2080 Washington Street (before the infamous hedge), via SAN FRANCISCO HISTORY CENTER, SAN FRANCISCO PUBLIC LIBRARY
The Spreckels Mansion at 2080 Washington – best known as the current home of romance superstar novelist Danielle Steel – has been a major San Francisco landmark since day one and has played host to tales that are worthy of her books. Of course, it’s now hidden behind a massive hedge worthy of a photo tribute, but we took a peek inside the storied home’s history. Here now is a look back at one of the city’s most iconic mega-mansions.
The Spreckels family is one of San Francisco’s oldest and most illustrious. Their story goes back to Claus Spreckels, who first started a brewery when he brought his family to San Francisco in 1856. Claus soon switched to the sugar industry and built his fortune in Hawaii by allegedly acquiring water rights in poker game with the King of Hawaii. He built his first SF-based sugar refinery in 1867 at 8th and Brannan, but soon needed more space and opened a larger facility in Potrero Point. His California Sugar Refinery funded additional Spreckels enterprises, like a resort hotel in Aptos, an investment in the Santa Cruz Railroad, and sugar beet operations in the Salinas Valley that sprouted the company town of Spreckels, California.
Spreckels’ Sugar Factory beneath Potrero Hill c1890s, via Found SF
Claus was the sugar daddy (sorry) to thirteen children with his wife Anna, but only five survived to adulthood. The oldest son, John, established a transportation and real estate empire in San Diego, while second son Adolph ran the family sugar business. Adolph was a big whale in San Francisco, but it was his wife Alma who gained the moniker “great grandmother of San Francisco”.
Alma lived a true rags to riches story. She was born in the Sunset in 1881 when it was still a windswept district of sand dunes. Her parents were Danish immigrants, and while her father spent more time hating on the city’s nouveau riche than working, her mother ran three successful business out of the family home. Alma had an interest in art and took night classes at Mark Hopkins Art Institute. At six feet tall, “Big Alma” soon became a favorite model of local artists. These jobs led to several lucrative side gigs as a nude model.
After a lawsuit against an ex-boyfriend for “de-flowering,” Alma became something of a celebrity in the city, and was the obvious choice to model for sculptor Robert Aitken’s monument to Naval hero Admiral Dewey and President William McKinley (it still stands today in the center of Union Square). Wealthy bachelor Adolph Spreckels was on the Citizen’s Committee in charge of the landmark’s funding and became smitten with the model. After “courting” for five years, they finally married in 1908.
The new couple first lived in Sausalito, but Adolph purchased the property that would become the Spreckels mansion as a Christmas present for Alma. The Victorian-style home was torn down to make room for a new French Chateau designed by architects Kenneth MacDonald Jr. and Beaux-Arts trained George Applegarth (fun fact: Applegarth was buddies with Jack London, and the pair would ride their bikes from the Bay Area to Yosemite and Half Dome). The Spreckels had to buy up several nearby Victorians to make room for the new manse, and Alma insisted on saving the structures by moving eight of them to new locations. Completed in 1912, the new house became host to lots of lavish parties and launched Alma into high society.
Alma went to Europe on a trip to stock the new house with loads of 18th century antiques. She became friends with dancer Loie Fuller in Paris, who in turn introduced her to sculptor Auguste Rodin. Together, the women secured thirteen of Rodin’s bronzes, which Alma brought to the Panama Pacific International Exposition of 1915. This sparked the idea for Alma to build a museum for her art. It later became the California Palace of the Legion of Honor.