For more than a century San Francisco's Nob Hill has been associated with the upper crust, the beau monde, la dolce vita. The name refers to its earliest settlers.
Nob, as faithful fans of “The Jewel in the Crown” know, is a contraction of the Hindu word nabob or nawwab: “A person, esp. a European, who has made a large fortune in India or another country of the East; a very wealthy or powerful person.
San Francisco’s nobs made their fortunes in the West in the mid-1800s in gold, silver and the Central Pacific Railroad.
In the years immediately following the 1848 gold strike, the scrub-covered hill rising 376 feet above the waterfront offered an escape from the rawness and rowdiness of the boom town below...until the newly rich perceived it as their pedestal.
Among the first to build their mansions there were the railroad barons known as the Big Four — Charles Crocker, Leland Stanford, Mark Hopkins and Collis Huntington — in the 1870s. Close on their heels came the bonanza kings of the Comstock Lode, James Flood and James G. Flair. Their architectural excesses were such that the lowlanders came in droves to stare. “The hill of palaces” was how Robert Louis Stevenson described the scene in 1882.
The steep grade (24.8 percent on the south face) was hard on horses and millionaires alike. So the house-proud hill-dwellers installed their own cable car line, the California St. R.R. Co., in 1878. It’s still in operation today.
Other reminders of this flamboyant era remain. The grandiose wooden villas burned in the wake of the 1906 quake. But the imposing brownstone James Flood erected at 1000 California St. in 1886 survives. Aloof as ever behind its solid brass filigree fence, it is the Pacific Union Club, exclusive domain of modern-day magnates.
The P-U, as it’s irreverently known, is flanked on the west by Huntington Park where the Huntington abode once stood. A proper setting for sleek perambulators and well-groomed poodles, this flowered square was attractively renovated in 1984. Its centerpiece — a copy of Rome’s Fontana delle Tartarughe (Fountain of the Turtles) by Taddeo Landini (1585) — was a gift of the Crocker family.
Across Mason St. from the P-U, occupying the block James G. Fair left to his children, is the 596-room Fairmont Hotel and Tower. The main building with its elegant porte-cochere and spacious lobby opened in 1907, the tower in 1961. Its Penthouse Suite — rooftop manor, really — goes for $12,000 a day, butler, maid and limousine service included. In 1972 the Stanford Court was added to the Nob Hill hotel quartet. Located at California and Powell Streets where the city’s three cable car lines intersect, the massive granite and basalt wall that buttresses two sides of the block is the only vestige of the Leland Stanford estate.
From 1912 to 1971 this fashionable address belonged to a luxury apartment house with a courtyard entrance. The eight-story structure was gutted and rebuilt from the inside out to accommodate the 394-room Renaissance Stanford Court, celebrated as much for its impeccable service and attention to detail as for its tasteful decor. Nowadays the courtyard is domed in Tiffany-style glass.
The Stanford’s next door neighbors were the Hopkins. Mary Hopkins’ excess, a chateau so showy it provoked ridicule, has been supplanted by the stately (19 floors, 392 rooms) Mark Hopkins Inter-Continental Hotel. The Mark, which opened in 1926, has a history of debuts, dinner dancing, Junior League doings and high-profile honeymoons. It set the style in skyrooms in 1939. To the Pacific fighting forces of World War II who flocked to the Top of the Mark by the thousands, the panoramic bar 537 feet above the bay became a symbol of the good life back home. The legend lives on.
Historically speaking, the Huntington Hotel should be The Tobin. Although it faces Huntington Park, the corner it dominates at California and Taylor was first graced by wealthy 49-er Richard Tobin’s Victorian manse. The 12-story building housed apartment dwellers from 1924 to 1945 when it was converted into a hotel.
The Huntington’s 140 rooms and suites have secluded a succession of royals (Princesses Margaret and Grace, Prince Charles), and it’s favorite hideaway of the celebrity set. The Big Four restaurant, tucked into its red brick corners, memorializes the hill’s founding tycoons (characterized by more than one researcher as ruthless profiteers) with paintings, prints and other memorabilia.
The landmark building stretching 17 columns along Stockton Street between California and Pine is home to the newest addition to Nob Hill’s palaces. The Ritz-Carlton, San Francisco, opened in 1991 represents one of San Francisco’s best examples of neo-classical architecture. The 1909 former ‘temple of commerce’ expanded five times as the Pacific Coast headquarters of the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company and now houses 336 guest rooms, 44 suites, landscaped garden courtyard and an award winning restaurant, the Dining Room, among other luxurious amenities.
The great, gray eminence atop Nob Hill on California St. is Grace Cathedral, the largest Gothic structure in the West. The Crocker family donated this entire block to the Episcopal Diocese of California after the ‘06 fire destroyed their two residences there. The cornerstone was laid in 1910 but major construction did not begin until 1927.
Of the cathedral’s many splendors, none is more arresting than its cast of the gilded bronze doors created by Lorenzo Ghiberti for the Baptistery in Florence. These are the 15th century portals Michelangelo deemed fit to be the gates of heaven (Porta del Paradiso). Their 10 rectangular reliefs depict scenes from the Old Testament. They stand at the top of the steps to the Cathedral’s east entrance.
The slopes of Nob Hill embrace a treasure of another sort. The one-of-a-kind Cable Car Barn & Museum is two blocks downhill from the Fairmont Hotel, at Mason and Washington Streets. From its mezzanine gallery (open to the public, free, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily) visitors can observe the improbable machinery that keeps the city’s motorless museum-pieces in motion.
Not surprisingly, this posh area harbors some of San Francisco’s swankiest gourmet haunts. Its grand hotels house restaurants serving everything from squab in Armagnac to foie gras and sweetbreads.
Guests stopping at any of these classy caravansaries can step out of the lobby and onto a California Street cable car for a ride down one of the city’s most variant half miles. The tracks parallel jewel-like town houses, modest apartments, Chinese temples and the towers of finance.
At Market St. the cable car switches tracks and heads back from the workday to the rarefied.