San Francisco History

Deacon's Follies


Men Who Built and Then Regretted.

San Francisco has sown her wild oats, and settled down to a long era of steady progress.

Now, there was a day when money was plentiful and interest high, that San Francisco saw everything about double its normal size.

This was the time when fortunes were made very quickly, and there were “millions in it” for almost everybody who had an original idea.

In those days the world moved quickly—at least this portion of it did, and men had to jump at conclusions if they would keep up with the procession.

Hence it was that wise men not accustomed to thinking quickly, as well as foolish men with wildcat schemes, sometimes ran amuck of common-sense, and did things and builded things that would not pass current to-day as they did when San Francisco was in her swaddling clothes.

And, though the city has left behind that stage of its evolution by many years now, the men who builded foolishly left monuments to their foolishness behind them, and to-day, like every other city of importance, San Francisco still has many reminders of her “deacon’s follies.”

These are chiefly interesting because they have in times gone by, and may still, serve as stepping stones to better things.

“Men rise on stepping stones of their dead selves,” says Eliot; and so do cities build wisely in the present by carefully shunning the errors of the past.

But the “deacon’s follies”—that’s what they are called, you know—have more than a purely utilitarian interest to-day.

In themselves they are interesting, often because of their picturesqueness and the romance that still clings to them, and always because of old associations and the memories of former days.

There are doubtless others than the ones cited here, but these are the chief ones—the one’s best remembered.


Since the white man, with his tireless energy and never fading hope, made his debut on the golden sands of San Francisco Bay the two high hills that stand as twin sentinels on the northern shore of the present metropolis have been objective points of much scheming for wealth and the scene of many financial failures.

The most westerly peak early gained the name of Russian Hill, because the first Russian colony in California settled there.

Telegraph Hill, just to the west and at the extreme northeastern angle of the city’s coastline, gained its name from the fact that in the early days it contained a system of telegraphy by signals to foretell the approach of ocean vessels.

It connected with Point Lobos, and for many years served to chronicle the approach of ocean vessels.

Probably the first foolish scheme actually put into operation on either of these peaks was, in later days after it had exploded, christened “Jobson’s Folly.”

It was once one of the landmarks of the city. Now there is nothing left of it but a memory—and the summit of Russian Hill, which it adorned along in the latter part of the sixties.

Once there was an old man named Jobson, the story very properly begins, who lived on Russian Hill. And this old man conceived a more or less brilliant idea. It was to construct a big wooden observatory on the brow of the hill and charge an admission price.

He was sanguine, was this old man named Jobson, and in his imagination he could see the crowds flocking to the summit of that great eminence to get a peep through his big telescope.

In his mind’s eye he saw a mighty populace struggling and tolling up that majestic ascent every day in the week, Sundays included.

He figured it all out very carefully, the amount of capital necessary to invest and the interest thereon. He multiplied the vast number of his patrons by so much per head, and he soon came to the conclusion that there was “millions in it.”

He was so sure of his game—his millions and his patrons—that he began to think perhaps one observatory would not be sufficient to accommodate them all. So straightway he had plans drawn for two towers.

By the time the architect had finished the plans it dawned upon the mind of this old man by the name of Jobson that one of the observatories would very likely be in the way of the other.

So he thought awhile longer before building and came to the conclusion that one observatory will have to do, but he sighed, as he saw in the mind’s eye the doorkeepers turning away hundreds of dimes for lack of accommodations.

Then he built. It was a hideous affair, but very serviceable. It looked much like a lighthouse, but was far less substantial in construction.

On the top of it he put a powerful telescope, and it was really worth the climb to get a peep through the revealing lens of that big glass.

On a clear day one could see the Farallones through Jobson’s telescope, and at all times a superb view of Sausalito, Oakland, the Marin and Alameda counties’ hills, Alviso, the Mission, and all the beauties of an unsurpassed marine scene could be obtained for a modest dime—and a long and hard climb.

The latter was the sticker. Few people were willing to pay the price of admission demanded by the expansion of muscular energy sufficient to reach the dizzy summit, and there was no conveyance to and from the observatory.

And the millions that Jobson saw in the scheme are still in it, for all, at least, that Jobson took out of it. It failed utterly.

In a few years the place had gone to ruins. People named the ruins “Jobson’s Folly,” and soon forgot all about it.

