Friday, April 30, 2010

Fior d'Italia Celebrates 125th Anniversary Year in Authentic Italian Style

'We're just thrilled to be going into our 125th year,' said Bob Larive, owner of the Fior d'Italia.

Bob and his wife, Jinx, have owned the Fior for 20 years and as such are the newest keepers of over a century of history and tradition.

A tradition and record not only within San Francisco but for the whole of America as The Fior carries the flag for being the oldest continuously operating Italian restaurant in the country.

'I'm proud that we've been able to do that,' said Bob. Over the 125 years, only three groups of people have owned the restaurant. His days are steeped in history, with photos of his forebears and historic photos of the restaurant hanging all around the walls. And he's looking forward to the next 125 years, joking that he wouldn't be around for that celebration.

The Fior, he said, represents the 'veteran' San Franciscan restaurant, holding onto tradition with 'real Italian food, like grandma used to make.'  Every so often, a customer will comment that the food reminds them of their grandmother's cooking. 'Nothing makes my chef prouder,' said Bob.

Upholding authentic Italian cuisine in a competing market of what Bob describes as 'yuppie' restaurants, is obviously a challenge. Yuppie restaurants do 'funny things with the food', are popular for a year or two and then move on, he said. In the interim, they are affecting the city's traditional restaurants, some of whom have had to close. 'That's a shame,' he said.

The Fior also offers 'real service' with staff that 'stay with us forever,' he said. 'JC', and he pointed, had been working there for 32 years. There is not the same professionalism in restaurants that use college kids in training, he said. 

The enduring style of The Fior, said Bob, may be semi-formal with the waiters wearing tuxedos, but it is also 'a lot of fun.'

'It's casual in its own way,' he said.

Fun today it certainly was, with the restaurant crowded with people enjoying their Victorian celebration for as little as 5 cents or as much as 30 cents.

Chef Gianni Audieri couldn't agree more. Is he going to produce a signature dish for the anniversary?

Horror sweeps across his brow. 'I don't believe in signature dishes,' he said. Chef Gianni has been there for 25 years and his great love is for authentic Italian food.

pic with Bill Del Monte, the 104-year-old son of the founder of The Fior
Neither does he, when asked, recommend a favourite dish out of the 70 dishes on the menu. Always his reply is, 'You decide! It's your taste!'

Has this 72-year-old chef created any of the dishes on the menu, given them a personal twist?

'No, I try to stay traditional,' he said, abhorring modern experimentation like 'putting bananas in pasta!' His search and goal to stay true to the cooking of old Italy.

Of course, the menu has changed from its earliest days. The original menu featured frogs legs, but that was not on offer today. A lot of dishes, sweetbread - pancreas -  liver, kidneys have faded from the menu as 'most people do not accept it,' he said.

There is also much more meat as people can afford it now.

The Fior's cuisine is based on the traditional cooking of Genoa and Tuscany, northern regions of Italy that in the old days were wealthier than the south.

'North of Florence' , he explained, and you have the slightly richer egg pastas of cannelloni, lasagne, tagliatelle, ravioli and tortellini.

'South of Rome' and you have the pastas that are made with only flour and water, like spaghetti, linguini, macaroni. With one complication that confuses people, 'tagliatelle' is a northern name, and 'fettucini' is the same pasta with a southern name.

With the richer northern region, rice also became a starch staple, he added.

And authenticity means lightness of sauce: one ounce of pasta with one ounce of sauce, said Chef Gianni, not the American and British way of smothering pasta in sauce! If 150 calories becomes 1,500 calories, who's fault is that?! he said.

The Fior gradually over the years became one of San Francisco's top restaurants, but in the beginning it catered mostly for hungry, working men. Platters of salad and pasta would sit in the middle of the tables, the food plentiful when cents were not. They fed men toiling 12 hours a day, six days a week for $6, so that five cents for a meal was a lot of money, said Chef Gianni.

Chef Gianni has had a rich and varied culinary experience, cooking around the world. He began in kitchens when he was only 16-years-old, and his talent was spotted. He was sent to culinary school and afterwards went to Lausanne to both cook and learn French. He has worked in Germany, Italy, England - including the Regency Hotel in Piccadilly - and on a cruise ship, emigrating to New York at the end of 1960.

After nine years in New York, he went to the Carribean, Miami, South America, including Venezuela, and LA, where for a while he owned his own restaurant with a partner. When his restaurant went through difficult times, he had an offer to work at The Fior.

'I said, "what the hell is the Fior d'Italia!' he recounted. But once he saw the restaurant and the beauty of San Francisco, he was hooked. Love blossomed not only in the kitchens and the city. He met and married his wife, Trudy, who was the restaurant's office manager, and today they have two boys, 'who are not cooking!' said Chef Gianni with a smile.

With Bob and Jinx and Chef Gianni, history and tradition will continue to be celebrated and upheld for future generations.

Fior d'Italia Celebrates 125th Anniversary Year with 104-year-old Bill Del Monte

Seated in a vintage Surrey pulled by groomed horses this morning was 104-year-old Bill Del Monte, survivor of the 1906 Great Earthquake and Fire, and youngest son of the founder of the Fior d'Italia that today launched its 125th anniversary year celebrations.

