by Arnold Genthe
ONE of the great social events of the opera season in the spring of 1906
was the joint appearance of Enrico Caruso and Olive Fremstad in
Carmen. A large and enthusiastic audience filled the house for this
gala occasion. it was the night of April 17th. After a quiet supper party
with some friends, I walked home and went to bed with the music of
Carmen still singing in my ears. It seemed as if I had scarcely been
asleep when I was awakened by a terrifying sound
An ominous quiet followed. I was about to get up when I found Hamada,
my Japanese servant, standing beside me. An earthquake was, of course, no
new experience for him, but now he looked thoroughly frightened and was
as pale as a Japanese can be. "Master," he said, "very bad
I went to the top floor to see what had happened to my studio. The chimney
had fallen through the roof, most of the book shelves had collapsed and the
books were buried under mounds of plaster from the wall and ceiling. A
The streets presented a weird appearance, mother and children in their
nightgowns, men in pajamas and dinner coat, women scantily dressed with
evening wraps hastily thrown over them. Many ludicrous sights met the
eye: an old lady carrying a large bird cage with four kittens inside, while
the original occupant. the parrot, perched on her hand; a man tenderly
holding a pot of calla lilies, muttering to himself; a scrub woman, in one
hand a new broom and in the other a large black hat with ostrich plumes; a
man in an old-
After wandering about for a while, I went to the house of some dear
friends of mine, Milton and Mabel Bremer (she is now married to my old
friend Bertram Alanson). I found them calmly sitting on the front steps.
The one thing that Mabel was apparently most anxious to save was a pair of
We decided that it would be a good idea to have some breakfast and went to the St. Francis Hotel which had not been damaged. When we arrived we saw that we were not the only ones who had had the brilliant idea of breakfasting there, The lobby and the dining room were crowded. Near the entrance we saw Enrico Caruso with a fur coat over his pajamas, smoking a cigarette and muttering, " 'Ell of a place! 'Ell of a place!" He had been through many earthquakes in his native Italy but this one was too much for him. It appeared that when he was awakened by the shock, he had tried his vocal cords without success. 'Ell of a place! I never come back here." And he never did.
Inside the hotel, people in all kinds of attire from evening clothes to nightgowns went milling about. There was no gas or electricity, but somehow hot coffee was available which, with bread and butter and fruit, made a satisfying breakfast. When I asked the waiter for a check he announced with a wave of his hand, "No charge today, sir. Everyone is welcome as long as things hold out."
After seeing my friends home, I went back to my studio to get a camera. The one thought uppermost in my mind was not to bring some of my possessions to a place of safety but to make photographs of the scenes I had been witnessing, the effects of the earthquake and the beginning of the conflagration that had started in various parts of the city. I found that my hand cameras had been so damaged by the falling plaster as to be rendered useless. I went to Montgomery Street to the shop of George Kahn, my dealer, and asked him to lend me a camera. "Take anything you want. This place is going to burn up anyway." I selected the best small camera, a 3A Kodak Special. I stuffed my pockets with films and started out. It was only then that I began to realize the extent of the disaster which had befallen the city. The fire had started simultaneously in many different places when the housewives had attempted to get breakfast for their families, not realizing what a menace the ruined chimneys were. All along the skyline as far as eye could see, clouds of smoke and flames were bursting forth. The work of the fire department was badly hampered, as the water mains had burst.
By this time the city had been put under martial law with General Funston in supreme command. He decided to check the progress of the conflagration by dynamiting a block in advance of the fire in order to create a breach over which the flames could not leap. All day and night the detonations resounded in one's ears and yet the fire continued to make headway. By noon the whole town was in flight. Thousands were moving toward the ferry hoping to get across the bay to Oakland or Alameda. On all streets leading to Golden Gate Park, there was a steady stream of men, women and children. Since all wagons or automobiles had been commandeered by the military authorities, only makeshift vehicles were available. Baby carriages and toy wagons, carts constructed out of boxes and wheels, were used to transport groceries, kitchen utensils, clothes and blankets; trunks mounted on roller skates or even without them were being dragged along by ropes. No one who witnessed these scenes can ever forget the rumbling noise of the trunks drawn along the sidewalks-a sound to which the detonations of the blasting furnished a fitting contrapuntal accompaniment.
Farther out on Geary and Sutter Streets, men and women cooked on improvised stoves on the sidewalks and as the crowds passed they called out invitations to stop for a rest and a cup of coffee. Up on the hill the wealthy were taking strangers into their homes, regardless of any risk they were running. I recall the picture of Henry J. Crocker laughing heartily as he carried the pails of water from the faucet in his garden to a little iron stove, probably one of his children's toys, set up by the curb in front of his red stone mansion.
I have often wondered, thinking back, what it is in the mind of the individual that so often makes him feel himself immune to the disaster that may be going on all around him. So many whom I met during the day seemed completely unconscious that the fire which was spreading through the city was bound to overtake their own homes and possessions. I know that this was so with me. All morning and through the early afternoon I wandered from one end of the city to the other, taking pictures without a thought that my studio was in danger.
As I was passing the home of some friends on Van Ness Avenue, they were on the porch and called out, "Come in and have a drink." While we were raising our glasses, there occurred another shock. Everyone but my hostess and I ran outside. "Let us finish anyway," she said.
"Sure," I said, giving her as a toast the line from Horace, "And even if the whole world should collapse, he will stand fearless among the falling ruins."
On my way to the Bohemian Club I met Charles K. Field. "You dummy," he said. "What are you doing here? Don't you know that your house is going to be blown up?" As was the first time I had thought of such a possibility. Turning back I hurried up Sutter Street to find a militiaman guarding the entrance of my studio.