Once there was a splendid scheme to terrace Telegraph Hill and make it one of the most beautiful spots in the world. It died long ago. It was hardly a folly, for it would have been a magnificent thing for San Francisco could it have been carried out as planned.

Terraces were to be cut in the four sides of the big hill, and on these terraces rows of villas and cottages were to be built in regular order to that in front of each row of houses there would be an ample driveway and above the houses a spacious strip of lawn.

Pepper trees and palms were to line the terraces roads. No house was to be built higher than a prescribed line, so that the lawns and driveways would not be hidden by them.

At each angle of the terraces, and half-way between the angles, broad stairways were to be constructed, so that it would be a comparatively easy manner to pass up from one terrace to another.

There are places like this in Boston, though there the terraces are on but one side of the hill, and in consequence the effect is far less striking than this would have been.

A lack of unanimity on the part of the projectors of the scheme caused its miscarriage and final collapse, for the stone quarries have hacked and cut away at the base of the big elevation until the contour is spoiled entirely.

Pioneer Park, the cable tramway and the big beer castle and observatory were the next ill-fated enterprises foisted upon Telegraph Hill. In their turn they all failed for lack of popular support.

In the latter part of 1888 the observatory on Telegraph Hill was built.

To this day, though the structure is fast going to rack and ruin, it is an imposing pile when seen from a distance.

It is partly modeled after the old English castles, with their turrets, and the battlements and many towers. Coming in through the Golden Gate, after Fort Point has been fairly rounded this old wooden observatory is a strikingly picturesque object to the beholder.

Overland passengers coming in on the ferry boats from the Oakland mole are always struck with the odd-looking building. It is now one of the trademarks of the city, and should one return to San Francisco after an absence and find it missing the city would look strange and unhomelike.

The man who built that imposing structure designed it for a popular resort, where the crowds should come and buy his beer and listen to the music of a brass band on Sundays and holidays.

And he was wiser than old Jobson. He reckoned wisely with the antipathy that human nature has to climb upward when only a fleeting pleasure is a goal.

And reckoning wisely thus he builded an endless cable tramway from the western base to the summit, so that tired humanity might ride to their pleasure.

And for awhile people like his enterprise, liked his beer and liked his music as well as the rare marine view obtainable there and the pure air of that high altitude. And liking they patronized.

About this time it was that some gentlemen of means with more patriotism that farsightedness came to the conclusion that San Francisco needed a park in this locality. So they put their heads together and their coin in a lump sum and started what they fondly hoped would be Pioneer Park.

With the lump sum they erected a coping about the brow of the hill, or about as much of it as was not occupied by the beer castle, making an inclosure of a couple of acres or more.

In Philadelphia they call these local breathing places “squares,” but the originators of this scheme were wise enough in their day to know that a circle will not make a square. So because the coping had no angles, or from some other equally good and sufficient reasons, the inclosure was labeled Pioneer Park, and Pioneer Park it is to this very day.

But now there is nothing left of it but the crumbling coping and the name. The latter will be undying no doubt, but soon the rotten coping will all fall down on the little cottages beneath and kill somebody or several somebodies, if it is not soon carried away where it can do no harm.

The crowds are all gone. The green grass is only green in the rainy season, and sparse enough then.

Pioneer Park was ill-advised and is now a thing of the past.

Likewise the beer castle and observatory. It is silent and deserted. The trade winds whistle and howl through the interstices made by the rain and the sun. The endless cable has come to an end. The iron rails and wooden sleepers are grass grown and rusty and decayed. Like the park, the castle is quite a thing of the past.

Some day a good still sou’wester will put the finishing touches on the ravages of time and the weather. Then the beer castle will blow over to Alcatraz and the rats and bugs will have to seek out some other shelter.

But while any of the ruin on Telegraph Hill remains folks with an eye to the artistic will remember with kindness that picturesque old beer castle that was such a promise landmark on the barren hilltop.


Had not internal dissensions arose among the directors, instead of being remembered now as a mammoth folly, the Crystal Palace would have been one of the most extensive and best-equipped amusement places in America.

It was planned on a gigantic scale and was partially constructed, at a cost of over $50,000.

The building was to have a frontage on Fillmore street, between Post and Sutter, of 205 feet, and the total depth, running half-way back to Steiner street, was 318 feet.