Back on his head, his trademark tan tam o'shanter with its red and blue stripes instead of the commemorative fireman's helmet with which he was presented only two weeks ago at the annual earthquake commemoration. He didn't wear the helmet today as 'it looked too heavy!' he said.

Bill was guest of honour at today's party, riding through the North Beach streets with family members and Senator Mark Leno, and escorted by the Sheriff's Mounted Posse.

Inside the restaurant he sat in a private area with friends and family, while customers filled the front part to enjoy their Victorian-priced lunch entrees. Behind him, a historic mural, thought to be of scenes of Tuscany and Umbria with the church of St Francis of Assisi, the painter unknown.

Throughout the restaurant are historic photos of his family, staff, the different buildings that have housed The Fior, and reflections of old San Francisco. Today, the Fior is inside the San Remo Hotel on Mason Street.
pic of publicist Lee Houskeeper of San Francisco Stories, Bill, and neices Barbara Del Monte and Janette Barroca

Bill was born in January 1906, three months before the earthquake, in an apartment behind the restaurant. The paradox of it being a family restaurant was that it origins began in what was nicknamed the Barbary Coast, an area around North Beach infamous for saloons, opium and gambling dens, and brothels that served local San Franciscans, sailors, and farm-hands and miners of the gold rush.

Bill's father came to California for the gold rush but turned to food instead. Settling in North Beach with many other Italian immigrants, he helped establish the area that became known as 'Little Italy.'

photo of Bill's brothers and sister and parents: Attilio, Eva, Angelo and Assunta, Eugene, Guido, and Bill in front beside his mother.

As a young man, Bill helped in the restaurant. 'I was a hat-check boy', he said. As family do, he worked without a salary but enjoyed the tips until the service was franchised out, and Bill's services were no longer wanted. They hired two good-looking girls instead, he said with a grin. And that was the end, for he never worked in the kitchens or waited at tables.

However, he did enjoy the food! His favourite dish was veal made by one particular cook. He described the oval plate with the veal surrounded by sliced potatoes. 'I have never tasted it like that since, I don't know what he did....the herbs he used,' he said. In those days, he added, they had very young veal as the calves were slaughtered earlier than they are today.

He was looking forward to a veal lunch again.

Like Bill, The Fior, has travelled through a century and beyond, somehow managing to survive through a formidable array of events of natural disasters of earthquakes and fire, the politics of Prohibition, the Great Wall Street crash and Depression, two World Wars and recessions.

However, Bill has no memories of his father, Angelo, talking about any particular difficulty. And it seems that when the restaurant was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake, his father just got on with the business of rebuilding the business.
pic of owner Bob Larive and the private party area for family and friends

'He enjoyed meeting people,' is what Bill remembers about him. There was a table reserved at lunchtimes for members of the upper society, like Amadeo Giannin, founder of the Bank of Italy before it became Bank of America. 'A lot of business was transacted at that table,' said Bill.

Asked again what his secret was of not just living to 104 years but of being so active - could it be all that veal and pasta? - he said, 'I don't know. I've been lucky, I've lived through the most eventful century in history.'

Never before or since have so many things been invented, he said. Automobiles, just two years before he was born, radios, electricity, TV and internet, were a few of what he listed.

He is continuing to make history, escorted through the streets in vintage vehicles. When will be his next celebrity appearance? He laughed, he's not expecting any more, but as the living embodiment of over a century of San Francisco's history, this is probably not the last occasion.

How does he feel being such a rich part of San Franciscan history?

'I love that, it's nice,' he said.

Fior d'Italia Launches 125th Anniversary Year with Original Victorian Menu at Original Prices

Inside the Fior d'Italia restaurant today, it is May 1, 1886. And with veal, chicken, beef and pasta on the menu for no more than 30 cents, diners were wrapped around the side of the building by late morning like spaghetti around a fork!

The Fior is celebrating the launch of its 125th anniversary year by throwing open its doors to customers with a sample menu of its original dishes at the same Victorian prices.

Star diner was 104-year-old Bill Del Monte, youngest son of Angelo Del Monte, founder of The Fior. Bill was paraded down the street in a vintage Surrey accompanied by the Sheriff's Mounted Posse at 11 am. Accompanying him were family members and State Senator Mark Leno.

Alighting from the carriage, Senator Leno presented commemorative diplomas on behalf of the Senate to Bill and current owners, Bob and Jinx Larive. Bill's diploma was a delayed honour in appreciation of him being the sole attending survivor at the 1906 Great Earthquake and Fire ceremony two weeks ago.

Senator Leno said he had been unable to attend the ceremony at Lotta's Fountain due to being at a party conference.

He then congratulated them on the anniversary and the achievement of the Fior being the oldest continuously operating Italian restaurant in the USA.

With the prices on the menu today, he quipped, 'I would love to be able to roll back the State deficit to 1886!'

Paying tribute, he said, 'This is San Francisco and North Beach history,'  and the various owners were 'modern-day pioneers' who had endured many hardships including fires, earthquakes, depressions and recessions.

