Nobel Peace Prize for Literature winner Sinclair Lewis penned this piece, which appeared in Sunset’s April 1910 issue. It colorfully chronicles a San Francisco rebuilt after the devastating 1906 earthquake and fires
The Master Builder had wielded men, while the men wielded steel and cement, for the four years “since” [the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire]. Then the doctor had his say: “My dear man, you’ve been working too hard and you’re going pot unless you get your nerves tuned up. Try Tahiti.”
“I will not,” answered the Master Builder. “I won’t leave my brand-new six-foot bath-tub for all your surf-boards. If I must be a child again, I’ll stay right here in San Francisco and see if they’ve made any new playthings since the fire. I’ve been too busy to brush the brick dust off my jacket and look for the re-built theaters, almost. But The Wife, she knows!”
He told The Wife, and ended, gloomily, “Now lead us to the rejuvenating merriment.”
“Very well. I’ve been wondering how long it would be before you’d stop being a crab—walking backward through life. We’ll start with the theaters.”
As they were whirled to their show, in a taxicab, the Master Builder exclaimed, still resentful, “Now here you are, in spite of all the doctor-men say about working too hard. Where’d you play-folks be if we hadn’t been building—building theaters and garages and taxicab companies. Doesn’t’ look much like fire and disaster, does it, to ride in one of these rigamajigs?”
“—does it? Why, there’s so many taxicabs and private cars in town, a dealer was telling me, that the chauffeurs have an association, with about five hundred members. Oh, we’ve been building in lots of things besides stone.”
“Yes, in cafés, and Spanish dancers, for instance. We’ll see Las Castillaña to-night, after the show.”
They did. They wandered along the New White Way, from the Portolá to Techau Tavern—Tait’s—the Bismarck—the Odeon—the St. Francis—the Palace; peeping in at each; till The Wife reported that careful investigation indicated that another claret lemonade would cause a Central American revolution in the stomatic regions.
As they rode home, at an unheavenly hour, the Master Builder spoke something after this wise, or unwise:
“By Jove! They talk about their blooming old lights of Lunnon Town. Lights of Market street for me! Good, eh? And later we’ll see some of the little French and Italian places. Distinctively San Franciscan. From the architecture of a ravioli at Coppa’s to the architecture of the Laurel Court at the Fairmont, there’s nothing like San Francisco for laughter, edible and bottled and painted up onto walls! And the people don’t sit around stiffly, startled into a feeling of vague guilt by the phenomenon of having a good time.”
The Goodman halted, realizing that his adoption of pleasure for hobby was rather recent.
With a feeling of infinite luxury, he slept late, next day, Sunday, and they did not start on what The Wife called “Laughter Lesson II” till afternoon, when they went autoing to the beach. From the terrace of the New Cliff House, they watched the absurdly grave and bearded sea-lions waltz through ethereally blue waves. They looked up the training quarters of a world-famed pugilist, and dropped in at the mild little road-houses along the perfect boulevard, where their auto wheels whirred silkenly, and wandered up into the gardens of Sutro Heights, whose highest rampart overlooked the enormous yellow crescent of hard beach, edged with sunny foam and scattered with colorful picnicking parties—overlooked the vast sweep of sea—from Golden Gate to Far Cathay!
“Great Saints!” cried the Master Builder. “Is it good to be out of the office? Is this a pleasure city? Look at those people down there in the Seeing San Francisco car. Even such untrained aliens are handed one of the cheerfulest pleasures—sightseeing. We must have some of that, eh? Takes a native not to know his own city.”
“Yes. We must. How long is it since you’ve looked at the Mission Dolores and imagined the padres were there again? I thought so. Likewise, imagine soldiers at Fort Winfield Scott, as in the old days. And watch the bathers at Brighton Beach.”
“But now let’s go down and picnic on the beach among the pro-le-tar-i-iat!” suggested the Master Builder.
They purchased a lunch-in-er-paper and trotted gaily down to the peopled sands. The air was sweet and the small girls, paddling gingerly, were funny and frolicsome. Their lunch was flavored with the Salt of Life as well as the salt of the sea.
“Lord but the people here do enjoy themselves,” the builder said, as they rode home, through Golden Gate Park. “Track meet at the Stadium eh? Lemme tell you, Lady, Old Greece lives again, when you have a temple—free, public—to graceful, strong young manhood like that.”
“And you, revered sir,” smiled The Wife, “had better get your strong y. m. h. back again. You may just dismiss the chauffeur and take me for a row on Stow Lake.”
