“DASHIELL HAMMETT PLACE”

In 1988 the San Francisco supervisors were persuaded to rename a dozen-or-so streets after famous local writers and artists. In the interest of upsetting as few voters as possible in the process, it was further decided that the streets to be renamed would all be alleys, or, at most, a block or two long.  The logical connection between the writers and the streets that were selected was, in some cases, a little fuzzy. But when it came to Dashiell Hammett, everything worked out perfectly. The street they chose to rename in his honor was one on which he had actually lived.

The former Monroe Street is a one-block street that starts at Pine St and rushes quickly downhill to Bush. Today, the street signs (one at either end of the block) read "DASHIELL HAMMETT MONROE". The red brick building at number 20 sports an awning emblazoned with "DASHIELL HAMMETT PLACE."

The few months in 1926 that Hammett spent at 20 Monroe Street were not happy ones.  His TB was flaring up with a vengeance.  He had just sent his wife and daughters away to Marin County, and rented a studio apartment for himself to avoid infecting his family with the potentially deadly disease.  It was during this time that a lung hemorrhage left him lying unconscious in a pool of his own blood.  The majority of the correspondence from this address dealt his attempts to reactivate his veteran’s disability benefits.

 

There is a pictorial tribute to Hammett on the lobby wall, where once was the manager’s mail station.  In earlier decades, all the mail came addressed to 20 Monroe Street (with no apartment number), and it was up to the manager to distribute the items to the individual apartments.  Because of this, no one truly knows which apartment was Hammett’s.

“The current owner believes he lived in number 9, said John.  “I personally lean toward number 17, because it’s the upper-left apartment in the building, and Hammett tended to live in upper-left apartments.  Of course, that’s just whimsy on my part.”

John let me poke around a currently-vacant apartment which had the same floor plan as number 9.  “This apartment looks much like it would have then, except for the hardwood floor” said John.  “Another difference is that these doors used to have glass panels in them, so you could see if someone was coming to the door. Now they’re paneled over, for safety reasons.”

Other points to ponder:  Monroe Street was paved in concrete rather than asphalt, because of its steepness.  It was thought that the tar might run before it had a chance to set up properly.  In addition, the Bush Street end of Monroe is about a hundred yards from the mouth of Burritt Alley.  Hammett placed Miles Archer's murder at this location in The Maltese Falcon.

The street signs are current...

...but the past is etched in concrete.

Dashiell Hammett Street is only a single block, but, boy, is it steep!

The front entrance to the building formerly known as 20 Monroe Street.

A collage showing Hammett, his wife and daughters, The Maltese Falcon and two installments of the Secret Agent X-9 comic strip, which Hammett wrote for a time.

Some believe Hammett stayed in room 9, although there's no proof of this.

Three views of an apartment similar in layout to number 9.

Basement corridor leading to the small terrace behind the building

“Dashiell Hammett Place” resident Liz Alward enjoying the terrace

View from the back side of the roof, looking down into the small courtyard.

In September of 2003, I paid a visit to Dashiell Hammett Place, and spent an intriguing hour with John, the building manager.  Not only was John a very pleasant and erudite individual, but he was kind enough to give me a basement-to-rooftop tour.

Constructed between 1908 and 1912, Dashiell Hammett Place has three floors and 22 studio apartments (or “bachelor apartments,” as they were once called).  At the time of my tour, the rent was $895 per month; when John became manager thirteen years earlier, the rent was $525.  In recent years, the plumbing and electrical have been modernized, and double-paned windows have been added, which help keep out street noise.   The basic layout of the building remains largely unchanged.

“If another big one ever hits,” John assured me, “I hope I’m in the basement of this building.  The walls down there are fourteen-inch-thick reenforced concrete.  It’s a very stable building.”  Indeed, the foundation is based in the bedrock of Nob Hill itself.  

The roof is buttressed with a massive “ring beam” that’s designed to keep the front of the building from falling into the street during a large quake.  Word is that Hammett enjoyed spending quiet time on the roof .

The small lobby is much the same as it was in 1926.  The red-and-black tile floor is original, but John is pretty sure the polka-dot ceiling came later.  “It looks a bit like something out of a bordello, doesn’t it,” he joked.