At the doors of the Fior, were the earliest arrivals who had wanted to make sure of their celebratory lunch.

First to arrive had been Michael at 8.45 am followed at around 9 am by Lin, Marianne and their friend, Michael, joined later by Richard.

What had brought Michael so enthusiastically to the door? 'The prices!' he said, waving a print-out of the menu. His choice was the veal.

Lin said she was there 'Just for the festivities. It's going to be a fun day,' and Marianne had made it because her neighbour had slipped an article about the party under her door. They were opting for the Veal Saute or the Eggplant Parmigiana, and Michael, the Tortellini with Meat Sauce.

Richard, who was after the Roast Sirloin, appreciated the reputation of the Fior.  'I've always known this restaurant, it's been here for years.' he said. But at the forefront of all their minds was 'It's the prices!'

Pic: Richard, Michael, Lin, Marianne and, first to arrive, Michael.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Fior d'Italia Celebrates 125th Anniversary Year with Original Menu and 104-year-old Bill Del Monte

America's oldest Italian restaurant, the Fior d'Italia, celebrates its 125th anniversary year on Friday - serving lunch dishes from their earliest menu at the original Victorian prices, and with guest of honour 104-year-old Bill del Monte, San Francisco's most active 1906 earthquake and fire survivor, whose father founded the restaurant.

The day will be one of historical pageantry and the reliving of memories handed down the generations. Bill, who now lives across the Bay, will ride to the restaurant in a vintage Surrey, escorted by the Sheriff's Mounted Posse. He is due to arrive at 11 am at the restaurant in the San Remo Hotel on Mason Street.

Also at the heart of the celebrations will be the Fior's owners, Bob and Jinx Larive, Chef Gianni Audieri and State Senator Mark Leno.

Bill's father, Angelo Del Monte, founded the restaurant that opened on May 1, 1886, and this event marks the launch of the 125th anniversary year. Bill was born in the back of the restaurant in January 1906, just three months before the restaurant was destroyed in the Great Earthquake and Fire

Among the offerings, to which the public are invited, are veal sauté for 5 cents, chicken parmigiana for 10 cents, eggplant parmigiana for 20 cents and, if you really want to splash out, roast sirloin for 30 cents. 

But diners only have between 11 pm and 4 pm to enjoy this celebration and it will be on a 'first come first served' basis!

The Fior held similar revelries on their 100th and 110th anniversaries.

'In the past the public celebrated these anniversary events with much gusto -- which is why we are expecting the same enthusiastic throngs this 125th year,' said owner Bob Larive, in a press release from Lee Houskeeper of San Francisco Stories.

Despite the contraction of the hospitality industry during the present recession, the storied Fior d'Italia remains a perennial draw featuring the fine Northern Italian offerings that made San Francisco's Italian cuisine famous.  

'We have survived fires, earthquakes, Prohibition, a depression and several recessions, two World Wars and are still here and looking forward to our next 125 years,' said Bob.

'We're very proud of our authentic Northern Italian cuisine and our culinary tradition,' said Chef Gianni Audieri, 'And through it all we've remained true to our Northern Italian cuisine using the best of seasonal quality ingredients.'  

Popular dishes, said Chef Gianni, are the Calamari, Gnocchi, Osso Bucco, Veal entrée's, and Caesar Salad, which customers rate as “The City's best."

When the Fior d' Italia first opened its doors, great sailing ships packed San Francisco's harbor, goats roamed Telegraph Hill and the Barbary Coast was a rough and tumble district, writes Lee Houskeeper.

 “The Fior” catered to the growing Italian community and achieved universal recognition as San Francisco's most elegant dining spot.  After the great earthquake and fire of 1906 destroyed the Fior, it was soon back in business in a tent and then in a new building.  This location and the next were the site of numerous banquets sponsored by Italian social and fraternal organizations and many family and social events for locals and visitors to the city.

In 1953, the Fior located directly across from Washington Square Park.  However, on Valentine's Day 2005, a fire forced a move to the historic San Remo Hotel at 2237 Mason Street.

The colourful history of the Fior d'Italia, from its founding families, the history of Italian immigrants and San Francisco, including the 1906 Great Earthquake and Fire, to its food and recipes by Chef Gianni Audieri, can be read online. The book, 'The fabulous Fior', with many historic photos, has been written by San Franciscan journalist Francine Brevetti, the granddaughter of Alberto Puccetti, a waiter and part-owner of the Fior over 100  years ago. Alberto's starring role in the history was to be outside the restaurant as it was closing in the early hours of the morning of April 18, 1906, having earlier that night served tenor Enrico Caruso, when the Great Earthquake struck. 

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Bouquets to Art Attracts Hundreds at the de Young Museum on Opening Day

Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but so,
too, is interpretation!

Amidst the artistry and inspiration of the Bouquets to Art exhibition at the de Young Museum this week, there was plenty of fun, creativity, and a little division among the visitors!

Peggy from Napa was not the only one to pose with a new hat.

'I love the colours and the way they use a succulent for the elevated captures it almost completely,' she said.

