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Big Alma: From Poor Nude Model To Rich Art Patron

Nike, Union Square
Nike, Union Square – or Alma de Bretteville Spreckels?

In the center of Union Square, on a very high column, is a statue of Nike, the Greek Goddess of Victory. If you read the inscription at the base you’ll find that it’s dedicated to Admiral George Dewey, victor of the Battle of Manila Bay in 1898, during the Spanish-American War. Big deal, you may say, but if you take a closer look at the, ahem, statuesque statue you will in fact find yourself looking at Alma de Bretteville Spreckels, often known as the Great Grandmother of San Francisco or Big Alma.

So, who is this Alma, standing, sentinel-like over Union Square and why is she so important to the city? In honor of Women’s History Month I’m going to endeavor to answer those questions.

A Monument to Victory

Union Square is considered the main open space in downtown SF, with the greatest collection of restaurants, hotels, theaters and department stores in the city contained in the surrounding blocks. It was created in 1850, out of some sand dunes, and got its name from the pro-Union rallies held there by Thomas Starr King during the U.S. Civil War.

In 1901 President William McKinley visited San Francisco and announced that a statue would be erected in Union Square, in honor of Admiral Dewey’s recent victory and for U.S. Navy sailors in general.

A few months later McKinley was assassinated, and it was decided to add him to the list of people to be commemorated by the statue. Accordingly, Nike was chosen as a suitable symbol for the battle and the sailors, and she was given a wreath to hold in one hand in honor of the slain President.

When the statue was inaugurated, in 1903, by President Theodore Roosevelt, polite San Francisco society was more than a little scandalized, because Nike seemed to bear a distinct resemblance to one Alma de Bretteville Spreckels (although the sculptor, Robert Ingersoll Aitken claimed that she was modeled on Clara Petzold).

Who Was Alma de Bretteville Spreckels?

Why was it considered shocking that Alma had been the model? Because, as anybody who was anybody in San Francisco knew, that having made a living as a nude model for several artists – which was bad enough – Alma had also had an extra-marital relationship with Charlie Anderson, AKA ‘the lucky Swede’.

He was so known because he’d been the owner of the richest claim in the Klondike during its Gold Rush, but his luck was about to run out! When Anderson refused to marry Alma she had sued him for “personal defloweration” and she was awarded no less than $1,250 in court!

Even for a city with the reputation for illicit behavior that San Francisco had at the time, this was a scandalous story and Alma was persona non-grata amongst the great and the good of the city. Or certainly so it seemed.

The decisive vote for Ingersoll’s statue had come from Adolph Spreckels, the San Francisco sugar magnate and he seems to have an ulterior motive, as he too had fallen for Alma.

For five years they secretly courted, during which time Alma would refer to Adolph as her ‘sugar daddy’ (which is where the expression likely originated), until finally, in 1908, he relented and they married in a surprise ceremony, which once again shocked the San Francisco elite.

Some uncharitably speculated that he didn’t want to go the way of Anderson and get sued, but in fact it was a love match and within a few years the happy couple had three children.

Alma and Adolph

It’s not certain that a modern dating platform (probably developed at a tech company in San Francisco) would have matched these two though. Alma’s parents were Danish immigrants, her father an impoverished noble, who seemed to think himself too good to work. Her mother was the driving force in the family, starting and running a bakery/laundry/massage parlor (as you do). Nevertheless, the family constantly struggled financially.

Aged fourteen years old, in 1895, Alma enrolled at the Mark Hopkins Art School and while there began her sideline as a nude model to make some extra cash. It was during this time that she became known as Big Alma, on account of her six-foot height (it was especially impressive back then).

Adolph was the son of German immigrants (something in common with Alma there) and twenty-four years older than his new bride. His father had founded the Spreckels Sugar Company and the family had become very rich, later branching out into other business ventures, such as railways, steamships and newspapers.

In his youth Adolph had been something of a hothead, once shooting the publisher of the San Francisco Chronicle, Michael de Young, over a critical article in the newspaper which suggested the family company had defrauded its shareholders. Ultimately, though, he was acquitted when he pleaded temporary insanity (luckily de Young survived).

The new couple lived for several years in domestic bliss at Spreckels’ mansion in Sausalito. However, many of the SF elite still refused to accept Alma, even after she and Adolph moved into a huge Beaux-Arts palace on Pacific Heights. In view of her wealth, and aristocratic background, that must have been frustrating for her.

Nevertheless, undaunted, Alma set off for France, where she used her knowledge of art to purchase an enormous quantity of it (including thirteen sculptures by Rodin) to furnish her new home. She returned just as World War One was beginning, nevertheless much of her collection, including the Rodin’s, were exhibited at the Panama-Pacific Exposition in 1915.

Later the Spreckels paid for a recreation of the French Pavilion at the Exposition (which was itself a replica of the Palais de la Légion d’Honneur in Paris) to be built in Lincoln Park, as a home for an art museum for the city (the Legion of Honor). Many of its pieces were provided by the Spreckels from their own collection. It was dedicated as a memorial for California soldiers killed in the war and opened on Armistice Day, 1924.

Adolph himself had died six months earlier, of pneumonia, and Alma was, by all accounts, devastated. This is in spite of the fact that she had learned, after several years of marriage, that he had syphilis (which he’d contracted in his youth), although it did explain his earlier reluctance to marry her. Luckily, neither she nor their children contracted the disease.

Great Grandmother of San Francisco

In the following years Alma continued her charitable activities, opening thrift stores during the Great Depression and being instrumental in founding the San Francisco Maritime Museum, which opened in 1951.

It was during this period that she began to be referred to as the great grandmother of San Francisco, illustrating how she’d gone from being practically a social pariah in polite society when she was young to being a veritable pillar of the same society fifty years later. She’d finally done it! In fact, when you think about it, Alma’s representation as Nike in Union Square is totally appropriate: she is a Goddess of Victory.

She even found time to remarry during the 1930’s, although the marriage didn’t last long once she found out her new husband was having an affair with her niece (and you really can’t blame her for being a little annoyed).

Alma de Bretteville Spreckels died of pneumonia, like Adolph, in 1968, at the age of eighty-seven years old.

Just a few years later, in 1972, the Palace of the Legion of Honor Museum became a component of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco – along with the de Young Museum, which had been founded by Michael de Young, who’d been shot by Adolph back in 1884, bringing a satisfying element of closure to those dramatic events.

Big Alma’s more scandalous episodes are one of the subjects of our Notorious SF: Ghost & Crime Tour, every Saturday night at 6 pm.

If you have any feedback on Big Alma: from Poor Nude Model to Rich Art Patron please email us or reach out on social media, we’d love to hear from you.

– By Damien Blackshaw (Twitter)

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