Charles Rieck was at the head of the concern as president and manager, and associated with him in the enterprise were ex Governor Low, E. G. Friedlander, James McCord, Theodore von Volstel and Frederick Siebe. In 1883 these gentlemen leased the entire square bounded by Fillmore, Steiner, Post and Sutter streets, from C. C. Butler, whose wife and children were the only heirs to the Gates estate, which comprised this block, the one west of it and considerable other real estate in the vicinity.

The lease was for fifteen years. Inside of a year almost the entire scheme was abandoned, but not until the great building itself had been almost finished, so far as the exterior work was concerned.

Now there is not even a posthole left to show where the mammoth structure once stood, and a wood and coat shed, and Italian shanty and several browsing cows are the only occupants of the big block.

Crystal Palace and the park in which it stood was designed after Woodward’s Gardens and was intended to contain, among other sights and curios and amusements, a menagerie far superior to the one recently closed out at auction by the heirs of the Woodward estate.

The park would have been about as extensive as Woodward’s Gardens and, like it, too, a tunnel under Steiner street would have connected the two blocks.

Crystal Palace itself was to have an auditorium with a seating capacity of 8000, and this was to be arranged that it could be transformed into a vast level hall for dancing by a few hours work. Extending completely around the grand floor and stage was a promenade 820 feet long and 20 feet in width.

On the outside of the promenade, at each side of the building and running its full length, were elevated estrades, with private dining-rooms, cloakrooms, toilets and baths beneath. On the estrades were open rustic boxes, in front of which, bordering on the promenade, were to have been grassy terraces decorated with tropical plants, trees, aquariums, fountains and miniature brooks and cascades.

To the right of the main entrance was the cafe, 25 by 80 feet in area, and above this, on the second floor, were more dining-rooms, concert halls, etc.

Over 25,000 square feet of glass was used in the construction of the building, more than one-third of the entire roof being of heavy corrugated glass.

Oh, it was a grand, grand affair—on paper—and columns might be written on its projected grandeur and extent.

Elevators, electric lights, broad stairways and grand hallways, billiard and smoking rooms, ornamentations of fluted pilasters, painted panels on the walls, rich tapestries and portieres, natural wood finishings, inlaid polished wood and mosaic floors—these were only some of the projected grandeurs of the projected palace that was partially completed.

After a time it came to light that the plans and specifications were not being strictly followed. Accusations were made of inferior materials being used. Then the troubles thickened and the building of the palace halted.

Mr. Butler, the owner of the grounds, offered to loan the company all the money needed to carry out the project if the stockholders would pay assessments equal to the par value of their stock.

But the management had not the confidence of the directory, and when $50,000 had been squandered the project was definitely abandoned. It may be that by this time the stockholders had come to look upon the plan as slightly of Micawberian variety, it may be that they lost faith in the ability of one city to support such a mammoth amusement enterprise, it may be—-but whatever it was they went up literally, paid no more assessments, and for three years or more the big palace was given over to the rats and spiders.

Then it was sold for [an?] old horse, carted away to build a carriage factory on Golden Gate avenue and to be burned as firewood.

And the two big blocks, from Fillmore to Pierce streets, are still practically unoccupied and unimproved.

And still there is a big opening for some wide-awake capitalist with a sanguinity as big as his purse to build a Crystal Palace for San Francisco.


And the man who built a $50,000 stable and became bankrupt before his house was finished.

It is true, as every old-timer remembers, and a more mammoth deacon’s folly could not be found in all the fifty-four counties of the Golden State.

John E. Shawhan was his name. He liked horses, was a bit of a sport and a good deal of a stockbroker. Long years he worked hard and was poor.

One morning he woke up and looked upon a world that was paved with gold—for him at least. At night he was poor, in the morning a millionaire.

Virginia consols were the making of his millions. It was in the days when the ascent from tramp to Croesus was often sudden and unexpected. He bought largely when stocks were low. The market shot up like a skyrocket, and he became rich so fast that it made him dizzy.

All at once he bought a valuable lot on the north side of California street, just west of Jones, and he started in to build himself a palatial residence.

Perhaps it was the dizziness in his head, perhaps it was—but no matter what the cause, he did start at the wrong end of his lot to build that palatial residence. He began on the stable, and finished it entirely before he had the plans completed for his home.