She was with her sister, Joy, from Sacramento, who had brought Peggy for her first visit to the  exhibition. But this was only Joy's second visit. 'I lived in San Francisco for years and years and years and never came here. I had to move to Sacramento to see it!' she said.

The hat was a Victorian recreation by Ron Morgan of Berkeley, and accompanied Louise Beatrice de Fonblanque's 'Portrait of a Woman.'
'Isn't this a great idea for a room divider!' said Jeanne of Burlingame, admiring the finite detail crafted in natural materials, strands of ivy and flowers flowing down the sides.

The titled 'Metamorphosis - Life - Repetition - Reflexion - Art' bore a philosophical resemblance but not a pictorial one with Victorian artist, Eadweard Muybridge. The artist, famed for his part-scientific studies on animal and human movement, was shown in strips of miniature Freeze Frame photos going through the motions of sitting and standing second by second.

Jeanne's eye saw an altogether other purpose: a graceful addition to her home. No doubt Svenja Brotz of Chestnut and Vine Floral Design would be happy to engage in repetition and reflexion of his own!

One of the largest pieces in the exhibition was itself a symbol of division.

It stretched for several feet in front of Irving Norman's interpretation of 'War and Peace' - 'the ruthlessness of capitalism and the alienation of urban America', giving its audience plenty to muse over as they peered all around it.

The work was by a group of Sausalito artists,
R.Space, Shannon Patillo, Trisha Olson and Eric Olson.

Romantic entwinement, however, filled the minds of Stephanie and Hannah from Modesto as they gazed at Natalie Bowen's vibrant floral arms.

They envisioned the red flora curled into monograms of a bride and groom, and displayed as a dramatic centre-piece at a wedding celebration.

Mirroring the distinctive red swirls, Natalie, of Natalie Bowen Designs, had produced  'An interpretation of the artist's palette and form', matching an etching with scraping and burnishing of William T. Wiley's 'Now Who's Got the Blueprints.'

Her creation was quite an inspiration, producing this interactive display from Joy, sister of Peggy in the green hat above! - pic by Peggy

Miguel Covarrubias' wall-sized painting depicting the fauna and flora of the Pacific Ocean provided a naturally beautiful backdrop. Before it, a bowl overflowing with richly coloured, exotic flowers.

As one observer read out loud the floral designer's aim, 'to interpret a lush and colourful diversity of the Pacific Rim and Pacific Ocean, with a wide range of colours, shape, texture,' another exclaimed in appreciation, 'Well he did that, that's for sure!'

The display was created by Catherine Matsuyo Tompkison-Graham of the Tompkison Group, San Jose.

'Oh that's fabulous, in conjunction with the picture!' cried a lady in a yellow jacket springing into action with her camera.

Her eyes had fallen on a display that was receiving a lot of popular acclaim. In the painting were two young girls in old-style bathing suits - Two Bathers - by David Park, a pioneer in the San Francisco Abstract Expressionist Movement.
On a stand, a floral repetition that perfectly captured the colours and freedom of movement within the painting.

'Taking a "painteely" approach celebrating the figure, color, the artist and painting,' said Phyllis A. Brady and Joe Brady of the Twigs and Ivy Floral Studio in San Ramon, creative in vocabulary also.

This vision in pink drew admiring glances instantly. 'This is very pretty!' commented one lady.

However, while the appreciation was unanimous, there was
a light-hearted discussion among some over which portrait was the focus: the elegant lady on the left, who wore ivory floral decorations on her dress and in her hair that matched some of the flowers, or the younger girl in pink.

The answer was in the pink! It was Frederick Childe Hassam's Easter Morning (Portrait at a New York Window), and not John Singer Sargeant's painting, recreated by Judy Cochran Ward of Novato.

Bouquets to Arts opened on Monday with a gala event for members and invited guests, and threw open its doors to the public on Tuesday. Friday is Hat Day, a hat competition, and throughout the week are floral lectures and demonstrations. The last day is Saturday.

'Now in its 26th year, Bouquets to Art has attracted nearly 550,000 visitors and raised over $4.52 million in net proceeds, which have been used to fund an impressive roster of special exhibitions, art acquisitions, educational programs, and special projects at the Legion of Honor and the de Young Museum,' said the museum's press release.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Bouquets to Art Opens at de Young Museum

 Floral artistry at its best is once again on display at the de Young Museum in the annual exhibition of Bouquets to Art.

About 150 top floral designers from around the region have created original designs to match artwork in the museum in the Golden Gate Park.

The displays are visually breathtaking, an exuberance of colour, life and art that uplift people's spirits as they stand and admire, and photograph the exhibits.

Cameras as well as blooms were in abundance on  Tuesday at the 26th annual exhibition. Hundreds of people had poured in soon after the doors opened at 9.30 am.

 'This is one of the best in the entire show!' opined Ann, from the Bay Area, joining a cluster of viewers around a large stand surrounded top and sides with vibrant flowers mixed with twists of wood and iron.

It was reflecting a colourful abstract of fused glass by Klaus Moje, 'Untitled' (#7) - pictured far left

Ann's appreciation was for 'the overall use of the materials including the arrangement, which is highly creative. It's a formidable, artistic creation,' she said, listing both soft and exotic flowers, iron and wood.

