Mr Bell In San Francisco:A Wander Around Nob Hill


The strangely named Nob Hill is one of San Francisco’s most highly regarded neighbourhoods, the area is roughly bordered by Washington, Mason, Post and Polk streets and was home to some of the wealthiest families in the city before the 1906 earthquake. The name Nob Hill was coined after the California Street cable car line opened in 1878 allowing the wealthy “nobs” to arrive and build their grand homes on the peak of the hill.


These days Nob Hill is known for its grand hotels and architecture. One of the only survivors from the 1906 earthquake was the Fairmont Hotel. This beautifully grand Beaux Arts style building was built and named in honour of U.S. Senator James Graham Fair, an Irish immigrant who made his fortune in mining and property. His daughters built the hotel to commemorate their farther’s legacy. The building was badly damaged both inside and out after the earthquake but it was decided it would be restored, the daughters chose California’s first licensed female architect Julia Morgan to take on the project. The hotel opened one year later.


It was in the Fairmont’s Garden Room where delegates drafted the initial United Nations Charter in 1945, Tony Bennett first sung “I Left My Heart in San Francisco”, his signature melody, in the hotel’s ornate Venetian Room and every U.S. President since Harry Truman has stayed there. The Tonga Room and Hurricane Bar is a historic Tiki bar that features simulated thunderstorms and a bandstand that floats on the old swimming pool. The hotel also served as the backdrop for the fictional St. Gregory in the TV series Hotel.


Grace Cathedral is the mother church of the Episcopal Diocese of California and the third largest Episcopal cathedral in the U.S. It was designed by Lewis P. Hobart and stands on the site of the two mansions that belonged to William and Charles Crocker. Building work started on the cathedral in September 1928 but it was not completed until 1964, and even today the interior vaulting remains unfinished.

Notre Dame in Paris was one of several inspirations for the building which incorporates traditional elements like the rose window. The interior is replete with marble and stained glass with its leaded glass windows designed by Charles Connick who took inspiration from the blue glass of Chartres. The doors at the main entrance are cast from olds of Lorenzo Ghiberti’s “Doors of Paradise” made for the Baptistry in Florence.


Mark Hopkins was one of four men who founded the Central Pacific Railroad. Along with other wealthy entrepreneurs he chose a lot on the southeastern corner of Nob Hill’s summit to build an opulent mansion for his family. Construction of the house began in 1875 and took several architects, three years and $3 million to complete. Mark Hopkins never lived to see the house completed and several years later the house was donated to the organisation that would become the San Francisco Art Institute.


The house survived the earthquake but not the fires and when the art institute moved to a new location the property was sold to a developer. The luxury 19 story Mark Hopkins Hotel was built combining French Chateau and Spanish Ornamentation styles. The penthouse on the 19th floor was later converted into a restaurant and bar known as Top of the Mark, offering panoramic views of the city and the bay. During WWII it became a popular meeting place for military personnel and their sweethearts. The northwest windows became known as Weeper’s Corner as many wives and girlfriends gathered there for one last glimpse of the ships passing through the Golden Gate.


The Pacific Union Club is housed in the mansion that was built for the “Bonanza King” James Flood. It’s the only surviving mansion in the area and was built and designed by Augustus Laver in 1885.  James Flood was one of four men who bought a controlling interest in some dwindling Comstock mines, new shafts were sunk and they struck a “bonanza”, a rich pocket of high grade silver ore. Flood returned to San Francisco a millionaire and bought the land where his mansion still stands. The house was gutted in the fire but the Italianate brown sandstone facade survived, the building was bought by the Pacific Union Club, an exclusive gentlemen’s club that had its origins in the Gold Rush.


The landmark Huntington Hotel sits on land that once served as the backdrop for the Tobin family mansion. The Tobin’s were early California leaders and founded the Hibernia Savings and Loan Association. The Tobin’s built an opulent Victorian home near the summit of Nob Hill and Collis P. Huntington, a successful railroad magnate lived in the mansion across the street. The 1906 earthquake destroyed both homes and Huntington’s widow donated the site of their former home to the city for use as a park.


The Tobin’s sold their land to a developer who built a luxurious apartment building in 1922 and named the property in honour of Mr Huntington, it was the first brick and steel high-rise to be constructed west of the Mississippi River. Two years later the building was converted into a 135 room hotel.


Leland Stanford was another successful railroad tycoon who used some of his money to build a mansion on Nob Hill. His wife, Jane, owned the property until her death in 1905. The Stanford’s founded the university that still bears their name as a memorial to their only child, Leland Jr. who died of typhoid just before his 16th birthday. The mansion was destroyed in the fire after the 1906 earthquake with the retaining walls being all that remain today. In 1912 the property became an upscale apartment building, then in 1972, it was converted into a luxury hotel which it still is today.


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I live in London and work for a large international airline but apart from being my job travel is my passion. I've been very lucky and have travelled all over the world. In this my 20th year working for the airline I decided to start photographing and writing about the places I visit including my home town London. I hope you enjoy my adventures around the world.

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