Oh, it was a beautiful stable. There were marble drinking-troughs for the horses and stalls of polished oak and birdseye maple. The floors were of inlaid hardwoods and finely polished.

It was all very magnificent, all but the feed, and that was common bay and oats and dried alfalfa and mixed feed of the same sort that an ordinary carthouse gets.

Mr. Shawhan grieved greatly that money could not buy some more costly feed for his expensive animals—some sort of horse manua or ambrosia, made to the equine palate acceptable. But his regrets were in vain. His splendid horses, housed in such a palace of beauty and wealth, had to drink everyday Spring Valley water and eat oats there were only 60 cents a bushel.

Mrs. Shawhan had a private boudoir in the stable, carpeted with the costliest of imported rugs and hung with tapestries that were worth a week’s wages a yard.

And the carriages! No one in all the world ever had so many carriages or such find ones. Money could buy no better ones, and he had as many different kinds as there was room in his palatial stable to accommodate.

The harness would have been more useless, but scarcely more expensive, had it been made of solid gold.

One day in 1875, when the beautiful stable was all finished and its magnificent vehicles housed therein and its high-stepping and high-priced horses were all standing in their birdseye maple stalls, Mr. and Mrs. Shawhan gave a reception at their “equestrian home” to representatives of the local press. They were received in Mrs. Shawhan’s boudoir, and many baskets of champagnes were discussed among them.

The hostess herself showed the gentlemen of the press through the rooms of the second story of the “equestrian home,” while Mr. Shawhan himself led the way into the birdseye-maple stalls and showed off the high-stepping stock and its expensive stabling.

Mrs. Shawhan had a beautiful whip for every different set of harness. They were mostly gold-butted, or, if not gold, then the handles were made of some more rare or precious stuff. She was very proud of her whips and took great delight in their ostentatious display to the members of the plebeian press.

Then there was a spin out to the park for the visitors behind Mr. Shawhan’s blooded stock. And in the morning, behold, the papers contained more or less glowing accounts of what a fool Shawhan was with all his vulgar wealth.

The next event was the downfall of Virginia consols. Never did stocks fall so rapidly. Never did a Croesus become a pauper so quickly as Parvenue Shawhan became a bankrupt.

In after years the Shawhans went to Nevada, and eked out a vicarious living. Mrs. Shawhan got a divorce from her husband. Not long ago the builder of that magnificent stable died a very poor man.

The house on the front of the lot that the Shawhans, in their haste to get a finer stable than anybody else had, forgot to build, was erected a few years ago by a man named Finnigan.

Mr. Finnigan was once a hostler at the What Cheer House, but in a sudden rise in stocks made him rich. And he built a residence in front of Shawhan’s stable, but it is unoccupied now, while the stable itself is given over to a private school for the training of youths in grammar and football, or whatever it is that is necessary to know in order to begin a course at the university.

Anderson’s Academy, the place is called. The stalls have been taken down, and the marble drinking troughs are no more. A few alterations have been made in the exterior, such as the building of a porch and stairway where the big sliding doors were, and nobody would ever believe that such an ornately constructed building was ever designed for a stable.


In the very early days of San Francisco, only two years after the argonauts of ‘49 arrived here, some enterprising gentlemen, gifted more with long purses than prophetic foresight, came to the conclusion that the city needed a water system.

They invested about $300,000 in tunneling under the hills of Mountain Lake, near the Marine Hospital, to Larkin and Pacific streets.

It was a big brick and concrete tunnel, big enough for a small man to walk through without ducking his head, and it is still there.

For a mile or more its runs under the center of Pacific street, then cuts into the hills through the Presidio reservation, and opens out within a hundred yards or less of Mountain Lake.

It is a very expensive tunnel, very well constructed, but of no utter use in all the world. Nor was it ever of any service. Shortly after its completion the whole scheme collapsed, as it should have done in its infancy.

It is a very interesting story and not known to the younger people of this generation. It was the first movement towards securing a water supply for San Francisco, and the prime movers in the scheme were John Middleton, Ferdinand Vassault, A. D. Merrifield and William G. Wood.

Of these only Ferdinand Vassault is alive today, and he is a very old, white-haired gentleman, with a remarkable facility of speech and excellent memory for one so old.