Equally complimentary was Sue, living north of San Francisco. 'Every inch of that has flowers on it and it must have taken forever to put it together. It's so compacted and (there are) so many designs in it. It has a 360-degree view, which is different from every angle,' she said.

Another lady walking past simply exclaimed out loud, 'Mmm, THAT is something!

Designers Bloomster's of San Jose had achieved success!

The artwork that the designers illustrated reflected a wide range of styles from abstract to classical, the Old Masters taking deeper colours, and also including themes of life and history.

The jazz of Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Louis Armstrong were behind this 'trumpet blast of gold to celebrate this uniquely American Music.'

The music itself an inspiration from a 'Jazz' punch bowl, circa 1931, the work of Viktor Schreckengost, pioneer of American industrial design.

Floral designers were Constance Shrecengost of Sunshine Flowers of the Bay Area, and co-exhibitor Jennifer Capra of Martinez.

Jacob Lawrence's 1947 painting, 'Migration', depicted African Americans with their suticases leaving the south, and heading northwards with hope towards a changed America.

For floral artists Savage Rose and Marian Lebrun, their piece was 'foreshadowing the bright change these individuals are about to gain in their lives....'

'The flowers bursting from confined objects, such as a suitcase and hat, expresses the surge of energy and perseverance these individuals had while travelling towards their goal of freedom,' they wrote.

In the modern art gallery, sculptor Nick Cave's spangled Soundsuit found it had a glittery counterpart, both of which attracted much attention.

Cave, who is also a trained dancer, named the Soundsuits for the noises they make when worn for performances. So Constance Oakson of the Empire of Flora, Los Altos Hills, made a replica of a suit for Cave.

The entrance to many of the galleries is through Wilsey Court, a large open space which each year a designer is invited to fill with an extravagantly-sized display.

This year it hosts a purple extravaganza of trailing silk ribbons with flowers at the ends. Close up, the effect is beautiful, light catching the different shades, the creation of acclaimed Bay Area floral designer, Orna Maymon of Ornamento.

Around the exhibition, many people reflected a love of colour and artistry in their clothing. None more so than craft artists Tarra, her mother, Virginia, and father, Mort, who posed for photos several times.

'We love dressing up for Bouquets to Art because it's all about the colouring and bringing joy to life,' said Tarra.

The exhibition shows that 'we can all be colourful and unique and alive, and that it's such a joy to create and express. It's kind of like the inner child that is free,' she said.

'May we all blossom this spring in the rainbow of life!'

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Gold Fire Hydrant Ceremonially Resprayed for 104th Anniversary of Great Earthquake and Fire

A lone fire hydrant in San Francisco was ceremonially resprayed gold today, each burst of paint representing a memory of someone who fought to save the Mission District from a raging inferno or who died in the 1906 earthquake and fire.

The golden hydrant is honoured each year for being the only hydrant to supply water on the perilous night of Friday, April 20, two days after the earthquake struck.
Some 3,000 volunteers fought through the night and saved the Mission District west of 20th Street, along with the historic adobe Mission church that had been completed in 1791.

Only because the hydrant at the top of Dolores Park allowed water to flow from it.

*pics show the rescued Mission church which was only slightly damaged with the brick church beside it. The brick church was rebuilt and became a basilica.

The gold paint-spraying is part of the 104th anniversary commemoration of the 1906 Great Earthquake and Fire. It takes place immediately after the wreath-laying ceremony at Lotta's Fountain on Market Street. By just after 5.30 am about 200 people had assembled.

The cavalcade bearing guest of honour, 104-year-old survivor Bill Del Monte and members of his family arrived and a piper in Scottish kilt played, as the piper had done at the fountain. Bill was escorted to the hydrant where he opened the spraying ceremony.

After him was John Greenberg, accompanied by his son, whose family foundry, M. Greensberg's Sons, had made the doughty hydrant.

Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White sprayed on behalf of Fire Chief Dennis Sullivan, who was injured in the earthquake and died a few days later. 'There would have been a different outcome had he remained as the Chief,' she said.                                       
 She highlighted the need of massive State finance to upgrade the city's water supplies, the subject of Prop B on this year's election ballot, and paid tribute to members of NERT (Neighbourhood Emergency Response Team), volunteers who are training residents to prepare for the next great quake - pic of Edie Schaffer, Coordinator Chair of the NERT Advisory Board (lt) with colleagues and ten-year-old Jade

And then came the turn of Bill's family members including a number of young great-neices and nephews. Six-year-old Nina was hoisted high, but when the moment came for her to name who she was spraying for, she couldn't remember and needed a little help!

Perhaps it was the number of 'greats'....Great Great Uncle Bill!

Bill's niece, Janette Barroca sprayed on behalf of Bill's parents for rescuing the family from the fire. 'I give them a lot of credit that Bill is here today.'

There were others: Assistant Police Chief Kevin Cashman, on behalf of a family member who was a firefighter at the time. Born in 1899, Vincent Cashmere went straight from the traumas of World War l into the fire department, and found himself facing the worst national disaster ever to hit America.

