Nob Hill Treasures

Whether you call them Robber Barons or simply the Big Four, Leland Stanford, Mark Hopkins, Collis Huntington, and Charles Crocker were very rich, very powerful men. Together they built the Western half of the Transcontinental Railroad, and they heavily influenced California politics. In the late 1870s, each of these four men built an opulent mansion on Nob Hill; in 1906, the earthquake and fire reduced all four mansions — and much more — to rubble. None of the Big Four chose to rebuild their destroyed homes, but their names and influence still dominate Nob Hill. Leland Stanford’s and Mark Hopkins’ mansions once stood where the Stanford Court and Mark Hopkins Hotels stand now. Huntington Park, across the street from the Huntington Hotel, is where Collis Huntington’s mansion once stood, and Grace Cathedral rose from the ashes of the Crocker mansion.

Grace Cathedral alone is reason enough to walk, of take a cable car, to the top of Nob Hill, but while you’re there, check out Huntington Park, the old Flood mansion, and maybe the Tonga Room at the Fairmont Hotel.

1) Grace Cathedral (FZ28-0-290)2) Ghiberti Doors (FZ28-0-212)


Grace Cathedral

After the 1906 quake and fire destroyed the Crocker mansion, the Crocker family donated the site (an entire city block) to Grace Church to build a new cathedral. The neo-gothic cathedral was completed in 1964; it’s modeled after Notre Dame in Paris.

There are several interesting things to see at Grace Cathedral, including dozens of beautiful stained glass windows by renowned artists, a Bufano sculpture of St. Francis, murals, mosaics, and a pair of labyrinths. But for me the Ghiberti doors are the top attraction. The immense bronze doors were created by Lorenzo Ghiberti for the Baptistery in the Piazza del Duomo in Florence. He and his son labored on the doors for 27 years, completing them in 1452. Ghiberti was among the first to use linear perspective and graded relief — techniques that mark the beginning of the Italian renaissance. The doors are called the Bible in Bronze because they represent biblical events; Michelangelo called them The Gates of Paradise.

The doors here, of course, are replicas and not the priceless originals. During WWII, the originals were removed and hidden from the Nazis, and, in the process, their caretaker, Bruno Bearzi, made a new set of molds from the original doors. The doors at Grace Cathedral were created from these molds and were purchased and donated to the cathedral in 1964 by philanthropist Charles D. Field. In the 1990s, a new set of replicas were created for the Doumo Baptistery, and Ghiberti’s originals were moved to the Museum dell’Opera del Duomo in Florence where they are protected in a climate controlled display case.

This Episcopalian cathedral welcomes the constant stream of visitors who come here to see the building and art. They have a visitor information desk inside and several free brochures including visitor’s guides to the Ghiberti doors, the labyrinths, and an overview of the cathedral. Donation boxes are also handy.


5) Huntington Park (FZ28-0-234)6) Turtle Fountain (FZ28-0-371)

Huntington Park

After the Huntington Mansion was completely destroyed, the family donated the property (half a city block) to San Francisco for a park. It’s a beautiful and very popular little park and right in the middle sits another replica of another Italian renaissance treasure. This replica is of Rome's Fontana della Tartarughe — fountain of the tortoises. The original was created in 1583 by Giacomo Della Porta (successor to Michelangelo) and Taddeo Landini; it sits in the Piazza Mattei in Rome. The replica in Huntington Park was made in the early 1900s and was brought to America by the Crocker family who donated it to the park in 1954.


7) Pacific Union Club (FZ28-0-257)

The Pacific Union Club (formerly the “old” Flood mansion)

Huntington Park only occupies half of this prime Nob Hill block. The other half is the site of the first Flood mansion. James C. Flood was one of the Silver Kings who made his fortune from the Comstock Lode. At great expense, he had Connecticut brownstone shipped around the horn to build this massive home; it was completed in 1886.

Although the interior was gutted by the fire, Flood’s stone mansion survived the 1906 earthquake. It was one of only two structures in this area to do so. The damaged building was purchased from the Flood family by the Pacific Union Club and was rebuilt and remodeled by architect Willis Polk.

The mansion is a National Historic Landmark and is still home to the Pacific Union Club (photo 7). It’s a private club, and I’ve heard they don’t allow women, democrats, or reporters inside, so it looks like the exterior (with its beautiful bronze fence) is all I’ll ever see.

8) Fairmont Hotel (FZ28-0-315)9) Tonga Room (from


Fairmont Hotel and Tonga Room

As mentioned earlier, the Flood mansion was one of two Nob Hill buildings that survived the 1906 quake and fire; the other survivor is the Fairmont Hotel. The Fairmont was under construction at the time, and it withstood the quake but was heavily damaged by the fire. It was rebuilt and became one of San Francisco’s best-known and most exclusive hotels. The Fairmont (photo 8) is also home to the venerable Tonga Room and Hurricane Bar (photo 9).

The Tonga Room is a 1960s tiki bar and restaurant. I’ll readily concede that kitschy tiki bars are past their prime, but the Tonga Room isn’t just any tiki bar — it’s the Grand Kuhuna of tiki bars. The décor is elaborate and real — real wood and rigging and thatch and fixtures. It’s not all plastic and Styrofoam. The intermittent rain showers are a nice touch too, and then, of course, there are the exotic, fruity drinks with little umbrellas …


On Wednesday through Friday evenings, the Hurricane Bar has a happy hour that (for $9.50) includes an Asian Hors d'Oeuvres buffet. It’s a great opportunity to experience the Tonga Room without shelling out major money. 


«««« This photo of the Tonga Room Hurricane Bar is from the website.


Nob Hill was so named because it was home to the “nobs,” the wealthy citizens of San Francisco. They built San Francisco’s finest mansions here, but after the 1906 quake and fire, the “nobs” moved to Pacific Heights, and Nob Hill became home to the city’s finest hotels. Topped off with Grace Cathedral, Huntington Park, beautiful views, and the California Street cable car, Nob Hill is definitely worth visiting.


Giving credit where credit is due:

Much of the information about Grace Cathedral was taken from the Cathedral’s free brochures:

 - The Gates of Paradise

 - Grace Cathedral Visitor Guide


© Virginia E. Vail 2012