He told the story to a CALL man in the following sequence: “In 1851 I bought the eighty-acre tract in which Mountain Lake is situated,” he begins, “from Edward M. Parker, who had located there and carried on a small vegetable farm. The land lies in the rear and adjoining the Government reservation.

“Governor Samuel Purdy soon afterward became the part owner of  and the representative of the whole of an undivided one-half of the tract of eighty acres.

“Major Robert Allen, then Quartermaster-General for the Pacific Coast, William G. Wood, John Middleton, A. D. Merrifield, Governor Purdy and myself then organized a company for the purpose of utilizing the water of Mountain Lake in supplying the city of San Francisco. The corporation was known as the Mountain Lake Water Company.

“June 1, 1851, we secured a franchise for building the tunnel and laying our mains. Then at a cost of $280,000 we built a big brick tunnel 5 feet by 4 1/2, interior dimensions.

“Major Allen, Governor Purdy and myself were the principal owners of both the land and the company. The surveys for the water system were made by John Morris and a noted civil engineer of that time named Hotalliog. When the tunnel was built and the surveys all completed we found that we had invested altogether $280,000. About $500,000 was still needed to complete the enterprise, and this amount we could not borrow on bonds here save at a frightening high rate of interest.

“So Nathaniel Bennett, Governor Purdy and Mr. Wood went on to New York to negotiate the loan. Through the house Horace Ketcham & Co. the loan was finally engineered at a reasonable rate of interest, and a day was set upon which the papers were to be signed and the money placed in the bank subject to our order.

“When the day arrived for the consummation of the deal Charles O’Connell, who was the attorney for Horace Ketcham & Co., after examining our franchise and act of incorporation, raised the technical point that the latter document did not empower our corporation to raise money on bonds.

“It was then agreed that the matter should stay over until the Legislature of California convened again, when the technicality should be remedied and the money loaned without further delay.

“That year the Assembly met at Vallejo and the great water-front question was brought up. There was great excitement over the settlement of this controversy and as a consequence all lesser matters were lost sight of.

“Hall McAllister, who was out here then, Mr. Wood and myself went to Vallejo to try to resurrect our forgotten cause.

“At that time I had organized a company with certain Russian officials for the purpose of bringing ice down here from Sitka. We wanted a special law passed enabling the Russian Government officials to become partners with us in the enterprise.

“In this matter we were successful and the best legal authorities on the coast assured us that in this enactment the very point raised by the attorney for Horace Ketcham & Co. was fully covered. We were satisfied with that and did not feel like asking the Legislature to duplicate its motion for our especial benefit.

“But when the New York attorney looked into the question he came to the opinion that the point he had raised was not covered at all by the Russian law.

“As so the matter of the loan dropped entirely. We had already lost a good deal of money in the water company as none of us could afford to get further involved in it the whole thing fell through.”

In 1857 John Seuslcy A. W. von Schmidt and A. Chabot organized the San Francisco Water Works. Their plan was to run off the water from Mountain Lake through Lobos Creek and carry the water down to the city in wooden flumes.

But on testing the capacity of Mountain Lake, which is the outlet of a deep spring, the found it inadequate to the demands, and the principal supply for the water system came from Lobos Creek. To this day the system founded by these men is in operation, and one may follow the course of their wooden flumes along the coast line from Lobos Creek till it passes Fort Point and is lost under the hill several miles from its source.

In 1865 Spring Valley became the successor of the San Francisco Water Works, but it still employs the Lobos Creek flumes and system.

The Mountain Lake Water Company’s project met with less favor from succeeding water-supply companies, and even its costly brick aqueduct has never been turned to account.

This fact alone seems to argue the folly of the scheme. The civil engineers of to-day smile derisively when asked for an opinion as to the utility of that tunnel or the practicability of using the Mountain Lake spring as a water supply.

Of course, the Larkin street end of the big aqueduct has been covered up long since, and the only sign left now of the pretentious water system is a grass-grown trench running from Mountain Lake about 200 yards to the mouth of the brick aqueduct.

But the mouth of the aqueduct itself is filled with tons of earth that fall over it so very long ago that to-day it is grown over with weeds and grass, and the bright yellow poppies blooming there seem to have ever grown and thrived in the outlet of a useless tunnel that cost $280,000.


