Thursday, July 30, 2009

The San Francisco Reality Tour

I’m sure every one on the planet is familiar with the book "Artistic Homes of California". It was published around 1887, but everyone must have heard of it, right? For those select few who have been living under a rock for the last 122 years this was a book published to showcase some of the finer homes built in No. California at the time. Most of these homes where located in the finer neighborhoods of San Francisco.

Hmmm, “neighborhoods” may not be the right term. Some of these homes belonged to the movers and shakers of California at the time. These men built their mansions on the highest hills, in the finest city on the west coast. The grandest of the grand were at the very top of Nob Hill on California Street in San Francisco. The streets leading up to California Street are some of the steepest in the city. The metaphor would not have been lost on even dimmest of citizens. They were the Kings of California, and were literally living on top of California. The location of their mansions drove that point home.

Alas, most of the homes in the book have not survived to present day. Many were lost in the fire that followed the 1906 earthquake. Even if the homes hadn’t succumbed to the fire then, it is doubtful many would be around today. The world is filled with stories of behemoth houses being leveled in the name of progress. And with a city like San Francisco that sits on a relatively small peninsula, land is far too valuable to keep many of these types of structures around for ever.

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The best thing about the book, though, is the fact that it gives the exact location of where these houses were. Some of the time you don’t get an address, but when a house takes up an entire city block all you need are cross streets. Even with the “lesser” homes, the book might list the location as “The N. W. Corner of Van Ness Av. And Clay St, S. F.”. Buildings may move and street addresses may change but the N. W. corner of two streets in a city like San Francisco won’t move a whole lot over the course of a 120 years.

So with that in mind, I spent a day walking around San Francisco finding the locations of the houses from 1887 and then photographing what is there now. It was a lot of fun. I am not a fan of most big cities, but I love San Francisco. In almost all cases the neighborhoods I was walking through are still the finest locations in the city. Even today, the smaller 4 and 5 thousand square foot homes in these neighborhoods are stunning structures built in the teens and twenties, with even better views of the bay, ocean, and city below. I mean, it doesn’t get any better.

At one point I was walking up Octavia street - and when I say “walking up”, I do mean WALKING UP Octavia Street. This must be the steepest street in the city. Anyway, I was heading for what was at one time the residence of Mr. James V. Coleman at the N. W. corner of Octavia and Washington. As I approached the top of the hill I saw two woman, a mother and daughter team from New Jersey, trying to peek through the side gate of the mansion across the street. This mansion takes up an entire city block at the top of the hill (Ka-ching!). This isn’t Nob Hill, but another spectacular location in the city, none the less.

The home is the 1913 Spreckles Mansion (sugar empire) that is now the home of Danielle Steel, the romance novelist. I don’t think anyone will be shocked to hear that I have never read a Danielle Steel novel. I thought it was funny that they were there to try and get glimpse of Danielle Steel and weren’t really paying any attention to the mansion itself. Naturally, I took it upon myself to educate them some. I had a copy of Artistic Homes of California and preceded to show them some of what used to be. I don’t think they thought I was crazy, but I could be wrong.

I wasn’t able to visit every lot pointed out by the book. There are a few from the book located in Oakland and San Jose, and some of the San Francisco homes were too far to walk to from where I was staying. I think I got about 80% of the book, though. Of the locations I visited, only three of the structures that were there in 1887 still remain. One, Mr. R. I. Bowie’s home, has been heavily modified, while the other 2 look almost as they did.

Anyway, without further ado, I give you The San Francisco Reality Tour.

Residence of J. C. Flood, N. W. corner of California and Mason St.
This was the first Brown Stone to be built west of the Mississippi. That is probably what saved it from either the great fire or the wrecking ball. This one takes up an entire city block and it sits between the Fairmont Hotel (1906) and The Grace Cathedral (1928). Note the cast bronze fence that surrounds the building. Also note the addition on the right. It doesn't seem like there is enough room for it in the original picture. If you compare the two pictures you can see that quite a bit has changed. It is now the home of The Pacific-Union Club, founded in 1889. I got my membership to the club in the last piece of Bazooka gum I bought.

