87 Denslowe Drive

Dale Fehringer

© Copyright 2011 by Dale Fehringer 


Photo of the house at 87 Denslowe Drive.

It feels strange sitting in this quiet little house at 87 Denslowe Drive. I sense spirits here and I can feel them moving about -- going from room to room, putting things away, cleaning. A sense of orderliness remains, and I get the feeling that everything is exactly where it is supposed to be.

There’s also a sense of permanence in this two-bedroom, one-bath, stucco house in the western part of San Francisco. It has had only two occupants since it was built in the early 1940s as part of the Lakeside residential neighborhood, between 19th Avenue and Junipero Serra Boulevard. The Harlows were the second family to live in it when they moved here in 1951; Walt senior, his wife, Alice, and their only child, 28-year-old Walt junior. It was the Harlow’s home for the next 60 years.

Except for the exterior paint, the houses look alike on Denslowe Drive; a long row of narrow two-story brick homes; each with a postage-stamp-size front yard, one-car attached garage, and shingle roof. Inside, the floor plans are nearly identical; a narrow living room, dining room, and kitchen on the first floor, and two bedrooms and a bathroom on the second floor. Slender walkways lead to the side door and back yard, which overlook the houses the next street over. The “M” Muni line is a couple of blocks away, and shopping on Ocean Avenue and Stonestown is within walking distance. This wasn’t luxury living, but the yards and garages must have seemed deluxe to people who moved here from downtown apartments or boarding houses.

During their six decades in the house, the Harlows tended it with loving care; painting it white with turquoise shutters, building a white picket fence around the front yard, and adding a decorative hedge in the back. They became acquainted with the neighbors and visited with them while walking and working in the yard. They hosted dinner parties and played cards with friends from work and Masonic Lodge families, and built shelves in the garage and filled a workshop with tools, ladders, and paint cans.

Walt senior died in 1978, and his things were stored in the crawl space under the house.

Walt junior remained in the home to take care of his mother, who developed Alzheimer’s and behaved erratically toward the end. Walt hired people to stay with her while he was at work, and he cared for his domineering mother at night and on the weekends. There’s a rumor she used to wander the streets in various stages of undress, and Walt built a metal cage over the stove to keep his mother from turning it on and burning herself or the house.

Alice died in 1983, and her things were added to the crawl space under the house.

Shortly after Alice’s death Walt asked Elsa, his fiancé of 17 years, to marry him, and she moved her things into the little house. Walt was 65 and Elsa was 72. Their wedding day was undoubtedly the happiest of their lives, and I’m sure the little house was pleased to host the newly-married couple.

Walt and Elsa were very happy, and the atmosphere in the little stucco house must have been cheerful. Elsa cooked and painted still-life’s, and Walt maintained their home. They invited friends over, went for long walks, and asked neighbors to watch their house when they traveled. Walt and Elsa travelled all over the world, and Walt took thousands of photos during their trips and hung some of the best on the walls of the house, along with Elsa’s paintings. They are still there, and they help tell the story of that happy era.

After ten very happy years together, Elsa developed a heart condition and she grew increasingly weaker and died. Her things went in the crawl space beneath the house, next to those of Walt senior and Alice.

The little house must have mourned her death and the next few years must have been gloomy, but Walt stayed and continued to care for his house. He began to follow a strict routine of household chores; scrubbing the kitchen on Monday, spiffing up the living and dining rooms on Tuesday, cleaning the upstairs on Wednesday, doing laundry on Thursday, and shopping and paying bills on Friday. The weekends were spent outside (weather permitting) mowing, trimming, painting, and whatever else needed doing. The quiet little house was meticulously cared for.

Walt died in his beloved home at 87 Denslowe Drive this February. We’ll probably never know what caused his death. He was 87 years old, so it was likely old age that killed him, but three months before he died he was knocked to the ground when the doors of a Muni train closed on him while he was trying to get off after going downtown to see the Christmas lights. He broke two ribs in the fall and bruised his throat. He had trouble swallowing from then on, and he would occasionally choke while trying to eat. But he stayed in his little house and continued to care for it as best he could. He died in the upstairs bedroom of the little house that was such an important part of his life.

Except for Walt’s things and the spirits, the little house at 87 Denslowe Drive now seems hollow. There’s a lot of history here, embedded in the threadbare furniture, bits and pieces of china, and yellowing photo albums. Unfortunately, much of the history will be lost when the little house is emptied of the Harlow belongings.

I’m sure the house is curious about who will move in next. Whoever it is, they will find a cozy little house with a lot of wonderful memories.

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