Of all 44 of San Francisco’s hills, Nob Hill was the most desirable to build a house on in the early days of San Francisco. It was centrally located and it had the best views. And at 376 feet above the waterfront it offered a refuge from the bawdiness of the unwashed masses for those who could afford to build here. In fact, the name “Nob” is reputedly a contraction of the Hindu word “nabob” which meant a wealthy or powerful person.

The first of those nabobs came with riches from the 1848 gold strike when there was just sandy scrub covering the hill. The defining mansions of Nob Hill were built by all four of the Big Four, the quartet of railroad barons of the Central Pacific Railroad who engineered the Transcontinental Railroad - Collis Huntington, Leland Stanford, Mark Hopkins and Charles Crocker. They were followed to Nob Hill by two of the “Silver Kings” from Nevada’s Comstock Lode, James Flood and James Fair, who were spreading money from America’s biggest silver strike. 

The mansions on the hill in the 1870s were something to behold. Commoners would trudge up the steep sides of Nob Hill - almost a 25% grade on the south side - just to take a look. When adventure novelist Robert Louis Stevenson came to town for a visit in 1882 he called it “the hill of palaces.” The residents of Nob Hill constructed their own cable car line, the California Street Railroad Company in 1878 and it is still the least painful way to ascend the hill.

The 1906 Earthquake and Fire showed no deference to wealth and the Nob Hill neighborhood was completely destroyed, just like 28,000 other buildings in the city. All of the grand mansions save one, the only one not built of wood, was left in rubble. And the millionaires did not rebuild. Not one. They moved westward, to Pacific Heights mostly or completely out of town.

But the money did not leave Nob Hill altogether. You still had those million-dollar views and that great location. So swanky hotels rose on the ruins of the historic mansions. And then came posh apartment houses. Nob Hill was still, and always, a places for nobs. Our walking tour of Nob Hill will remember its beginnings and explore the present and we will begin on the site of one of those splendid 19th century mansions that was not built over but left as open space for ever more... 

Huntington Park
Sacramento, Taylor, California and Cushman streets

Collis Potter Huntington was born on a Connecticut farm in 1821 and began his business career as a traveling peddler at the age of 16. In his twenties he was running a successful store in upstate New York but he set out for California with the Gold Rush and teamed up with Mark Hopkins selling mining supplies in Sacramento. In the late 1850s, Huntington and Hopkins joined forces with two other successful businessmen, Leland Stanford and Charles Crocker, to pursue the idea of creating a rail line that would connect the America’s East and West. In 1861, these four businessmen (often referred to as The Big Four) pooled their resources and business acumen, and formed the Central Pacific Railroad company to create the western link of America’s First Transcontinental Railroad. Of the four, Huntington morphed into a true railroad man. He spearheaded the establishment of the Southern Pacific Railroad which was eventually the primary link of the more southern second transcontinental railroad. In 1871, back east, Huntington oversaw the completion of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway that fulfilled a long-held dream of linking the Chesapeake Bay with the Ohio River. Collis Huntington’s mansion was located here, originally the home of David D. Colton, built in 1872. Colton was the chief lawyer for the Central Pacific Railroad. After it was destroyed in the 1906 Earthquake and Fire his widow Arabella donated the land to the City of San Francisco to be used as a public park. The centerpiece of the square is the Fountain of the Tortoises, an exact replica of a 1581 fountain still functioning in Piazza Mattei, Rome, Italy. The fountain was originally installed at the Crocker estate in Hillsborough in the early 1900s but donated by the family to the City in 1954. The composition is lit by eight underwater halogen lamps.


Huntington Hotel
1075 California Street at southeast corner of Taylor Street

A mansion belonging to the Tobin family, founders of the Hibernia Bank, once lorded over this site. Architect Charles Peter Weeks and engineer William Peyton Day created the twelve-story, Georgian-style brick building as an apartment complex in 1922, lavishing $2.5 million on its construction. The 140-room Huntington Apartments was the first steel-and-brick high-rise west of the Mississippi River and lauded by the Illustrated Daily as the “last word in luxury.” The property was purchased just two years later by Eugene Fritz who eventually converted the Huntington into a hotel after World War II. In 1950 Fritz transferred ownership to his 14-year old daughter, Dorothy and the hotel continues to be operated by the family. 