With sunset among the pines on Strawberry Hill, they slid softly among the lily pads, like the swans about them. They had tea, afterward, in the Japanese Garden; tea reminiscent of fairy fields of Nippon, served in a little shrine of the God Oolong, set among dwarf bridges and stone idols.
As they strolled down the great avenue toward the park entrance, slow shadows of dusk drifted across meadow vistas. The crowd which had been hearing the Sunday afternoon band concert was still filing happily homeward. The Master Builder hummed “La Paloma” cheerfully, and insisted on stopping to feed the lazy bears, in which feeding he was aided and abetted by, Item: one clean small boy; Item: one dirty small boy, and Item: one Englishman of title, traveling incognito. The builder was very content.
Long months, now, he had been accustomed to go down to the office on Sunday, “just to run through a few letters,”—which running was a Marathon for length. It was good to be free; even to be lugged off to vespers by The Wife. Nevertheless, on Monday morning, he was restless and wanted to sneak off for a bit of the just-running-through. He demanded habeas corpus from that stern magistrate, The Wife, who promptly quashed the application.
“I don’t want to get too much of a good thing,” complained the prisoner. “I’ll get bored to death if I overwork this fool pleasure stunt.”
“Now you see here. You won’t get bored. I could find an entirely different game for you every day for three months, in this town. To-day, we’ll jaunt to the suburbs—go down to San Mateo and see the polo at El Palomar field * * * You used to be a horseman, dear,” she added, wistfully. “We used to have some rather nice rides together * * * There’s a wonderful game to-day; a team of English army officers versus the crack ‘Blingum’ players. Then, to-morrow, we’ll go a-fishing; either out at Ocean Beach—casting through the surf—or over at Sausalito.”
The Master Builder admitted Her Honor’s wisdom, when he had fished and watched the polo and tramped with her for a couple of miles, from San Mateo, up El Camino Real, the highway where rode splendid dons and exquisite ladies, in the days before the gringoes came. Consequently, it was easy for The Wife to lead him out for a whole-day excursion across the bay. They wandered among the Mill Valley villas, perched like playhouses on slopes above the redwoods, and then went jogging up Mount Tamalpais, on the little railway, which wound like a politician.
From the summit there was a view which made the builder whoop. Far out, beyond a four-master heading for Golden Gate, beyond the Farallone Islands, the gaze swept over the magnificent seascape. San Francisco was out-rolled in another direction; and purple, proud Mount Diablo brooded over the historic Carquinez Straits and watched the silver course of the Sacramento river. “Yes,” remarked the builder, “and likewise there are the Suisun Flats to be considered which doth remind me that I was ass enough not to go duck hunting, in the land of the tules, last spring. Canvas backs! Yum!”
They dined at the tavern a-top the mountain and took the last train down. On the deck of the ferry-boat, they watched San Francisco, set on its Roman hills, grow large as they approached; and its regal guard of lights flash into more brilliant batalions. Angel Island and Alcatraz were spots of dusky mystery; and the breeze had the mystery of the health of out-of-doors.
The Wife announced that they would vary the sport by another glimpse of the night side of town; and they “did” Fillmore street; the avenue of lights and Mardi Gras gaiety; of derelict Mexican restaurants and—nickelodeons! it seemed improper not to have confetti flying, here, under the quadruple arches of lights.
The towers and the scenic railroad’s runway at “The Chutes” glowed before them. “Come on!” the builder cried. “I want to get joggled on the Human Roulette Wheel, and look upon the Small Brothers in the hotel de Monk.”
The Wife explained to him, with care, that it was not at all decent for a man of his dignity to be seen flying down the Chutes and coasting the Devil’s Slide, and gaping at open-air acrobats, but the Master Builder was obdurate. When they left “The Chutes,” he was even seized by a notion that it was his duty to attend either an all-night masquerade at the Auditorium or go roller-skating; and she had to wile him home.
Trusting him out alone, she sent him, next night, to an exhibition contest between two of the greatest billiard players in the world. Once seated in the big, beautiful room, he heard, at his elbow, “Well, well! Haven’t seen you at any sports for quite sometime.” The voice belonged to an acquaintance of his more leisurely days, before the fire.