James Dalessandro, author of the novel '1906' that was turned into a film and was being screened later that morning at the Westin St Francis - a story of political intrigue with the earthquake and fire as the backdrop - said of the scale of the disaster, 'It didn't have to happen.'

Ironically, he went on, Fire Chief Dennis Sullivan had been due to attend a meeting to campaign for upgraded water supplies at the time of the earthquake, just as San Francisco today faces the same issue. James praised Chief Joanne Hayes-White 'who really gets it' when it comes to the needs of the city. And sprayed on behalf of the brave firefighters in 1906 who went 'without food, without rest, without water.'

Children, too, joined in, on behalf of the 'brave firefighters.' Six-year-old Rory has 'done this every year since he was one,' said his mother, Megan.

As the painting continued with members of the community, the sun sprayed morning light over everyone, and Bill Del Monte and the cavalcade made ready to depart.

Bill sat in the passenger seat, still wearing his commemorative 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire Survivor Award fire helmet, and declared he was 'fine.'

Had he enjoyed the ceremonies?

'Yes, thank you,' he said, with a smile and a wave as the vintage car pulled away to take him to a well-deserved Bloody Mary breakfast at Lefty O'Douls.
(breakfast pic by Liane Corrales)


see more photos by Chris on flickr:

*Historic pics are part of a private collection of Ron Ross, founder and president of the San Francisco History Association. Ron first published his photos in a souvenir edition for the 75th anniversary, and again for the 100th anniversary

104th Anniversary of 1906 Great Earthquake and Fire Commemorated at Lotta's Fountain

Those who died in the 1906 Great Earthquake and Fire, and those who survived and lived to rebuild San Francisco from the ashes, were honoured at 5.12 am this morning.

About 300 people gathered at Lotta's Fountain to applaud guest of honour and survivor, 104-year-old Bill Del Monte, and to participate in a wreath laying ceremony and moment of silence.

Bill and members of his family travelled in the back of an open-topped vintage car from the Westin St Francis in Union Square, flanked in a small cavalcade by modern and vintage fire trucks and with police outriders. (Photo by Bob David)
As they arrived at Lotta's Fountain in the dark at about 5 am, the San Francisco German Association Band struck up. They were greeted with applause from the crowd, many in costume, recreating the atmosphere of the early 1900s and during the ceremony Bill was formally welcomed and thanked for his appearance.

As Bill sat tucked in the passenger seat, gone from his head was his familiar tan tam o'shanter. Instead, he wore a commemorative fireman's helmet with a badge inscribed '1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire Survivor Award.'

It is the first such award ever given, and Bill received it last night at the Survivors' Dinner.

San Francisco Chronicle writer, Carl Nolte, conjured up an image of the devastation of the quake and fire in which four square miles of the city burnt to ashes and 3,000 people died. San Franciscans used to say that if they stood in town long enough, they would see everyone they knew, he said.

He was thankful that no-one left but chose to remain, and said, 'if you want to seek their  monument....look around you.'

The event was supported by the police and fire departments and those involved in emergency management who are urging the city to prepare for the next big disaster. Police Captain Al Casciato said people must 'never forget' the lessons learned from the disaster, and  'never lose sight of' the lessons learned from every national disaster.

Before the official moment of silence and wreath laying, event organizer Lee Houskeeper asked for a special moment of silence for Taren Sapienza who died last year and who for over 25 years had worked to keep the commemoration alive. Taren had taken on the mantle from her father, Leo Sapienza, the last president of the South of Market Boys who began to hold an annual remembrance at Lotta's Fountain in 1919.

After the silence, Lee reminded the crowd that water was now flowing from the fountain once again, due to former Mayor, Willie Brown, and his first campaign promise to restore it. 'He didn't know how bad a shape it was in, but he did it. He kept his promise,' said Lee.

Then 5.12 am approached - 'not 5.11, not 5.13, and not 6.12!'  said Lee in reference to the debate over the precise time of the quake and the issue of daylight saving time. Leading the observance of a minute's silence, he said it was for 'these wonderful San Franciscans who rebuilt our city from the ashes.'

The silence ended, a city siren sent an eerie wail out into the darkness, a bell clanged from a vintage fire truck, the sirens of modern fire trucks blared and, next, a lone piper played Amazing Grace while Captain Casciato layed the wreath at the foot of Lotta's Fountain.

With the solemnities over, the band struck up a rousing 'San Francisco' with which the crowd joined in. Cherie Oliver, who has been attending the ceremony for 25 years, voluntarily took over the mic.

Now living in Redwood City, she said, 'I fell in love with San Francisco when I came here in 1972.' She now views through 'new eyes' the courage of the 1906 survivors, she said, having experienced the 1989 quake that caused great damage to parts of the city.

'If it had been me, I would have got out,' she said. Her imagination took her to 1906 and nightmarish scenes of the fire  chasing people down the street with everyone rushing to get on boats and sail across the bay.

It was the courage of parents to bring their children back to a burnt out city that impressed her the most.

Deborah, who also lives outside of San Francisco, has been attending for 23 years 'to honour the people that died here, and to remember fondly the people that came back to the city again.' What impressed her was that within nine years, the city was able to host a world fair.