"You can't get in here," he said, handling his rifle in an unpleasant manner. "But it's my home," I said.
"I don't care whether it is or not. Orders are to clear all houses in the block. If you don't do as I say, I shoot, see?"
There were rumors that some of the militia, drunk with liquor and power, had been shooting people. I did not want to argue with him, but I did want to get inside, with the hope that I might save a few of my things.
"How about a little drink?" I asked.
"Well, all right," he replied eagerly.
In my cellar I had been keeping a precious bottle
The fire raged all the next day and well into the morning after, when it was
stopped at Van Ness Avenue, which was wide enough to break the spread
of the flames. Ten square miles lay devastated with hardly a building intact.
In some parts of the city dynamiting continued and the crash of toppling
walls could still be heard.
In the houses no cooking was permitted; it had to be done on stoves put up on the sidewalks. Water was rationed to be used only for drinking and cooking purposes. Not more than one lamp or candle was permitted in each home. It had to be out by eight o'clock and those who had no business to attend to were obliged to stay indoors. Military patrols on all streets saw that these rules were carried out, and over a period of many weeks of this mode of improvised living, there was not a complaint of neglect or an instance of wrongdoing.
During the day, piling bricks became the enforced pastime of pedestrians. Any man walking through the burned district was likely to be stopped by a soldier or marine and ordered to do his share. Several times while I was out taking pictures, I was put to work.
Rebuilding started while the ruins were still smoking. On top of a heap of
collapsed walls, a sign would announce, "On this site will be erected a
In the Frank Cowderys' home on Maple Street and later on in the Octavia Street home of Dr. Millicent Cosgrave (whose friendship throughout these years has meant so much to me) I had found a haven of rest. For several weeks I did not concern myself with any thought of the future. I blithely continued to take photographs.
Of the pictures I had made during the fire, there are several, I believe, that will be of
lasting interest. There is
particularly the one scene that I recorded the morning of the first day of
the fire [along Sacramento Street, looking toward the Bay] which shows, in a
pictorially effective composition, the results of the earthquake, the
beginning of the fire and the attitude of the people. On the right is a house,
the front of which had collapsed into the street. The occupants are sitting
calmly watching the approach of the fire. Groups of people are standing in
the street, motionless, gazing at the clouds of smoke. When the fire crept
up close, they would just move up a block. It is hard to believe that such a
scene actually occurred in the way the photograph represents it. Several
people upon seeing it have exclaimed, "Oh, is that a still from a Cecil De
Mille picture?" To which the answer has been, "No. the director of this
scene was the Lord himself." A few months ago an interview about my
The ruins of Nob Hill became a rich field for my camera. All that remained standing of the Towne residence on California Street was the marble columned entrance. The picture I made of it by moonlight brought out its classic beauty. Charles K. Field found the title for it, "Portals of the Past," by which the portico is known today. It has been removed to Golden Gate Park where in a setting of cypresses it remains a noble monument to a noble past. Charles Rollo Peters made a large painting of it, using my photograph, for the Bohemian Club, and for once the photographer was given credit by a painter. Over his signature on the canvas he inscribed, "With thanks to Arnold Genthe."
On the other side of California Street, in front of the Huntington home, were two marble lions, the traditional commonplace guardians of a home of wealth. The terrific heat of the flames had broken off parts of the stone here and there, simplifying and ennobling their form, as a great sculptor might have done. Of another house all that remained were some chimneys and a foreground of steps. Beyond them was devastation with only the lights of the Mission District visible in the distance. It was another scene that had to be taken by moonlight so as to bring out its full significance. I called the picture "Steps That Lead to Nowhere."
The attitude of calmness of which I have spoken, the apparent indifference of the people who had lost everything, was perhaps not so much a proof of stoic philosophy that accepts whatever fate brings. I rather believe that the shock of the disaster had completely numbed our sensibilities. I know from my own experience that it was many weeks before I could feel sure that my mind reacted and functioned in a normal manner. If I had shown any sense, I might easily have saved some of the things I valued most-family papers, letters and photographs of my parents and brothers, books written by my closest relatives, and of course my more important negatives, which I could have carried away in a suitcase. As it was, practically everything I possessed had gone up in smoke.
To make my loss more complete, it happened that less than two years
before, all my family possessions, including my brother Siegfried's, had
been brought to San Francisco from Hamburg: the library of over three
thousand volumes, some two hundred of which had been written by
members of my family in the last century, several pieces of furniture
designed by my architect grandfather, family portraits painted by Gruson
in the eighteenth century. Since the death of my brother Siegfried, no
family ties had remained to hold me in Germany. As a correspondent for
the Cologne Gazette he had traveled all over the world, his last
assignment being Morocco, where he had been sent during the Buha-
I went to Germany in the summer of 1904
Among the many telegrams I received was one from Edward Sothern and
Julia Marlowe. "Now that you have lost everything," it read, "you should
come to New York. We will see that you find a fully equipped studio
waiting for you, so that you can start work without delay." It was
heartening and consoling to have this fine proof of real friendship. The
temptation was great, but I was not willing to leave San Francisco then. I
wanted to stay, to see the new city which would rise out of the ruins. I felt
that my place was there. I had something to contribute, even if only in a
small measure, to the rebuilding of the city. I started my search for a new
studio. It would take years before the business section would be rebuilt. No
one knew exactly just where the new center of the city was to be. Location
was unimportant. On Clay Street, not far from the gates of the Presidio I
discovered a picturesque one-