A Castle in the Town: Spreckels’ Van Ness Street Mansion (January 1, 1898)

Spreckels’ Van Ness mansion was one of the most expensive private California homes of its time. Its architecture was similar to many German hunting lodges and summer residences, which were in fashion among Keiser Wilhelm II and leading German industrialists. Claus Spreckels built this mansion predominantly for his daughter Emma Spreckels, who was to marry later California senator Samuel Shortridge, Claus Spreckels’ attorney in the mid-1890s. The furnishings of the mansion were purchased mainly in France and Italy during long journeys between 1894 and 1896. Destroyed by fire in 1906, it was a typical expression of the “American raid on Europe’s cultural heritage” (Saltzman). The costs of the mansion were extraordinary for the West Coast, and the report shows the presence of luxury features of the 1890s (for instance, forced air heating and cooling and indoor plumbing). Claus Spreckels always preferred the old “family” home at Howard Street, but he decided to rebuild the mansion following the fire. After 1906, however, it was never used by any member of the Spreckels family and was dismantled in 1927.


From:  “Residence of Sir Claus Spreckels,” San Francisco News Letter 56 (January 1, 1898): 12-13

“The sub-structure for this residence was laid about two years and a half ago, and since that time until Mr. Spreckels occupied it last month, work was steadily prosecuted. The mansion is built of Arizona sandstone…. The Spreckels residence occupies 120 feet on the avenue and 100 feet on Clay street. Its principal front faces the rising sun, and the mansion is entered through a doorway of remarkable artistic design, whose general effect gracefully extends to the roof. A broad vestibule opens upon a splendid hall, and in this grand room are to be found the highest development and most refined effort of the architects and decorators art. The hall is 28 feet in width and forty-eight feet long; it is divided by gleaming columns of marble and its floors are artistic mosaic. The wainscoting is composed of Algerian marble, profusely decorated in the style of the Renaissance, and the walls are hidden by rich French tapestries. Above the hall runs a second floor or balcony, railed in red marble and sweeping away into projecting alcoves. From the floor of this main hall to the art glass roof is a distance of thirty-four feet; and through this beautiful covering a clear yet mellow light falls softly upon the polished marble, mosaic ground, and tapestried walls. The drawing room, planned upon the same ample plan, is twenty-four feet wide and twenty-two feet in length; its form artistically broken by the circular curve of the round tower that springs above it. The library is finished in rare Hawaiian woods, and the literary atmosphere of the room accented by panel portraits of Longfellow, Shakespeare, Goethe, and Schiller, that adorn the ceiling. The dining room is another splendid apartment, furnished in polished mahogany and highly ornamented. Green silk adorns the walls, and the curtain drapings, and painting form a harmonious and most pleasing color combination. On the second floor are the apartments of Mr. and Mrs. Spreckels—elegantly appointed, embellished with rarest taste, and fitted with every luxury that observation and experience could suggest. On this floor are other suites, all finished in magnificent style. On the third floor is a picture gallery, surrounded by elegant suites of apartments, and here the walls are to be embellished by the treasures of the painter’s brush that are to be gathered from the famous art centers of the world. The arrangements for lavish entertaining are perfect, and every convenience and elegance that the most refined taste and limitless wealth can procure may be found in the Spreckels home. Grace has not been sacrificed to strength, nor happy combination of color effects to either. The union of all these features are remarkably blended and joined together in this most modern mansion in the city, and indicate throughout a rare discrimination and cultivated purpose; and the highest development of the architect’s, decorator’s, and furnisher’s art find expression here. The architects for this magnificent home are Reid Bros., with offices in the Claus Spreckels building at the corner of Third and Market streets, which structure was also planned by them. There is no department of house building more essential than the sanitary arrangements, and in this splendid residence the greatest care and pains have been taken to obtain the latest and most scientifically correct results.

