by Arnold Woods
Today we know Nob Hill as the home to some of San Francisco’s ritziest hotels and one of its finest cathedrals. Both the name and its reputation as home for the wealthy elite are a result of the decision of the founders of the Central Pacific Railroad, collectively known as “The Associates” or “The Big 4,” to build their homes there in the mid-to-late 19th century. The hill was originally known as California Hill because California Street went over it.
The Central Pacific Railroad was incorporated on June 28, 1861 and then chartered by Congress in 1862 to build the western portion of the Transcontinental Railroad. The Big 4 were then Sacramento businessmen. The president of the new railroad company was Leland Stanford, who was elected governor and then took office on January 10, 1862. The vice-president was Collis Huntington, who was in business with Mark Hopkins, selling mining supplies and hardware during the Gold Rush and thereafter. Hopkins was the treasurer for the venture and had bookkeeping and business managerial experience before starting Huntington Hopkins and Company with Huntington. The final member of the Big 4 was Charles Crocker, who was placed in charge of construction of the railroad, likely because of his experience working in and owning an iron forge. In 1868, the Big 4 bought a controlling interest in the Southern Pacific Railroad and later merged the two rail lines.
Stanford was the first to build on California Hill. After he moved his family to San Francisco in 1874 so he could take over the Occidental and Oriental Steamship Company, he picked a spot at California and Powell and began to build a mansion.1 The house at 905 California Street was designed by Samuel C. Bugbee & Son, Architects, a San Francisco firm.2 Completed in 1876, it offered a great view of the downtown area. Although the Clay Street Hill Railroad cable cars provided access up the steep grade to the top of California Hill, it was two blocks away from Stanford’s home. Perhaps wanting service to his front door, Stanford started the California Street Cable Railroad which began operation on April 10, 18783 and is the oldest still operating cable car line today.
Hopkins was the next to head to California Hill. While known for being a spendthrift, Hopkins’ wife convinced him to construct a somewhat ostentatious mansion at the corner of California and Mason, 999 California Street, just a block up the hill from the Stanford residence. It was designed by George Sanders and John Wright, English architects who opened up a practice in the City in 1868.4 Construction on the house was completed in 1878, but Hopkins never got to enjoy it. Before it was completed, he died on March 29, 1878.5 Hopkins’ wife Mary moved to Massachusetts sometime after his death. The house was later left in trust to the San Francisco Art Institute, which began operating the Mark Hopkins Institute of Art at the location in 1893.
Soon after Hopkins, Crocker started building his own mansion on California Hill at 1100 California Street, about a block away from the Hopkins’ house. Crocker went with the same architecture firm as Stanford, Bugbee and Son.6 Although his property was already large, Crocker wanted the entire block for his personal enjoyment. However, there was one holdout. When Nicholas Yung refused to sell his property to him, Crocker built a 40-ft high “spite” fence around three sides of Yung’s property.7 After Yung’s death in 1880, his heirs later sold the property to Crocker and he tore down Yung’s house and the fence.
Huntington was the last to buy property on California Hill, but his home predated the others. It was another house designed by Bugbee and Son, but was built in 1872-73 for David Colton, who was the chief legal counsel for the Central Pacific Railroad and president of the Rocky Mountain Coal & Iron Company.8 Colton sought and received a statement home for his property at the northeast corner of California and Taylor Streets, across the street from where Crocker would later build his mansion. After Colton’s premature death on October 9, 1878 due to a fall from a horse,9 the Big 4 sued his widow Ellen, claiming Colton had committed fraud against the railroad, while Ellen sued them for swindling her out of company securities owned by her husband. The Coltons daughter and her husband lived in the house after Colton’s death, but after the daughter died, the house was sold to Huntington and his wife Arabella in 1892.10 Huntington and his wife lived in New York by then though and spent very little time in it, instead letting their nephew, H.E. Huntington, a board member for the Southern Pacific Railroad, live there.
By 1900, all of the Big 4 had passed away with their companies and homes passed on to their heirs or other hands. The mansions, however, suffered their own deaths all at the same time. On April 18, 1906, the great earthquake struck San Francisco. The subsequent fire swept across Nob Hill leaving destruction in its wake.
The Stanford mansion burned down to its foundation. The property was later purchased by Lucien H. Sly who built a large apartment building that he called the Stanford Court Apartments which opened in 1914. Later owners would gut and remodel the building into the Stanford Court Hotel that you see today.
The Hopkins mansion, by then the Mark Hopkins Institute of Art, was also completely destroyed in the post-earthquake fire. George D. Smith bought the site and retained the Weeks and Day architectural firm to design a hotel that he would build there. The 19-story structure, called the Mark Hopkins Hotel, featured elements of French and Spanish architecture and formally opened on December 4, 1926.11 In 1939, the 19th floor was converted into the Top of the Mark restaurant.12
After the destruction of the Crocker mansion, his family went in a different direction. Instead of rebuilding a home or selling to investors seeking to build a hotel, the Crocker family donated the site to the local Episcopal Diocese, which had lost their Grace Cathedral in the earthquake and fire.13 The diocese engaged London architect George Frederick Bodley to design a large English Gothic-style cathedral.14 Bodley died before completing the job, so it was finished by other architects in his London firm and local architect Lewis Hobart,15. The cornerstone for the new Grace Cathedral was laid on January 24, 1910,16 and services began in small completed section several years later. However, the full cathedral you see today was not fully finished until 1964 and it was consecrated on November 20, 1964.17
In the aftermath of the Huntington mansion burning down, the property was used temporarily to house some earthquake refugees in tents. In 1915, Huntington’s widow donated the site to the City for use as park.18 Today’s Huntington Park on top of Nob Hill across from Grace Cathedral was the result of that gift.
So how did California Hill become Nob Hill? Though not used as much today, nabob is a word used to denote people of great wealth and/or status. With the Big 4 and some other members of San Francisco elite living in huge mansions on California Hill, locals took to calling it Nabob Hill, which was quickly shortened to Nob Hill. References to it as Nob Hill began showing up in the newspapers in 1876. The name is just as relevant today as it was toward the end of the 19th century.
1. “Jottings About Town,” San Francisco Chronicle, January 25, 1875, p. 3.
3. “The California-street Railroad,” San Francisco Chronicle, April 11, 1878, p. 2.
5. “Mark Hopkins,” San Francisco Chronicle, March 30, 1878, p. 3.
7. “Crocker’s Fence,” San Francisco Chronicle, July 27, 1878, p. 3.
9. “Death of D.D. Colton,” San Francisco Chronicle, October 9, 1878, p. 3.
10. “The Colton House,” San Francisco Chronicle, May 5, 1892, p. 3.
11. “Society Gathers at Many Dinner Parties at Formal Opening of Mark Hopkins,” San Francisco Chronicle, December 5, 1926, p. CCC13.
12. “New Lounge Opens Today,” San Francisco Chronicle, May 11, 1939, p. 12.
13. “Will Give Site For A Cathedral,” San Francisco Chronicle, July 15, 1906, p. 27.
14. “London Architect To Draw Cathedral Plans,” San Francisco Chronicle, April 4, 1907, p. 7.
15. “Episcopal Cathedral To Be Built Shortly,” San Francisco Chronicle, September 11, 1909, p. 20.
16. “Corner Stone Laid and Thousands Sing Hymns of Praise,” San Francisco Chronicle, January 25, 1910, p. 11.
17. “Consecration of Cathedral,” San Francisco Chronicle, November 21, 1964, pp. 1, 7.
18. “Deed Is Given By Mrs. Huntington,” San Francisco Chronicle, March 2, 1915, p. 8.