James C. Flood Mansion
1000 California Street at northwest corner of Mason Street

In 1873 Irish immigrant John Mackay and his partner James Fair were following a narrow sliver of low-grade ore in the Consolidated Virginia and California Mine. Persisting long after others would write off the vein, Fair discovered the Big Bonanza, a field of ore so rich it took several years to exhaust and yielded more than $60 million - well over a billion 2012 dollars. Mackay and Fair and partners stockbrokers James Flood and William O’Brien - came to be known as the “Bonanza Kings.”  Flood took his money and dumped much of it into real estate, including this mansion in 1886, which was the first brownstone building constructed west of the Mississippi River. Flood had seen the newly popular New York City brownstones and ordered pre-cut sandstone from Connecticut for his house which was shipped around Cape Horn as ship ballast. It was the only Nob Hill mansion to survive the San Francisco Earthquake in 1906 but the interior was burned and Flood’s daughter, Cora, the only one still living in the house, sold the property to the Pacific Union Club in 1909. It was founded in 1889 as a merger of two earlier clubs: the Pacific Club (founded 1852) and the Union Club (founded 1854). The club staged an architectural competition to create a new building. Club member Albert Pissis carried the day with plans for a grand Greek temple but cost concerns won out and the commission was given to Willis Polk, the only designer who wanted to retain the core of the Flood mansion.  

1001 California Street
southwest corner of Mason Street

The residential building was constructed in 1914 and stands as one of the best expressions of the exquisitely detailed Beaux Arts style in San Francisco. The lobby boasts marble details and statuary by Interior Design Hall of Famers Albert Hadley and Sister Parish. The building gained a measure of notoriety in the 1970s when Randolph and Catherine Hearst moved here after the kidnapping and subsequent trial of their daughter Patty.

Fairmont Hotel
950 Mason Street at northeast corner of California Street

James Flood’s mining superintendent partner James Graham Fair also used some of his Comstock money to buy San Francisco real estate, including this land. It wasn’t choice real estate in the early 1880s, a sandy and scrubby patch through which Mason Street had yet to be cut. Emerging from the mines, Fair turned out to be a shrewd businessman often called “Slippery Jim.” He invested in banks and railroads and even won a term in the United States Senate in 1881 but he was more interested in the title than the office and the little time Fair spent in Washington was used to promote - surprise - silver issues. While a senator his wife divorced him for “habitual adultery” and after the colorful Fair died in 1894 there were court cases brought by women trying to tap into his fortune, $40 million of which was left in trust to his daughters, Theresa and Virginia. The girls used some of that inheritance to build the Fairmont as a monument to their father in 1902. Brothers James and Merritt Reid drew up plans for the Beaux Arts building. The hotel was nearly completed before the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. Although the structure survived, the interior was heavily damaged by fire, and opening was delayed until 1907. Pioneering female architect and engineer Julia Morgan was hired to repair the building because of her then-innovative use of reinforced concrete, which could produce buildings capable of withstanding earthquakes and other disasters. Through its illustrious history the Fairmont became known for its Tonga Room & Hurricane Bar, an historic tiki bar dating to the 1960s. Fans of the 1980s television drama Hotel will recognize the Fairmont as the fictional St. Gregory Hotel helmed by James Brolin.  

Mark Hopkins Hotel
999 California Street at southeast corner of Mason Street

At the age of 35 Mark Hopkins set out for the California gold fields in 1849, not to look for riches in the hillsides and streams but in the pockets of miners. By 1855 he was operating a hardware and iron business in Sacramento and in 1861 he was the eldest of four partners who formed the Central Pacific Railroad that was to build half of the Transcontinental Railroad. Hopkins would become one of America’s wealthiest men. And few men so rich were ever so thrifty. But his wife could spend the money. She engineered the construction of a fabulous mansion - the largest on San Francisco’s Nob Hill - and after Hopkins died in 1878 she made her way back east and in the 1880s constructed a 60,000 square-foot fortress on 61 acres of prime Great Barrington, Massachusetts real estate in the Berkshire Mountains. The great home constructed of blue dolomite sported seven turrets and 40 rooms. She hired interior decorator Edward Searles to fill those 40 rooms and a year before it was finished Mary Hopkins married Searles, 22 years her junior. She died in 1891 and most of Mark Hopkins’ money - he never had a will - passed to Edward Searles. Searles stayed in the castle back east and donated the Nob Hill property to the San Francisco Art Institute to be used as a school and museum. The grand mansion burned in the aftermath of the 1906 Earthquake and the site was purchased by mining engineer and hotel investor George D. Smith. Smith hired the San Francisco firm of Charles Peter Weeks and William Peyton Day who sketched out plans for a soaring 19-story hotel in the over-sized image of a French chateau with flourishes of Spanish ornamentation. The hotel’s famous taproom got a mentionin Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo when Jimmy Stewart says. “I can’t go to the bar at the Top of the Mark, but there are plenty of street level bars in this town.”