This work was entrusted to the firm of Holbrook, Merrill & Stetson, and is in every respect completed in the most substantial and at the same time elegant manner. The heaviest and most expensive materials were used throughout the building, and from the most important to the minutest detail the work was finished in a manner ensuring the greatest convenience and most elegant appearance. The connections for hot and cold water supply are all brass, one and one-half, two and one-half, and three inches in diameter, and tested up to 300 pounds pressure; and all fixtures have separate waste and vent pipes. In all the family rooms all the trimmings are finished with rich gold platings. Under an especial arrangement it is impossible to turn on the hot water in the bathtubs first. Upon opening the cocks the cold water flows, thus preventing the possibility of accident. The plumbing in the Spreckels residence is the most elaborate and intricate ever put into a building on the Pacific Coast.… The interior tiling and mosaic in the building, done by Montague & Co., form a most elaborate and beautiful exhibition of this style of art work. The eight bath rooms are tiled with English and American tiling, and the four main bathrooms have ceilings, walls, and floors made of specially designed and decorated tiling. The prevailing tints and colors are ivory and gold, pale pink and pale blue. The floors of the bathroom are marble mosaic, and in style corresponding to the general design of the frieze and ceiling. The kitchen is finished in ivory enameled tile, of blue tint, as are the pantry, servants’ room, dining room, etc. The tile work throughout is the result of a trip to Eastern factories by a representative of Montague & Co., and the material was chosen with the utmost care. The vestibules and stair landings are all finished in foreign marble mosaic, worked out in rare and foliated designs.… The building, copings, steps, etc., McPhee Company, were constructed by the McPhee Company…. The steps are of polished Missouri granite, and… in its yard may be found stone from every quarry in the State; sandstone from Arizona and granite from Missouri.… The stonework on the Emma Spreckels building was done by the McPhee Company…. The well-known firm of Finck & Schindler, 1309-1315 Market street, manufacturers of artistic furniture and interior furnishings, did the main entrance, the doors, and vestibule finishing of the residence, as well as other interior work…. The heating and ventilation of the house is most perfect. Heat is produced by a low-pressure system of indirect steam radiation. The indirect radiators are hung from the basement ceiling, and consist of sixty-six separate stacks located at the base of warm-air flues leading to the different rooms throughout the building, each room having its separate flue. Each stack is encased in a heavy galvanized iron box, covered on the outside with magnesia block covering. Each warm air flue is covered with the same material. Every stack box is provided with a damper, controlled by a Power’s thermostat placed in the room heated by the stack. The temperature of each room is thus automatically controlled. The cold air to supply the indirect stacks is taken from the outside of the building some distance from the house. The air is taken at a height of about thirty-five feet from the ground, and then conducted to the building through a concrete tunnel about six feet square. This tunnel is branched at the building into two smaller tunnels, one supplying air to the north side of the building, the other to the south side. The air is distributed through the basement in terra cotta pipes buried in the sand. The indirect stacks are connected to this cold air system by heavy galvanized iron pipes. This system in the basement is entirely concealed, as all of the foundation walls adjacent to the heating system are made double and the stacks placed within them. To insure a perfect circulation of warm air throughout the building, each room is furnished with a galvanized iron air duct concealed in the wall, which is connected to an accelerating coil in the attic. A system of exhaust pipes for the first floor has been placed beneath the basement floor and connected to a central ventilating shaft. This has been constructed in such a manner that an exhaust fan, driven by an electric motor, can be placed at any future time for exhausting air from the first floor in large quantities, thus insuring a perfect ventilation on the occasion of any social gathering. The steam for the system is supplied by three Dunning Low-Pressure Magazine Boilers set in battery. Each boiler has a rating of eighteen horse power, and is controlled by an automatic damper set to work at ten pounds gauge pressure. The magazines for these boilers have each a capacity of one-half ton of coal, thus allowing the boilers to run twenty-four hours in the day, with very little attention. In the very coldest weather, two boilers only are required, the other boiler being used as a reserve. Besides supplying steam to the heating system, these boilers also supply steam for heating water and for laundry purposes. This work was done by the George H. Tay Company, 49-53 First street. All the gas and electric fixtures in the residence have been made in this city, and are the finest specimens of metal work which could be produced. They are made of bronze metal and finished in heavy gold gilt.… Several of the large fixtures represent the labor of many men for months, and the dining-room fixtures, the largest of all, occupied nearly a year of constant labor. Much credit is due to Mr. Spreckels and to the architects for placing their orders in this city, and in encouraging and building up the manufactories of the Pacific Coast for the best goods. Much credit is also due in this instance to the Thomas Day Company of this city, who manufactured these fixtures, for having produced a line of goods equal to the best productions of the great art centers of Europe. By means of such aid as they have been able to obtain from the friends of the home patronage theory, about a hundred hands are constantly employed in their large factory on Mission street, and fifty or more families are added to our population, spending their money in our midst.… The contract for the plumbing and gas fitting was given to W. P. Wilson, 204 Stockton street…. The various systems are independent of one another, everything being controlled separately. There are 14 bathrooms all fitted up complete with modern sanitary fixtures, the bath tubs in the 5 principal bath rooms are of solid porcelain and of special original designs and shapes being made for this work only.”