Go Inside SF's Famed Westlake Neighborhood

For the uninitiated, stumbling upon the Westlake neighborhood—nestled between highways 35 and 280, just south of San Francisco—is like discovering the land that George Jetson forgot.

Radiating out from Joe’s of Westlake—a large Italian restaurant whose angular red-trimmed roof is a paean to the atomic age—are 6,500 houses and 3,000 apartments whose in-your-face Googie-style architecture makes their era clear. It’s evident that this isn’t Kansas, or even San Francisco’s Victorian-heavy Alamo Square, for that matter. Westlake, which was incorporated by Daly City in the 1950s, was designed to very specific standards by visionary developer Henry Doelger. An elementary school dropout whose life began with tragedy and financial hardship on the Barbary Coast, Doelger went on to become a multimillionaire and the biggest home builder in the United States.

According to the definitive work on Westlake, Little Boxes: The Architecture of a Classic Midcentury Suburb by Rob Keil, Doelger’s family ran (and lived above) a bakery in turn-of-the-century SF. When Doelger was in eighth grade, his father died and Doelger had to quit school to support his family. Although his formal education ended then, he would study at the school of hard knocks for years, holding jobs ranging from consession stand operator (his business was across the street from Golden Gate Park and was rumored to offer bootleg liquor in addition to hot dogs) to bartender. His brother Frank experienced some success as a land speculator, and started showing Doelger the ropes of the business. But when Frank’s leg was wounded and he died of gangrene, Doelger was on his own. He launched his career by purchasing a sandy lot in the Sunset and tripling his money when he sold it two months later.

By the time he purchased the 1,350-acre plot of barren and foggy land in South San Francisco that would become Westlake, Doelger had established himself as a business tycoon. Yet other developers thought he was crazy for acquiring what was then considered land too remote and hilly for building. Once again, Doelger had a winning plan: create a postwar suburb that was a community, not merely rows of houses. His development included a series of modernist homes constructed around schools, churches, a library and one of America’s first shopping malls—all in the same architectural vein. Although the careful urban planning—siting houses to take best advantage of the views, creating eight different basic styles and designing the roads for optimal traffic flow—meant fewer houses and smaller profits, Doelger thought it gave him a competitive sales edge. He wasn’t wrong. At the height of development, some houses were on the market for a mere 30 minutes. “Just a bunch of houses would have been seen as unappealing. A community was essential to pull people in,” says Keil.

With all of the then-cutting-edge ideas floating around, it would seem Westlake might be at the height of haute. Not so. “It was not hip or cool,” says Keil, who grew up in and still lives in a Doelger house. “It was meant to be a modest place that allowed regular people to buy a home. Many of the first Westlake buyers were people who lived in apartments in San Francisco and couldn’t have afforded houses otherwise.”

Doelger reportedly wouldn’t have had it any other way. “Although he could have lived anywhere he wanted, he chose to live in Westlake,” said Keil. “He sometimes ran in high society, but preferred being around blue-collar, working-class people. He liked to be around regular Joes, and was partial to people who were hard workers.”

The tight-knit community that resulted is described by Melinda Scatena, owner of Joe’s of Westlake, as a conservative, Leave It to Beaver kind of place. Scatena’s family has owned Joe’s since Doelger’s firm designed and built it in 1956, and she grew up working there. “Joe’s was ultramodern for the day. My father, Bruno, wasn’t that into modern architecture, but he loved the openness of it,” she says. To enter the restaurant—or to walk around the neighborhood—is to step back in time. Very little has changed at Joe’s since it was constructed—from the handmade ravioli to the Sputnik-style lights to the cozy booths. “A lot of kids from San Francisco State come here, and they tell me it’s like a time warp,” she says. “We haven’t changed it because we think, ‘Why fix what isn’t broken?’”

And neat-as-a-pin Westlake certainly isn’t broken. Keil says most of the well-built houses have had garage doors and windows replaced throughout the years, but remain essentially the same. He also notes that a new generation may just be discovering the neighborhood that their grandparents have long known about. “Because modern architecture has become popular, there’s a new element that considers Westlake very cool,” says Keil. “Younger people who like that kind of style are finding it to be close to San Francisco and relatively affordable.”

Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the February/March 2012 issue of California Home + Design.

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