Stanford Court
905 California Street southwest corner of Powell Street

“I have planned that long after I shall have crumbled into dust the...establishment founded by me at Palo Alto shall endure,” said Leland Stanford, former governor of California and president of the Central Pacific Railroad. He was speaking, of course, about his horse-breeding farm. But that was before his 15-year old son died of typhoid fever and he decided to start a university in his memory. Like his fellow Big Four partners Stanford lived in splendor in a Nob Hill mansion he built here in 1875. Leland Stanford died in 1893 before the first class of Stanford University graduated and 13 years later his mansion was destroyed in the fire that followed the earthquake. In 1912 a striking Neoclassical apartment house was built on the site and in the 1970s a $35 million facelift turned it into the present-day hotel.


University Club
800 Powell Street at northeast corner of Californian Street 

In 1890, at the urging of president William Thomas the Harvard Club of San Francisco opened its membership to all college men and became the University Club. The club was searching for a new clubhouse even before the earthquake of 1906 and in 1908 this land from the former Stanford estate was purchased. Walter Danforth Bliss and William Baker Faville, who formed one of San Francisco’s longest and most productive architectural partnerships, designed the classically flavored new clubhouse, executed in warm, red brick.

The Francesca
850 Powell Street at southeast corner of Sacramento Street

The San Francisco Chronicle was raving about the views from this ten-story apartment building in 1922, a year before it was even built.  They weren’t making elaborate Beaux Arts high-rises like this anymore when the distinguished architectural team of Gustave Albert Lansburgh, Kenneth MacDonald, and Maurice C. Couchot drew up plans for the Francesca. The developers promised unmatched luxury for new residents including private elevators for each apartment, no hallways of any kind, radio phone equipment, incinerators, service elevators, and the best accommodations possible for servants’ quarters.

St. Elizabeth Building
901 Powell Street at northwest corner of Sacramento Street

California architect Houghton Sawyer tapped the Edwardian style for this brick and stone structure in 1912. Inside he gave the building a dramatic circular stairway. Sawyer, who lived for 90 years, is best known for his residential work for sugar baron Adolph Spreckels in Pacific Heights. 


Brocklebank Apartments
1000 Mason Street at northeast corner of Sacramento Street

Charles Peter Weeks and William Peyton Day created this Renaissance Renaissance Revival high-rise in the 1920s. In real life Herb Caen, whose daily San Francisco Chronicle column with its trademark three-dot ellipses that was familiar to Bay area readers for the better part of sixty years, lived here. In fictional life, Gavin and Madeleine Elster (Kim Novak) lived here in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo.

Park Lane
1100 Sacramento Street at northwest corner of Mason Street

From street level this high-rise from 1925 looks like a standard classical-themed white brick apartment building but if you step back you will see an early Art Deco treatment at the top of the building.


Glazer-Keating House
1110 Taylor Street

This little gem of a building is a local landmark for its display of the Neo-Georgian style from the Edwardian period in San Francisco. The core of this building dates to 1852 and has been outfitted with classical features such as a front-facing pediment with projecting scroll-with-acanthus modillions around the bay.


Chambord Apartments
1298 Sacramento Street at northeast corner of Jones Street

It may be hard to envision but this splendid wedding cake of a building has actually had decorative embellishments removed over the years. It is the creation of self-taught San Francisco architect James Francis Dunn and was one of his last buildings before his death in 1921 at the age of 47. The French Renaissance-infused Chambord was undressed in the mid-1900s and slated for demolition but evaded the wrecking ball. It has since been restored with Dunn’s original plans as a guide. 