“No, I’ve been pretty busy building. The only sport I’ve looked at, the last year, has been a ball game at Recreation Park, and the horse-races at Emeryville. Great races. Got Juarez beat a mile. Oh say—you ought to know—where are the gymnasiums now. I’m on a sort of vacation—”
The acquaintance named a dozen. “This is getting to be about the best equipped town in the country for sports,” he added. “And the sport comes here. Prize fights, of course. All there are. And take Marathon races, for instance. Taking a kind of lay-off, are you? Well, don’t forget the college sports—and St. Mary’s and Santa Clara as well as the U.C. and Stanford; or the soccer football league. Well, here come the champs.”
At breakfast, next morning, the Master Builder announced himself a confirmed sporting person, now.
“Yes,” said The Wife. “But I won’t let you become that only. Be a gent., with emphasis of the waistcoat, indeed! Bein’ as it’s rainy, to-day, you’re to do the opposite sort of pleasures with me. See the bookstores and the rest.”
The Master Builder was astonished to find just how much the shops of luxuries had been re-built. A picture store, with an Italian courtyard, smacking of dreamy Verona; a half-dozen bookstores; a music shop where they listened to a piano-player concert—with heads turned lest high-brow acquaintances should spy them—these were their rainy-day diversions.
“Now,” said the builder, as they sat at hot chocolate in a delightfully rococo little shop—and echo of Paris—“let’s go to one of those continuous-moving-picture-and-vaudeville palaces on Market street.”
“Aren’t you ashamed of yourself.”
“Nope. And, if it weren’t growing late, I want to emulate the tourists and spend an hour down at the State Board of Trade’s exhibits at the Ferry Building; see the mining display and the stereopticon views of orange trees. But here’s the sunshine again. Cummon!”
As they roamed up Grant avenue, among the smart shops, he glanced up the hill to the glittering pagodas of Chinatown, and remarked, “There’s something we’ve been neglecting. Let’s go see if Chinatown has become the real thing again.”
A jade and teak-wood salon was discovered for their dinner; with a joss house across the street from the balcony where they ate. “B’lieve this is better than it was before the fire [sic],” mused the builder.
“See how quaint this alley is, with overhanging balconies [sic]. But see this Japanese art store. Aren’t those the most exquisite gray sand browns in those prints? Come away! You have the symptoms of the spending mania in that left eye. Or—we won’t have a cent left for Italian town, to-morrow. And you know we want to dine at the Fior d’Italia on pastes and spaghetti and see where the litterati—and the near-litterati—do congregate, at Sanguenetti’s.”
The Master Builder was so frisky a builder, by now, that The Wife began taking him on long tramps, after having tested him by the ascent of Telegraph Hill, above Italian town and above studio-land—a real Quatier Latin. From Buena Vista heights, they saw the new city before them, with scarcely a trace of the fire. They climbed the Twin Peaks, and wandered through Richmond, and along Pacific Heights, with its castle homes. Then he was, at last, graduated into the tennis-playing class. In the Golden Gate Park courts, and the grounds of the Alta Plaza, from whose plateau they could see Lone Mountain, with its great, mysterious cross, standing solitary, they played and loafed and played, till the Master Builder was not missing every serve.
He took to swimming too, and splashed in the slat-water tanks of the Sutro Baths; and the new Lurline, built in Roman-wise. He had already been renewing habit in his two clubs, and was looking forward to the Bohemian Club jinks, that pageant in an outdoor cathedral whose pillars were redwoods. Now, the edged his way into one of the four golf clubs, and trotted through long afternoons over the Presidio links, in the great Government reservation. Old friendships with army people were renewed there and he was even seen at post tiffin, and the Presidio hops.
“Why, you’ll be teaching your teacher,” The Wife laughed, as they cantered through the park together. “You’re getting almost too athletic and social for me.”
“Well, let’s have a quiet day to-morrow, then. I say, do you remember what we used to do in courtin’ days, before there were motor-cars? Go buggy-riding! We’ll just do that, to-morrow.”
Through the Oakland and Berkeley streets of leisurely homes, past the University campus and the dignity of the Greek Theater, they went a-buggy riding; a long, lazy, dreamy ride, with the sun bright on the hard leaves of the eucalypts and soft in the pepper-tree foliage. Finally, they drove to the golden hills beyond, and stood at gaze, looking over to the peaks of the dimly-seen High Sierras, while the Master Builder said:
“Guess I’m ready for a diploma in the course in getting young, now. Weren’t the Spaniards chumps to think the Fountain of Youth was in the tropics! For it’s by the Golden Gate, and we’ve found it, eh?”