Mary Brown, creative, tireless S.F. preservation planner (obituary)
Mary Brown, a preservation planner who excelled at distilling the qualities of everything from Golden Gate Park to Sam Jordan’s Bar, died of lung cancer in San Francisco on Dec. 10. She was 46.
In her seven years with San Francisco’s Planning Department, Ms. Brown was the author of unusually readable surveys of such topics as commercial storefronts and modern architecture. She also built the cases to designate landmarks of cultural as well as architectural importance, such as Sam Jordan’s, a gathering place for generations of African Americans on Third Street in the Bayview.
“She had this way about her — she cared deeply about the city, not just architecture but the people who bring it to life,” said Andrew Wolfram, president of the city’s Historic Preservation Commission. “That’s a perspective we don’t always see.”
This quality also struck Jeff Joslin, the city’s director of current planning.
“Mary worked on high-profile and clearly significant subjects, like Golden Gate Park, but she was no less interested in going beyond the facades of everyday buildings,” Joslin said. He pointed to Ms. Brown’s “historic resources survey” of Sunset District subdivisions as an example: “She loved meeting the original owners, having conversations about how they came to be there and how homeownership might have transformed their lives.”
Ms. Brown grew up in San Diego and earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Humboldt State before moving to San Francisco, where she worked at the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition from 1997 until 2005. She then enrolled at San Francisco State, where received a master’s degree in geography.
That range of influences might have explained the range of projects that the Mission District resident would initiate as a preservation planner, rather than being content with being dispatched to the controversy of the moment.
“She always wanted to explore new territory, the neighborhoods and aspects of the city that hadn’t been covered,” said Moses Corrette, who worked alongside her on preservation efforts for several years.
“It’d be the weekend and Mary would be helping me draft a paragraph. She was so far from being a bureaucrat that I would get concerned she worked too many hours.”
Much of her architectural research was conducted via bicycle, but Ms. Brown switched to a scooter after the diagnosis and progression of lung cancer — an illness caused in her case not by smoking, but as a delayed after-effect of radiation treatments for lymphoma several years before.
Ms. Brown is survived by her parents, Bob and Katie Brown of San Diego, and two brothers.