1908–1920s: “Burlingame the Beautiful”

In the 1930s, political forces opposed to rezoning El Camino Real for business urged citizens to vote on behalf of keeping the highway beautiful. Courtesy SF History Center, SF Public Library

Selling “The Sunshine Suburb”

In 1906, with San Francisco decimated by earthquake and fire and refugees seeking safe shelter in the suburbs, Burlingame experienced its first real population boom. “The early realtors were enterprising fellows,” comments Clerk Jim Murphy in Lister’s history (see Resources), “Here the people found subdivisions laid out, unlike anything they had seen before. There were macadamized streets, planted with beautiful trees . . . with prices and terms to suit the pocketbook of the humblest investor.”

The trees of Burlingame became a key draw for marketing the area to new residents. Real estate brochures from the era pictured Burlingame’s “world-famous tree-lined highway” and boasted of the area’s natural beauty and tranquility. “BURLINGAME, the BEAUTIFUL, with every home a garden and every street a park, welcomes you!,” announced the Burlingame Chamber of Commerce in 1924. Other brochures called Burlingame “The Sunshine Suburb” and boasted of the warm climate, compared with foggier environs further north—a temperate zone made possible, in part, by the windbreaks provided by the tall groves of trees.

Saving Trees at the Point of a Gun

One incident in 1923 shows how valuable the trees of Burlingame were to its residents. One of the city’s first churches, the First Methodist Church, stood at the corner of Burlingame Avenue and Primrose Road (later the site of the Levy Bros. department store). In 1915, the property was enlarged, but by 1923 could expand no further. The church bought its present site at El Camino Real and Howard Avenue and prepared to move the building. This was a common practice at the time: the building would be jacked up on rollers and wheeled to its new location.

Methodist-Episcopal Church, Burlingame, Cal. Postcard published by Edward H. Mitchell, San Francisco, Cal. Made for M. W. Regan, Burlingame, Cal. California Historical Society, FN-09844

However, the church did not bargain for two rows of young locust trees that were lining the path to the new site. The church was too wide to navigate the street without removing one row of trees, so the city council was petitioned for permission to remove the trees. Permission was granted. However, public approval was another story. Citizens packed the city council meeting the Monday before the move was to take place, insisting that the order be revoked.

Anticipating difficulty, the church had enlisted a crew of tree choppers, one per tree, axe in hand. At the toot of a whistle, each would cut down his tree. Primrose Road residents, outraged, tried to stop the chopping, with one woman even threatening use of her shotgun (one report identifies her as E. F. Gould). Blocking traffic, the church stayed on Primrose until the cooperative Father Grant, whose St. Catherine’s parish stood on the east side of Primrose, decided that now would be a good time to trim the trees on his side of the street; and perhaps it would do no harm for the trees to be bent just a bit. The movers managed to zigzag around the lady with the shotgun and her tree. The few trees that were spared stood for many years, but eventually were removed as business developed along Primrose.