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A Short History Of Nob Hill

Mark Hopkins Bob Hill Mansion
Mansion on Nob Hill, built by Mark Hopkins

San Francisco is one of many cities around the world that claim to be built on seven hills (for some reason it’s always seven), going back all the way to ancient Athens and Rome. In our case the ‘The Seven Hills of San Francisco’ are Telegraph Hill, Nob Hill, Russian Hill, Rincon Hill, Twin Peaks, Mount Davidson and Lone Mountain or Mount Sutro. At the same time many people here will tell you that the city’s built on forty-nine hills, so you can take your pick.

One of the oldest and most illustrious of San Francisco’s neighborhoods sits on Nob Hill, containing numerous high-end hotels, it looks down over the Financial District and the Bay Area from a height of no less than 376 feet. It’s also one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the whole world, in terms of per capita income (and real estate value), which isn’t that surprising when you consider generally how expensive the Bay Area is in every way. However, the hill also has a fascinating story, which shines a light on early San Francisco and California history, rooted as it is in the founding myth of California – the Gold Rush.

Early Development

Originally called California Hill (after California Avenue, which runs through it), at first its steep nature prevented much development, until the California Street Cable Railroad was built in 1878, which opened the hilltop up to development. This was really convenient for the owner of the Railroad company, because he was none other than Leland Stanford, one of the richest men in San Francisco, and he wanted to build a mansion for himself there.

nob hill leland stanford mansion
Leland Stanford’s Mansion on Nob Hill, with the Hopkins Mansion under construction behind it

Stanford was one of the ‘Big Four’ (they referred to each other as ‘The Associates’ – which sounds even more sketchy), the other three being Mark Hopkins, Charles Crocker and Collis Potter Huntington. They were rich and famous businessmen, hugely influential in San Francisco, since they were the main founding owners of the Central Pacific Railroad Company (CPRR). They had invested in CPRR, as wealthy Sacramento merchants in 1862, and when the Transcontinental Railroad reached San Francisco in 1869 their fortunes were secured. All of them ended up moving to San Francisco and they decided to build mansions for themselves atop what was to become Nob Hill, since it had the best views of the city, the Bay and the Pacific.

1890’s-1900’s

By 1900 all of the four were dead, but their enormous mansions now dominated the skyline above San Francisco, and they’d been joined by another multi-millionaire, James Flood, who’d built a huge brownstone in the middle of their community. It’s lucky that the ‘Big Four’ liked Flood, because when a German merchant called Nicolas Yung, who already owned a house on Nob Hill, refused to sell to Charles Crocker, who was constructing his house next door, Crocker built a forty foot wall around Yung’s residence to ruin his views. Called a ‘Spite Fence’, the issue was only resolved when Yung’s widow sold the house to Crocker’s descendants – right before the whole district was more or less razed by the Great Fire.

It was during this period that the neighborhood became known as Nob Hill. The name is a shortening of the Anglo-Indian term ‘Nabob”, which itself is a corruption of the Hindustani word ‘Nawab’, meaning a great sovereign ruler, such as a king or emperor. The British used Nabob almost as an insult, to mean someone from a humble background, who had suddenly acquired a large fortune in the East, often by nefarious means. The Big Four were known as such, and as time passed the term was shortened to ‘Nob’. The hill is also often referred to as ‘Snob Hill’ by San Franciscans.

Transformation of the Neighborhood

As the twentieth century dawned the area was starting to change again. Yet another Nob, James Fair, had built a mansion there and, following his death in 1894, his daughters were planning on building a huge hotel on the site in his memory. Fair had made his fortune, like Flood, from the famous ‘Comstock Lode’ silver mine, the largest such discovery ever in the United States. In twenty years the mine produced over a hundred million dollars and Fair and Flood, both from Irish-immigrant backgrounds, became known as ‘the Silver Kings’. In 1890, when his oldest daughter was getting married in San Francisco, in the greatest wedding the city had ever seen, Fair was forced to sit in his hotel suite, uninvited to the festivities – even though, in a break from his usual miserliness, he had given a million dollars to ‘Tessie’ as a wedding present.

His daughters were clearly a chip off the old block, because they saw a great opportunity and decided to build what was to become the Fairmont Hotel, the first such establishment on top of Nob Hill, where their father’s old mansion stood. Nevertheless just a week before the hotel opened, in 1906, they sold their entire interest in the Fairmont. Several days later the Great Fire swept through San Francisco and nearly all the buildings on Nob Hill were destroyed, apart from the Flood Mansion and the Fairmont Hotel, although both were badly damaged. It looked like Fair’s daughters had sold up just in time!

In the end Julia Morgan, a pioneering female architect in California, was hired to supervise repairs and the Fairmont was able to open the following year. From the ashes of the other mansions more hotels arose – The Mark Hopkins Hotel, the Huntington Hotel and the Stanford Court – and on the site of the Crocker Mansion Grace Cathedral was eventually constructed. Flood’s mansion has since become the home of the Pacific-Union Club, considered one of the most elite private members clubs on the west-coast. The Big Four were gone, but the rich remained!

Nob Hill Today

Nob Hill today
Pacific-Union Club

In spite of being an upscale neighborhood, Nob Hill is full of hidden corners and unexpected charms. Chinese shops and temples spill over from Chinatown to the East, there are upscale boutiques closer to Union Square and funky independent stores and dive bars abound in the borderlands with the Tenderloin (often known – and this is one of my favorites – as ‘the Tender Nob’).

The neighborhood is also home to the Cable Car Museum (which is well worth a visit), Huntington Park (which has a nice playground and a beautiful fountain) and Grace Cathedral, which is one of the major houses of worship in San Francisco.

San Francisco’s cable cars are operated from Nob Hill

Our SF in a Day tour starts with a cable car journey along California Street to the top of Nob Hill, where we give guests a quick tour of the area, before taking the Hyde-Powell cable car down to Market Street.

California street, from Nob Hill
Vew from Nob Hill, looking down California Avenue towards the Bay Bridge

If you have any feedback on A Short History of Nob Hill please email us or reach out on social media, we’d love to hear from you.

– By Damien Blackshaw (Twitter)

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