Nob Hill Place
1155 Jones Street at southwest corner of Sacramento Street

The intersection of Jones and Sacramento streets is the top of Nob Hill. On the southwest corner of this choice bit of real estate is Nob Hill Place, a 1924 addition formed in concrete that became a popular San Francisco building material post-1906 earthquake.  


Twelve Hundred California
1200 California street at northwest corner of Jones Street 

It was not until the middle of the 20th century that earthquake-proofing buildings had advanced to a degree that builders felt comfortable with soaring structures over self-imposed height restrictions. But so many high-rises began darkening San Francisco streets in the Financial District that an official height restriction on new construction was imposed. Nob Hill received its first modern apartment tower in 1974 with the construction of this 27-story, 289-foot structure.

Cathedral Apartments
1201 California Street at southwest corner of Jones Street

Following the 1906 Earthquake there was a flurry of apartment construction in San Francisco. Until the Great Depression ended the boom some 78 multi-unit buildings went up in the City, many high-end affairs tapping into the talent of the town’s best architects. The 19-story Cathedral Apartments, finished in 1930 was one of the last and the largest with 91 units. Charles Peter Weeks and William Peyton Day laced their building with Spanish Revival detailing; it would be one of the last projects for the esteemed tandem before Weeks’ death in 1928. The firm specialized in theaters and cinemas, including several exuberant movie palaces and hotels throughout California. 


California Masonic Memorial Temple
1111 California Street

Widely praised as a touchstone of modern architecture with its simple lines, open spaces and heavy materials, the temple was designed in 1958 to be a “beacon of light for all Masons.” Iconoclastic artist Emile Norman created an historical window of California Masonic heritage for the building that incorporates thousands of bits of metal, parchment, felt, linen, silk, natural foliage, thinly sliced vegetable matter, shells and sea life, plus 180 colors of stained glass. The 38 by-48-foot endomosaic mural is enhanced by a lower frieze that makes use of actual gravels and soils of the 58 counties of California and the Islands of Hawaii. Norman began his professional career designing window displays for New York department stores before making his way to a home and studio in Big Sur in 1946. 


Grace Cathedral
1051 Taylor Street between California and Sacramento streets

Charles Crocker was the last of the Big Four railroad magnates to move to Nob Hill and this was his property. Late to the party in the 1870s, Crocker sought to make his splash by purchasing the entire block, which he attempted to accomplish on the down-low to keep prices in line. He almost made it but word got out that it was Charles Crocker’s deep pockets buying property with one house to go - at the Sacramento street side of the block - belonging to Nicholas Yung, a German undertaker. Whether Yung was too enamored of his Nob Hill views to move or whether he was looking to make a big score is a matter of historical debate but rather than pursue the property Crocker instead built a 40-foot wooden fence around three sides of the Yung house. Choosing not to live 22 hours a day in darkness, the Yungs moved to another property but still didn’t sell their Sacramento Street house to Crocker. Regardless of who was the good guy or the bad guy in the dispute, Crocker’s monstrosity turned public opinion against him. Crocker died in 1888, two years after being incapacitated in a New York City carriage accident. It was left to heirs to acquire the property and finally have the Spite Fence torn down. Just a short time after that the 1906 Earthquake and Fire brought down Crocker’s expansive French Second Empire mansion as well. The Crocker family then gave their land to the Episcopal Diocese of California to build a cathedral. The Grace Church parish was founded in the Gold Rush days of 1849 and among its past rectors in the 1860s had been James Smith Bush, great grandfather of George H.W. Bush and great-great grandfather of George W. Bush. Lewis P. Hobart, who was one of the town’ busiest architects after the earthquake, provided the French Gothic design for the Cathedral, which became the third largest Episcopal cathedral in the nation when it was completely finished in 1964. The gilded bronze doors were cast from the same molds used to make the Gates of Paradise by Lorenzo Ghiberti for the Baptistery in Florence; the originals depicting scenes from the Old Testament took 27 years to create in the 15th century. During W W II the doors were taken down and stored away, and when they were brought back in the late 40’s, latex molds were made and copies were eventually placed back on the baptistery. The only other copy was purchased by Grace Cathedral.