proceeded to do as much as he could to “fix it,” including giving soldiers authorization to shoot looters on sight, no questions asked, creating a fire break using dynamite and, obviously, having these little houses built.


  4. Those earthquake cottages are fascinating – a forerunner to the small house movement? My autistic brother in law may love something like that – a small space (he spends most of his time at home in his bedroom) cozy and easy to care for.


  5. Hello, fellow A-to-Zer! I like this. I didn’t know about these earthquake cottages. It is nice to think about the two huts sitting behind the building where you worked, as if waiting politely to be noticed. Or anyway that is how I envision the scene. Thanks for this!
    Melanie Atherton Allen, from Atherton’s Magic Vapour


    1. What a nice thought!

      We did an event called Army Days toward the latter part of my career on the Presidio, and we did a photo shoot of me in Edwardian attire (I was a historical reenactor) and a gentleman in period uniform that featured the cottages in the background. If I could have found one of those photos in time (they’re put away very safely, apparently), I would have included that. It was neat to take a step back in time with them.

      Thank you for stopping by!


      1. I guess it depends on your definition of “recently.” As of last summer (the last time I was on PSF), they were no longer there at all. The one at the zoo was moved there in 2006. The Kirkham Shacks and one other were donated to the Fifth Avenue Institute at Jack London Square for restoration in 2008. If restored cottages have since been returned to PSF, that would be great and I’d love to know about it.


  6. I believe they are there behind the old post hospital.
    Next time I am in S.F. I will go by and take a look.
    Probably I will go after the summer as S.F. is so active until later October.


    1. They used to be behind the museum (which was the first hospital), across the street from Building 38 … which is where my office was. If you get a chance to take a look, I would love it. I’ll happily approve any photo you want to share here, too. It matters to me. Thanks!


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