Residence of Mr. Charles Crocker, California Street, bet. Taylor & Jones Sts.
This would have been next door to the Flood Mansion. After this one was lost in the 06 quake and fire Crocker donated the land for the construction of the Grace Cathedral. As for the original photo of the Crocker Mansion, all I can say is - Oofta!

Residences of Mr. Mark Hopkins (left) and Senator Leland Stanford (right)
Block bounded by Powell, Mason, California, and Pine Streets

Some how they managed to squeeze these two places on to one block. The Stanford place is 30,000 square feet. These two homes would have been kitty-corner from the Flood Mansion. In the modern picture you are looking at the back side of The Mark Hopkins Hotel. Note that the wall is still there, sans cresting. It really gives scale to the structures.

Residence of Mr. Robert Sherwood, 1123 California Street
This home would have been right across the street from the Crocker Mansion. As nice as it is, it almost seems a little out of place.

Residence of Mr. L. L. Baker, N. E. Cor. Washington and Franklin Sts
While the original structure is breath taking, the modern structure isn’t exactly an eye-sore. One thing I noticed in a lot of the replacement structures was the consistent use of stone, brick, terracotta, or stucco. It was said that at the time of the 1906 earthquake that San Francisco was the largest city in the country built mostly of wood that had never suffered a catastrophic fire. It was a fire waiting to happen.

Residence of Mr. M. H. de Young, 1919 California Street
Judging from the homes above we can say that it can get better, but judging from what replaced it I think we can also say that it can’t get any worse. Ugh!

Residence of Mr. R. H. Pease, Jr., N. W. Cor. Pacific Ave. and Pierce St.
Ok, so the new one is brick and it won’t burn down, but come on! This is by far the most pathetic home in the neighborhood. If you could see the views this place commands, and the homes around it, you would think there was a horrible mistake made. And as for the original house - ga!

Residence of Mr. Charles Josselyn, S. W. Cor. Gough and Sacramento Sts
Charles Josselyn, I hardly knew yee. Oh, what a loss.

Residence of Mr. James V. Coleman, N. W. cor. of Washington and Octavia Sts.
It is hard to tell what is going on in the modern picture. That is Octavia leading down very steeply to the right of the house. Across Octavia to the right is the Spreckles/Steel mansion. The concrete bunker looking thing with the orange square on it is a big garden box in the middle of Octavia. The wall that the kids are standing next to in the original photo is still mostly enact but you can’t see any of it in my photo.

Residence of Mr. Eugene Meyer, N. E. Cor. Pine and Gough Streets
Not a hint of it left. From the modern photo you see this type of architecture a lot in the city. It seems the architect was trying to get the sprit of the past, but he kind of missed the mark in my opinion. I would rather see a totally modern design than something like this.

Residence of Mr. R. I. Bowie, 2202 California Street
It is still there….sort of.

Residence of Mr. Charles M. Chase, N. W. Cor. California and Scott Sts.
Look familiar? This place is almost unchanged since 1887. The chimneys and the tower roof are missing, and they added a second entrance under the big bay. There must be a basement apartment now.

Residence of Mr. Edward W. Hopkins, 2100 California Street
This one must be wrong. The address is listed as 2100 California and the after picture is 2100 California, but the angle of the streets are all wrong. If it were on the corner kitty-corner from this the streets would be at the correct angle, but the address would need to be 2000 block and end in an odd number.

Residence of Mr. David N. Walter, N. E. Cor. Sacramento St. and Van Ness Avenue
Me, shaking fist at the screen, “Damn you Staples!!! I hold you corporate bastards personally responsible for the loss of this house even though you had nothing to do with it! Boycott Staples! Boycott Staples! Boycott Staples! Boycott Staples!

Residence of Mr. Henry L. Tatum, 2525 Pacific Ave. S. E. Cor. Pierce St.
2525 Pacific does not exist anymore. In the after shot that is 2585 Pacific and the house next door is 2523 Pacific, but 2585 is on the corner. Judging from the street angles, this is the place. If you’re ever in SF be sure to walk this stretch of Pacific from Pierce to Octavia. Oh, and start at the top of Octavia at Lafayette Park and not at the bottom of Octavia. Trust me on this one. The modern house, while very big and nice, is by far one of the more pedantic on the street. Bring your drool bucket.

