The Brief Glory Days of San Francisco’s Robber Baron Palaces
Collis P. Huntington, Leland Stanford, Mark Hopkins, and Charles Crocker built some of the fanciest houses on Nob Hill—only to see them wrecked in San Francisco’s 1906 earthquake.
They were known then as the “Big Four” and their palaces of conspicuous consumption dominated a city whose fame was based on the promise of sudden wealth.
At the end of the 19th century, Collis P. Huntington, Leland Stanford, Mark Hopkins, and Charles Crocker loomed over California history.
Stanford would co-found the university that bears his name and serve as governor and senator. Crocker at one point also held the controlling shares of Wells Fargo and left behind an estate of hundreds of millions of dollars.
Mark Hopkins would leave behind riches that would eventually be turned into the Mark Hopkins Institute of Art (San Francisco Art Institute).
Huntington would not only dominate California’s rail systems, but also back east where his work in rail and shipbuilding are still seen today.
When he died, his nephew, Henry E. Huntington, would turn that wealth into the stunning Huntington Library.
Not bad for four guys who started out as shop owners.
In the 1870’s these four men built palaces reflecting their wealth and status on San Francisco’s Nob Hill.
The hill gets its name from the Anglo-Indian word ‘nabob,’ which was used to describe flashy rich men who made money in the Orient. At roughly 500 feet above sea level, Nob Hill ensured that all would see the mens’ homes, and that these titans could look down over their city.
“Nob Hill, the hill of palaces,” wrote Robert Louis Stevenson in 1888, “must certainly be counted the best part of San Francisco. It is there that the millionaires are gathered together vying with each other in display.”
Of course, that ostentatious wealth also made them targets, and the mansions were famously “sacked” by socialist rebels in 1886.
However, just a few decades after their completion, all four palaces were destroyed in the devastating 1906 earthquake. “San Francisco is gone,” Jack London famously declared after the earthquake. “Nothing remains of it but memories.” That was also true for the wedding-cake Victorian palaces of the wealthy.
The only reference today for that long-lost grandeur is the James C. Flood mansion which was built next door, survived the earthquake, and is today the Pacific-Union Club. (Although, sorry ladies who want to visit, gents only!)
The first of the palaces to go up was that belonging to Leland Stanford (or £eland $tanford as Ambrose Bierce called him). It was constructed in 1874 after he moved from Sacramento.
When it was built, it was the largest private home in the state and cost $2 million.
Photographs of the interior by Edweard Muybridge show that no expense was spared. Artwork, luxurious curtains, wood, and ornate plaster adorn the rooms.
The Stanfords, however, did not end their lives on a happy note. When their son died as a teenager, they founded a university and named it after him. A memorial room was created and only one manservant was permitted access. While Leland died of heart failure at age 69, his wife would famously die just a year before the earthquake and claim with her last breath that she had been poisoned.
Totally destroyed by the earthquake, today the Stanford Court Hotel stands where it once did.
The next mansion that went up built by the “Big Four” belonged to Mark Hopkins and his wife Mary Hopkins. While Mr. Hopkins had made the fortune, the house was really Mrs. Hopkins’s. The husband reportedly had simple tastes, but told his wife, “I have all the money in the world. You can build a combination of Buckingham Palace and the Petit Trianon as long as you are happy.”
It reflected her tastes, or lack thereof, and Mr. Hopkins actually died before the 40-room Gothic mansion was finished three years after being started in 1875 and at a cost of $1.5 million. He left his wife $60 to $70 million and stock options that gave her an estimated $1 million a year in earnings.
The Hopkins mansion was probably the most visually stimulating of the four with its bays, towers, and turrets making it, said Samuel Dickson, in Tales of San Francisco, “somewhat like one of those sugar confections of a castle seen in bakery windows, only instead of being sugar-white it was a somber gray-black.”
Although it still was not exactly within the realm of what one would call refined, its interior was decorated with “rare woods and beautiful frescoes.”
However, Mrs. Hopkins was constantly being sued by various workmen for not paying up, most notably Giuseppe Gariboldi, the artist and decorator.
When her husband died, Mrs. Hopkins fell for her interior decorator, Edward Searles, who was 22 years younger than her.
Depending on who you ask, he may have wormed his way in when he found out she was a spiritualist and told her he was a medium.
With him at her side, she would accumulate palatial residences in Paris, New York, Methuen, Block Island, and Great Barrington. Her mansion in San Francisco would be opened to the public as an art collection, and was later became the Mark Hopkins Institute of Art. It was also completely destroyed in the earthquake. Today, in its stead, stands the Intercontinental Mark Hopkins Hotel.
The last of the “Big Four” mansions to be built belonged to Charles and Mary Crocker. It became famous not only for its particularly aggressive hideousness but also for being the most prominent example of a “spite fence.”
“There are uglier buildings in America than the Crocker House on Nob Hill, but they were built with public money for a public purpose; among architectural triumphs of private fortune and personal taste it is peerless,” the journalist Ambrose Bierce write scathingly.
Crocker had also wanted his mansion to be situated on an entire city block, but there was one problem, a neighbor, an undertaker named Nicholas Yung.
Given that they had views of the city and bay from their house, the Yungs refused to sell for Crocker (worth tens of millions) and his offer of $5,000. Instead of meeting the Yung’s demand ($7,000), Crocker built a 40-foot wall on his property that towered over the Yung house on three sides, cutting off light, the views, and air flow.
Yung hit back by putting a giant coffin with a skull and crossbones on his roof facing the Crocker palace.
The wall was brought down to 25 feet after wind damage, but the Yungs held out until 1904 when both Yung parents had died and their children sold it to the Crockers.
When the Crocker mansion was destroyed in 1906, the family initially intended to rebuild. Instead, the land was given to the diocese to build Grace Cathedral, which is probably best known for its exact replicas of the Ghiberti Baptistery Doors.
The fourth and final mansion belonged to Collis Huntington.
Huntington was based in New York City and commuted to Washington, D.C. every day, and from that perch ensured that his California interests were advanced—whether lobbying or outright bribery, as when it surfaced that he bribed (and failed to pay up) Ward McAllister (friend of Mrs. Astor) to get him an invitation to the Patriarchs’ Ball.
He also had his own espionage network engaged against rival rail companies.
He was described as “scrupulously dishonest” and did not like charity. (The New York Times cleverly described his will as “almost unscarred by philanthropies.”) His nephew—who married his widow—would take that $40 million fortune and turn it into one of the world’s greatest collections of art and rare books.
Huntington did not build his mansion. Instead, it was erected by David Colton (before the Hopkins and Crocker mansions), who was the chief legal counsel for the railroad.
When he died, his estate was embroiled in lawsuits by the “Big Four” and the Huntingtons swooped in to buy the mansion for $250,000. Out of the four, it was the simplest on the outside with a clean Neo-Classical design and a wood exterior painted to look like marble.
Destroyed in the earthquake, the land was donated by the family and became part of Huntington Park.
Many have argued that we are living in a second Gilded Age, and San Francisco is once again held up as emblematic of society’s widening wealth gap. Today instead of train and gold robber barons, we have the “titans” of tech. One hopes their legacy will be greater than garish mansions brought low by Mother Nature.