There is a popular superstition that the old brick foundation on the south side of Union street, just above Buchanan was built by a man who became bankrupt before he could put up the superstructure.

Nothing could be wider of the mark, though strangers who see for the first time, unless they inquired of some one in the neighborhood who is posted, will get just this kind of a story. True, the informant has forgotten the name of the builder, but that matters little. He sticks to his yarn all the harder.

Now, the truth is J. W. Cudworth built that foundation and he owns it and the land upon which it is built to this day. And he owns a whole lot of other equally valuable and more valuable real estate in the neighborhood.

Everybody knows John Cudworth, and everybody knows that he is a wealthy man. He lives opposite the deserted brick foundation, on the sunny side of the street, in the big white house that looks comfortable and homelike from without.

Several years ago he built this foundation with a view of erecting a modern residence on it, pattered after ex-Mayor Otis’ house on Sutter street. When the foundation was completed he changed his mind. He saw the folly of building a house in the shade when he owned a lot that fronted to the south.

So he just let the foundation remain and removed his carpenters across the street, where they did a very good job, considering that Mr. Cudworth is not quite as wealthy as Collis P. Huntington and a good deal less pretentious.

And the old foundation stays right where it was put. Not a brick is missing, and when somebody comes along who has an ambition to build that kind of a house and the means to back up his ambition he can buy that foundation, lot and all, at the regular market rate for such staple commodities. And if nobody comes along who wants that kind of a foundation at market rates, why, it will just stay right there. Mr. Cudworth doesn’t care. But just the same he sometimes smiles softly to himself as he views those bricks and thinks how foolish he was to begin to build there before he had his mind made up.


In his younger days Charles Cuneo, the rich Italian, started to tap a big spring at the foot of Jones street hill. He dug a big hole—in which the boys played hookey—and then abandoned the project, in the belief that it would be cheaper to patronize Spring Valley.

This was about twenty years ago. Folks wondered at the time and often afterward what that big hole was dug for, and to this day, through a even roadbed of cobblestones has effaced all vestiges of Mr. Cuneo’s water tunnel, a great many grown-up people are in ignorance of the whys and wherefores of the cave they hid in when children.

The truth is that on the sharp descent from Union street to Filbert, at Jones street, there are two or three very promising springs of pure water.

And some of the property in that vicinity is troubled with more or less damp cellars and inundated foundations just on account of those springs.

The water flows from them with just enough force to render them very troublesome to landlords in that vicinity, but without sufficient force to render them available for water mains.

Mr. Cuneo had a different idea once, but now he is wiser. He hasn’t kicked a bit about the few dollars this wisdom cost him, for he can afford to pay well for everything. Just the same though he sometimes smiles at his early enthusiasm. But when he does this his second thought is to thank his lucky stars that he got out of it as cheaply as he did.

He only dug a couple of hundred feet under the hill, beginning at a point sixty feet south of Filbert street. He remembers too, now, that he went at the digging in a rather unscientific way.

First, he got permission from the Board of Supervisors, then he set a couple of laborers to work with pick and shovel and told them to dig straight ahead.

They followed instructions for a week or two, but the spring didn’t seem to make connection with Mr. Cuneo’s tunnel somehow or other and the enterprise was abandoned.

And that is the history of the big hole in which the North Beach boys, who are now men, used to play hookey.

It was one of those trifling, minor follies, that really didn’t count much either way.


Where the steam cars used to turn off at Union street to go to Bay View stands a dilapidated old brick structure that looks aged enough to have been built by the antediluvians, supposing they used red bricks and doors and window-sash and glass and inhabited the vicinity of Steiner and Green streets in San Francisco.

The building is so very ancient that its origin is enshrouded in contradiction, but the most authentic account obtainable from the oldest inhabitant credits it with being the first distillery ever operated in San Francisco.

Now it may not be a folly to build and operate a distillery; it is not generally considered so at any rate, but it is foolish to close up a brick building in a thickly populated part of the city and let it stand idle till time and the weather and the rats have rendered it almost unsafe for human occupancy.

The old building stands on a big lot that was once very successfully operated there, and since then it has all gone to rack and ruin. A good many people who pass by on the Union street cars occasionally wonder what that picturesque old brick ruin ever was. And it isn’t everybody who can answer them, either.

Source: San Francisco Morning Call. 31 May 1893. 10.

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