BUILDER HENRY DOELGER
Henry Doelger, the middle son of John and Julia
Doelger, was born in 1896 behind his parents’ San
Francisco bakery at the corner of Mason and Pacific. When Henry was 12,
his father died, forcing him to leave school in eighth grade to help
family along with his older brother Frank and younger
brother John. In those days, San Francisco’s Barbary coast, with
its docks, bars, and brothels, was hardly
an ideal setting for a fatherless young man to spend
his formative years. As a result, Henry developed a
strong desire to succeed, to prevent this environment
from defining who he was or what his future prospects
Most likely it was his early experiences that gave Henry the street
smarts and understanding of human nature that helped him succeed in
business. According to Henry’s son, Michael, Henry spent some of
his teenage years as a bartender, then joined the merchant marines, and
upon his return to San Francisco opened a hot dog stand in Golden Gate
Park with his younger brother, John.
Tragedy struck the family again when Henry’s older brother Frank
died of gangrene. Before his death,
Frank had begun a successful career as a land speculator, and had been
the business. In 1922, Henry managed to scrape together $1,100 to buy
an empty lot on 14th Avenue and Irving in the Sunset District, since
he had heard a movie theater was to be built across the street. He
sold the land for $25,000, and then purchased 14 blocks of empty land
in the Sunset for the astronomical sum of $140,000. When the depression
hit, Henry had no way to sell his land but to build houses on it. He
built his first houses along 39th Avenue, beginning a career that would
not only make him a millionaire but the head of America’s largest
homebuilding company before he'd reached age 40.
Doelger (left) and associates plant a tree in Westlake, 1951
After completing thousands of homes in the Sunset District and military
housing during World War II, Doelger purchased a huge, barren piece of
land along San Francisco's southwest border from the Spring Valley Water
Company. Although his advisors thought he’d made a huge and expensive
mistake, he felt that this area could be developed into a fully planned
city within a city. For the next 17 years he would build Daly City’s
Westlake district, a community which encompassed 6,500 houses, 3,000
apartments, schools, churches, offices, medical facilities, restaurants,
and shopping centers, including one of the earliest malls in America.
Henry Doelger's house in Westlake.
View plans of Doelger's yacht
Westlake put Daly City on the map as one of America’s most inviting suburbs,
and one national magazine even named Westlake one of the 10 best suburbs in
America. Although he spent half a century in the building business, Henry
Doelger considered Westlake his greatest accomplishment, and he and his family
resided within the community for many years.
Although Doelger had high expectations of his employees, many of them
remember him as someone who rewarded hard work and took a genuine interest
in people. Ed Hageman, who helped design many of Westlake's houses, says, "His
personality was great... he had a great sense of humor" and recalls, "He
was a tough businessman, but a good one."
The old Fernando Rivera School, now the Doelger Center
Later, Henry's wife, Thelma, would make large gifts to Daly City,
purchasing 2 schools from the State and donating them to the community.
support was given to Seton Hospital for the establishment of the Doelger
Heart Center, and a Doelger fellowship was created at Stanford
Center. The Doelgers also provided support for the St. Ignatius School,
the San Francisco Zoo, the Peninsula Humane Society, and the SPCA. Henry
in 1978 at 82.
Henry Doelger’s vision for Westlake ultimately doubled Daly City’s
population and resulted in thousands of well-built homes as well as community
facilities that serve a wide range of uses for the city’s residents
Special thanks to Michael Doelger, Tony Zidich, Ted Tronoff,
Ed Hageman, Chela Anderson and Sam Chandler.
Doelger in the 1960's