In elegant costume, Krista Slanker was there with another purpose. As a member of the Department of Emergency Management, she said, 'It's just a great opportunity to commemorate a very important event for San Francisco,' and which serves as a reminder 'of being prepared for the next emergency,' she said.

There was one dissenting voice to the occasion. A member of the public complained that the organizers had not got their watches set properly and that the moment of silence had occurred a couple of minutes too early!

Whatever the accuracy to a minute, time was pressing for Bill Del Monte and his cavalcade, the official attendees and others wishing to attend the paint spraying ceremony of the heroic, gold fire hydrant at the top of Dolores Park.

In the darkness, they were soon heading for the Mission District.

for more photos, flickr stream by Chris:

Saturday, April 17, 2010

104-Year-Old Bill Del Monte Honoured with First-Ever 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire Survivor Award

Bill Del Monte, at 104-years-old, was honoured this afternoon with the first-ever 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire Survivor Award.

An alert centenarian, Bill was guest of honour and sole attending survivor at the annual Survivors' Dinner, the start of commemoration events this weekend of the terrible disaster that befell the city.

Much to his surprise, he was presented with his award, a commemorative fireman's helmet with a specially inscribed badge, by the Battalion Chief of Battalion 3, Gerry Scullion.

'To Bill,' said Chief Scullion, 'who has persevered this long and is someone to look up to, we honour you tonight.'

Announcing the award, event organizer Lee Houskeeper, said Bill was 'probably the most famous guy in San Francisco today.'

Slightly overwhelmed with the attention, Bill, who donned the helmet, said humbly, 'It's a little too much for me!'

About 20 people had gathered for the occasion in the historic John's Grill near Market Street. Guests  included Police Captain Al Casciato, and representatives of the Emergency Management and NERT (Neighbourhood Emergency Response Team).

Bill was chauffered by his niece, Janette Barroca and met by Lee and Chief Scullion. Emerging from the car in front of a vintage fire truck, he walked into the restaurant with just a little steadying help.

On his head then was his trademark tan tam o'shanter with red and blue stripes. 'Even coming here today I got three compliments. I think I have had about 3,000 since I was given this hat about 30 years ago,' he said, once he was seated inside.

Bill has catapulted to survivor fame since he made his first appearance at last year's anniversary.

What does he think of the commemoration?

'It's something unusual. Naturally, it will soon be coming to an end,' he said, referring to occasions when survivors are present.

This may be only Bill's second appearance at the San Francisco ceremony at Lotta's Fountain which is held at the time that the 7.8 earthquake struck at 5.12 am on April 18, but he has joined in with other aspects of earlier commemorations. He has been on a boat tour around the Bay, that used to be held for survivors, and been to luncheons at John's Grill about four or five times.

Of the formal ceremonial events that take place at 5.12 am, he said, 'I was living in Marin. I figured it was too much, I never bothered to come.' He added, 'This will be my last.'


'Yes!' he said.

Bill was only three-months old when he was bundled by his grandmother onto the back of his father's buckboard, and the family were driven down to the Ferry Building through blazing streets.

Today, his hearing is slightly diminished but even in a noisy restaurant you could converse with him, and his mind is clear.

So clear that he still engages in a little day-trading. The stock market was Bill's second disaster in life. At the age of 25 years he lost $1 million - about $24 million in today's values - in the Wall Street crash of 1929.

How did his parents feel about that? I asked, his father, Angelo, being the founder of America's oldest Italian restaurant, the Fior d'Italia. 'They were worth more than I was, the whole family, we all made big money on the stock market at the time,' he replied calmly.

As Bill was the youngest of five children (though sadly his sister, Angiolina, died as a toddler), the figures sound astounding. So what did the family do?

'We kept trying bit by bit to get it back,' he said.

With bated breath I asked if he had faced another financial disaster with the recent stock market crash?

'Hardly at all. I was lucky, a couple of years ago I got out,' he said.

Bill and his late wife, Vera, did not have any children, and Vera died 18 years ago. 'I was lucky. I had a wonderful wife,' he said.

Tomorrow, Bill will be up at dawn and ready for his ride in a vintage car to the commemoration on Market Street.

Asked afterwards what he thought of Bill, Chief Scullion said he was 'pretty amazing! We could all do with what he's got to survive that long.'

During the award ceremony, Lee Houskeeper also paid tribute to Taren Sapienza who for many years had organized the events and who sadly died last year. She was represented by two of her sisters, Diane and Donna.

'She really focussed on the survivors,' said Diane, organizing their hospitality and making sure they had blankets and baskets of goodies.

Their father, Leo, was the last president of the South of Market Boys, who were the originators of the annual commemoration at Lotta's Fountain.

According to Lee, there will be the 'biggest and best and loudest parade' at 5 am. The cavalcade will proceed from the Westin St Francis and there will be a band from the SF German Music Association, who will be joined by members of other bands.

pics by Chris 
flickr photostream:

Friday, April 16, 2010

104th Anniversary Events of 1906 Great Earthquake and Fire

At 5.12 am eaxctly on Sunday, April 18, several hundred people will gather, some in period costumes, for a solemn pageant to reflect on the great devastation of San Francisco's 1906 earthquake and fire.