Residence of Mr. William T. Coleman, S. W. Cor. Taylor and Washington Sts.
This is another one of those that doesn’t quite look right, but this is the spot. Regardless, the new structure is pretty damn awsome.

Residence of Mr. James B. Stetson, N. W. Cor. of Van Ness Avenue and Clay St.
Not much to say here except that I now hate Citi Bank even more. I wouldn’t have thought that possible. Also, note the surrounding structures in the 1887 photo. While this is a spectacular house, it doesn’t look like it was an island of Victorian excess. I ask you, can a mansard roof get any better? I think not.

Residence of Henry T. Scott, S. W. Cor. Clay and Laguna Streets
We’ll end on a high note. Both the original and the replacement are great homes. This is just around the corner from the James V. Coleman home. Both sit right on Lafayette Park and command great views. Also, not only is the entire neighborhood spectacular, but it seemed to be crawling with beautiful woman. As I waked around I was beginning to wonder if the tourist bureau hired out of work models to walk the streets just to improve the atmosphere. It was really amazing. If I won the lottery tomorrow this is the neighborhood in which I would start shopping for a home - and not just because of the woman.

Like I said, this was a lot of fun. The weather was perfect. By perfect, I mean almost identical to Eureka: Mid to low 60s with sunshine interrupted by the occasional fogbank. I enjoyed the cultural diversity and the hustle and the bustle of The City so much that I tried to shop for an apartment. As I walked around I noticed one or two places with rental signs on them. At the end of the day I took down a few numbers and called for prices from the hotel room. Only one person answered the phone and the conversation went like this:

{Ring, Ring}

Landlord: Hello

Me: Yes, I’m calling about the apartment for rent at 676 Geary (Geary is a main thoroughfare in The City. This section of Geary is at the bottom of Nob Hill, just off Union Square. Not ritzy, but adjacent to ritzy.)

Landlord: Where did you get this number?

Me: {I chuckle} I got it off a building. Uh, maybe I dialed the wrong number is this 409-16….

Landlord: {He cuts me off} Yes, this is the right number. What are you looking for?

Me: I’m not really sure. I like the location and the company that just hired me is giving me living expenses, so I’m not really limited {I have no idea what rents are going for, so I don’t want to appear limited. I just want a price and maybe be able to view an apartment.}

Landlord: Is it just you? Are you looking for a studio?

Me: Um, sure, a studio would be great. What does a studio run?

Landlord: I don’t have any studios in that building. Do you want a 1 bedroom?

Me: {I chuckle again} Ok, how much is a one bedroom in that building.

Landlord: There are no 1 bedrooms available either. What is your price range? What are you looking for?

Me: {I couldn’t keep from laughing, so I just hung up}

Maybe I won’t be moving to The Big City any time soon.

I wanted to try and get a better picture of the Hopkins Mansion. I found it odd that the photo from the book was taken from Pine street when all of the houses were on California St. Sure enough, that is the back side of the property.



Pretty damn impressive. Unfortunately, I also found out that Mr. Hopkins died a year before it was finished.

I found another interesting photo as well,

That is the Crocker mansion at the far end, and then the Huntington mansion. Next to the Huntington mansion would eventually be the Flood Mansion. Above, I said that Crocker was next door to Flood. When I was in The City last week I knew that Huntington Park was between the two. What I didn’t know was that Huntington Park was named so because it was the location of Huntington’s Mansion. I knew that Huntington was one of the Big Four in California railroad (Crocker, Huntington, Hopkins, and Stanford) so I should have put 2 & 2 together.

What is really interesting about that photo, though, is the big box looming behind Huntington’s mansion. According to the caption that came with the photo, Mr. Crocker tried to buy all of the parcels on the block for his mansion. A single hold-out, an undertaker named Mr. Yung, refused to sell. After Mr. Crocker built his house, he built a 40-foot high wall around 3 sides of Mr. Yung’s house. Eventually Mr. Yung died and Crocker bought the land and tore down the house and the wall. That is pretty hard-core.

