Fella Place & the Post-Gold Rush Depression

Fella Place is a colorful dead-end alley off of Powell Street, just south of Pine, where the south side of Nob Hill slopes toward Union Square and S.F.’s shopping district. While its location and street sign may present tourists with a random photo-op today, the story behind its name – dating back to the city’s first economic depression – isn’t comical at all.

Fella Place is at left though the sign is currently parallel with Powell Street.
Fella Place is at left though the sign has been pushed parallel to Powell Street.

Placidus Fella was born in 1808 in Hammelburg, Germany. In early adulthood he moved north to Hamburg and worked as a shoemaker. In 1838, at the age of 30, he and his wife Mary Elizabeth,* along with their one-year-old son Charles, embarked from Bremen upon the barque Johan George. Entering the United States on July 6, 1838 by way of New York City, the Fellas eventually settled in St. Louis, Mo. and Placidus once again established himself as a boot and shoemaker.^ On March 25, 1844 Placidus and family were naturalized as U.S. citizens, just before the 15th presidential election.

It would prove to be the era of President James K. Polk’s Manifest Destiny movement, topped off with news of gold in California. Unable to curb the dream, Placidus packed his family up,~ said good-bye to St. Louis, and moved to San Francisco. Though I’m not yet certain what Placidus did for a living on arrival in S.F., it’s highly likely it was not working as a shoemaker. Perhaps the shoe-and-boot market was already locked down, but since we know what he was up to in 1856, it seems likely he opened a book-and-stationery store to accommodate the exploding and transient population full of folks who’d left family and friends in some other corner of the world.

From the east end of Fella Place, looking west to Powell Street.
From the east end of Fella, looking west to Powell Street.

While mercantile businesses in S.F. thrived from 1849-1853, toward the end of 1853 and into 1854, as the gold that a man with a pickax could mine was long gone, and the banks found themselves tied up in mining companies that may or may not hit another vein, currency began to slow up around town. Next thing many merchants knew, they had way more supplies or inventory than they knew what to do with. It was the beginning of S.F.’s first economic depression.

By 1856, Placidus was in such debt that he applied for insolvency on March 24, reporting liabilities of $12,615 and assets of $5,009. Though the next few years would be a financial struggle, it was a lawsuit against the Fella family and a man named John Lutz% that carried the most consequence. On Jan. 23, 1858, Sheriff Charles Doane was ordered by the District Court of the 4th Judicial District to auction off Placidus’ home and property: “All that certain piece, parcel or lot of land… commencing at a point where the easterly line of Powell street intersects with the southerly line of Pine street; running thence easterly, along the said line of Pine street, twenty-two and a half feet; thence at right angles, and along the eastern line of Powell street, northerly, sixty feet, to the place of beginning, being subdivision No. One of the fifty vara lot known on the official map of [San Francisco] as number three hundred and sixteen (316).”+

Notice lot #316 in upper-right corner, where Fella place is found today.
Notice lot #316 near the upper-right corner. The subdivision the sheriff describes above is in the NW corner of the lot, where Fella Place is today.

Soon after the lawsuit Placidus was running a book-and-stationery stand at 62 1/2 Kearny Street, near Dupont (Grant today). Charles was working as a printer. The family moved a few times until settling at 115 Geary Street. For the next five-or-so years, Placidus’ store was located on Kearny until moving to 832 Market Street in the late-1860s.

On Aug. 20, 1866, Mary Elizabeth Fella died. She was 50 years and two months. Placidus died two years later on Feb. 15, 1868. He was 60 years and 3 months. Upon Placidus’ death, his daughter Frances took over the Market Street store and with her sister Mary hired Fitel Phillips of Fireman’s Fund Insurance Company to help execute their father’s estate. Running an ad in the Alta California they called for all creditors or persons having claims against Placidus to make them known. Then on June 23, 1869 an auction was held in hopes of settling Placidus’ outstanding debts.#

________________________________________________________________________________________________________

* The first record of Placidus’ wife from the passenger records of the Bremen-to-N.Y.C. trip has her name written as Maydalena (Charles is listed as Carl). While it’s probably safe to attribute this to language barriers, change of name common to immigrants, etc., her age of twenty-six is curious. For this makes her and Placidus just four years apart, versus him and Mary E., who were eight years apart according to their obituaries. That said, years can be tricky when dealing with persons of the 19th century, especially in regard to immigration. Errors are common.

^ Placidus’ obituary in the Alta California has line: “St. Louis papers please copy.”

~ It is quite possible that Placidus’ daughters were born in St. Louis and made the journey to California; however, given the time, it is difficult to locate substantial age records for females. What we do know is that Placidus and Mary’s second and third sons, John Valentine and George Adam, were born in California around 1852: possibly twins, or a year or so apart.

% My initial research into John Lutz turned up some wild possibilities (if they’re all the same guy), but the name seems prevalent.

+ Though Sheriff Doane auctioned the property at noon on Feb. 17, 1858, in front of the Court House doors, the earliest record I could find of the alley being called Fella Place is an 1861 city street guide.

# The auction included 115 Geary Street which had been the Fella home for the previous nine years.

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