They will stand in the dark around Lotta's Fountain in the heart of the city on Market Street. A vintage fire truck and street car, and a band will be there along with representatives of the city and emergency services. As the clock reaches 5.12 am, the city sirens will wail and there will be bell clanging from the vintage vehicles.

Surrounded by emergency services, the fire, the police and members of the Emergency Preparedness team, 'it's the safest place to be,' said Lee Houskeeper, press agent for San Francisco Stories and organizer of the 104th commemoration. The city are using the anniversary to prepare San Francisco for the next great quake that has been forecast to occur before 2038.

The wreath laying ceremony is held at Lotta's Fountain because it was one of the few remaining structures in the street and became a focal point for stunned people to gather and post messages as they searched for loved ones.

The ceremony is a legacy of the South of Market Boys who began gathering there every April 18 from 1919, although there was one commemoration event two years after the quake, said Lee. Some of the people who will be there remember being there as children and are now taking their children.

The exact time of the 1906 Great Earthquake is uncertain. The main debate is between 5.11 am and 5.12 am, and some people put it at 5.13 am, he said.

The USGS call it 5.12 am, but even they had to get their information from San Francisco. 'They have estimated several times what the time should be. They can only use best estimates,' he said. They and the city appear to have settled it at 5.12 am in deference to Gloria Hansen, the city's historian and former Head Librarian.

About 3,000 people died, a quarter of a million were left homeless and about $8 billion of damage in today's equivalent was caused.

'To be specific, 522 city blocks, four square miles of the city, 2,593 acres, 28,188 buildings -- all destroyed. For 99 years, until Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, the San Francisco earthquake and fire stood as the largest natural disaster in U.S. history,' wrote Carl Nolte in the San Francisco Chronicle in a series of features at the time of the 100th anniversary.

The crowd will then travel on to a gold fire hydrant in the Mission District for a ceremonial spray painting. This hydrant, at 20th and Church Streets, is credited with the miraculous saving of the area with its historic churches. It was the only hydrant that had a water supply.

Firefighters and residents had to pull the heavy steam engines up the hill and fight the raging inferno throughout the night.

'The titanic battle lasted seven hours,' wrote Bill Cereske -

'Hoses were used. Mops and buckets were used. Behind the fireline, homeowners were on their roofs beating out sparks and small fires with blankets, mops, casks of wine - anything that could be used. Doors from the demolished houses were used as heat shields until they too began to smolder. Exhausted firefighters would drop in their tracks, as volunteers took to their lines. Nurses moved through, administering stimulants. Through the night, the fight raged.'

So on Sunday, between 5.40 am and 6 am, residents will spray paint the hydrant in  
memory of their loved ones.
The anniversary events also include two historic San Franciscan restaurants.

A Bloody Mary breakfast will be held at Lefty O'Doul's, near Union Square, from 5.30 - 11 am, where the traditional Sunday breakfasts have been held for about six years.

Manager John Fair will be there from 4 am getting everything ready.

'When you wake up in the morning and see the costumes and the fire-trucks, it really brings you back to those times,' he said. He recalled one diner, too young at 80 years to be a survivor, reflecting on how times were so different from when he was a kid.

The restaurant reflects the history of baseball. It was founded in 1958 by San Franciscan Francis 'Lefty' O'Doul, a New York Giants personality who became coach and manager of the San Francisco Seals.

Tomorrow afternoon, on Saturday at 4 pm, the survivor dinner will take place at John's Grill near Market Street. John's is one of the remaining period pieces of the city, a three-storied, wooden panelled restaurant with period furnishings. It was one of the film settings for The Maltese Falcon, and its walls are adorned with film memorabilia and photos of old San Francisco and well known patrons.

Owner John Konstin has been hosting anniversary dinners there for about 25 years.

'We used to fill up the whole place, of course the numbers have dwindled,' he said. The longevity of the survivors impresses him. 'When you least expect to see someone back the next year, you keep seeing them.'

He remembers Jeanette Scarpa Trapani who died last year at the age of 107. She lived in the city and was a patron there for 80 years.

'I asked her how she was able to live such a long and healthy life,' he said. 'She said it was the martinis!'

The survivor reunions have had great value for the survivors. 'A lot of people knew each other. This would be the place where they saw each other once a year. They would stay at the St Francis...and have dinner here,' he said.

Manager Neil Hayes won't be there today, but he was in the city for the 100th commemoration. 'My wife and I couldn't get near John's that day! Unfortunately, there was no getting our foot in the door,' he said.

By the 101st anniversary, Neil was working at John's and recalls there being two survivors present, surrounded by flash bulbs and the media.

'I think it's fantastic. A sure way of keeping the memory,' he said.

The earthquake is one of the great tragedies of America and he said it was important to show how the city has been raised up from the ashes.

A point Lee Houskeeper agrees with. The significance of San Francisco's achievement is another important reason for keeping the commemoration alive, he said. People all over the world who have been devastated by earthquakes look to San Francisco as the supreme example of a city restored from rubble.