Finally, below is a photo of the Flood mansion after the fire. The damage was a lot more extensive that I had thought. In the second shot you can see the Flood Mansion and the newly built Fairmont Hotel. They were pretty much the only things left standing on Nob Hill after the fire and both are still standing today.

Click Here to see some interior shots of the Hokins and Standford mansions.


Karen Anne said...

The decline and fall of Western Civilization, right before our eyes...

I wonder why otherwise more or less not interfered with buildings like the Flood and Chase houses lost part of their tops?

ellipsisknits said...

Oh the landlord is too funny.

I was struck by the lack of landscaping in the early photos. It puts new tract developments with two wimpy shrubs by the foundation in perspective a bit.

Speaking of perspective, the very first house where you mention it doesn't look like there's space for the modern addition - there has to be space, the wall is in the same place. (your new photo lines up nearly perfectly). I guess it just looks closer since you don't have the landscaping behind the wall to give it any scale.

Also, the poo chopped up trees on Van Ness Avenue and Clay St. - I guess the mangling of street trees isn't a new invention either.

Norma said...

I really enjoy the pictures that you posted of the houses. In the last picture the view from the house was all open and then when you looked at the view in the current picture, well there was none. gotta love progress. Now I am off to go try to find a copy of the book

thanks for posting the pictures

Omar said...

Wow -- amazing pics. San Francisco is definitely one of the best places for old houses junkies to get their fill. The victorian architecture is just amazing. Visiting the Haas-Lilenthal house a few years back changed my life. I'm now a victorian house convert (previously arts & crafts enthusiast). :)

Greg said...

The lack of landscaping in the older photos struck me as well. The place at 2525 Pacific looks as if the paint isn't even dry yet.

My guess with the Flood Mansion is that it was damaged by the quake and the addition and changes to the roof line were done during repairs. I think the old photo is an optical illusion because of the flatness of the old B&W photo.

If you click on the "Art Homes" link at the top of the post you can see all of the older pictures at higher resolution.


er1983 said...

Wow. Those older photos are truly magnificent!

My wife and I are lucky to live in a town with some really great architecture, but very little (bordering on zero) amazing Victorian residential eye candy like you've shown.

It's interesting (in a largely disheartening way) to see those same plots as they stand today.

Debbie said...

Oh my, the original buildings are breathtaking. It's so sad when you see an apartment building where a gorgeous Victorian used to be.

Thanks for sharing.

Omar said...

By the way, I think some of those old photos have made me reevaluate what a true mansion is. Or maybe the term "castle" would be more appropriate. Sad to hear most of them are no longer standing -- Thanks for sharing. :)

Katherine said...

You just did one of my all time favorite best kind of vacation day days.

Laikabear said...

Wow, thanks for that great post! That sounds like my kind of vacation also. :)

Mark said...

Looks to me like alot of those new building were built using the older ones foundations.

facilities group said...

Fascinating photographs. I love Then & Now comparisons. Just a couple of comments:

1. Re the James V Coleman house at Washington and Octavia - the location is correctly shown but the current house is not the Spreckels/Danielle Steele mansion as mentioned, that one is next to it across Octavia.

2. Re the Edward W Hopkins mansion - you are correct in pointing out the street topography doesn't match the commonly quoted 2100 California address. It should be 2099 California as confirmed by an entry for his wife Mrs Edward W Hopkins in a Google Books link for Whos Who Among The Women Of California.


Check out Google

Greg said...

Nice find with 2. I knew that had to be the wrong address.

As for number 1, I think you misread what I wrote, or maybe what I wrote was not clear. I do say that "Across Octavia to the right is the Spreckles/Steel mansion", and that is accurate. Perhaps I should have written, "Across Octavia to the right of the house in the photo is the Spreckles/Steel mansion"

Rabid Troll said...

If you want these injustices to get more attention, here is a website with the same format, before and after pictures of where great buildings use to be:

Greg said...

Thanks! That is a great site and I posted a link to this page. This page has turned out to be one of the more popular pages on my blog, and still gets dozens of hits a day.