Return to the Homepage of the Westlake SectionA narrative of the early history of the Westlake area


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 support the 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 were.

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 teaching Henry 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.

Doelger's yacht

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. Further charitable support was given to Seton Hospital for the establishment of the Doelger Heart Center, and a Doelger fellowship was created at Stanford University Medical Center. The Doelgers also provided support for the St. Ignatius School, the San Francisco Zoo, the Peninsula Humane Society, and the SPCA. Henry died 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 today.

Special thanks to Michael Doelger, Tony Zidich, Ted Tronoff, Ed Hageman, Chela Anderson and Sam Chandler.

Henry Doelger in the 1960's

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