Historic Structures

Whittier Mansion - California Historical Society Mansion, San Francisco

Date added: January 19, 2018 Categories: California House Mansion

Built for William Franklin Whittier between 1894 and 1896, this massive Arizona sandstone building has passed through a number of interesting owners. Occupied as a residence until the early 1940's, it was sold to the German Reich in 1941 as a San Francisco consulate. Seized by the Alien Property Custodian (later transferred to the Attorney General of the United States) during World War II, it was auctioned in 195O to Mrs. Echo Leonetti. From her it passed to George and Jfery Barton, thence to Robert Wilhelm and Isabelle and Paul Dessez, and finally to the California Historical Society in 1956* Mortimer Adler's Institute of Philosophical Research occupied part of the building from 1952 to 1956. It is one of the few major houses of the later 19th century to survive to the present day, and is an interesting combination of massive Richardsonian Romanesque with Period styling. The architectural details of the interiors are exceptional in material and in preservation; they reflect studious variations of historical sources which marked the end of 19th century American architecture.

The building was originally designed as a private residence for William Franklin (he always signed: W, Frank) Whittier and his children. (Mrs. Whittier had died earlier.) Frank Whittier was born on January 17, 1832 in Vienna. Maine. He came over the Isthmus of Panama to California in 1854; his first major employment was with Sawyer, Johnson and Company, and three years later he purchased (with Caleb Cameron) the proprietors interest in the firm. The name was changed to Cameron, Whittier and Company; Cameron accidentally drowned at Benicia in 1862, but the firm continued under the joint name until its dissolution in 1867.

In the meantime, Whittier's partner-to-be, William Parmer Fuller, was organising a successful firm in Sacramento. When he bought out his early associate, Seton Heather, the time was ripe for a merger of Whittier and Fuller - both in the paint business. A partnership was formed in 1862 and continued until Fuller's death in 1890. Fuller was easy-going, affable and uninterested in affairs of state. (His nickname of "Dad" explains much of his kindly relationship to employees.) Whittier was high strung, somewhat ironic in conversation, and deeply interested in the fate of the Republican party in California, as well as in high finance. The combination appeared eminently satisfactory, for each provided something the other lacked. Weathering panics, business competition and legal problems, the firm emerged as the major west coast paint and white lead manufacturer, with extremely profitable side-lines in imported glass, mirrors, oils, etc. (They operated a fleet of sailing vessels and railway tank-cars.) After Fuller's death in 1890, a few years of unpleasant dissension developed between Whittier and Fuller's son, W. P. Fuller Junior, (He was always called the "young W.P." or "W.P. the Second"; his son was W. P. Fuller, Jr.) Whittier wished to buy out Fuller's interest in the firm; the Fuller family thought his price too low, A brief period of enforced harmony came after the creation of a new partnership between Whittier, "young W.P." and F. N. Woods. This failed to solve the difficulties; and later in 1893, the Fuller family bought out Whittier with a promissory note for $400,000 to be paid in thirty-two monthly installments. This was duly accomplished and full control of the firm passed to what became known as W. P. Fuller and Company.

At this point, Frank Whittier decided to build a superb new residence. It is quite possible, indeed, that the money coming every month from the Fuller family helped to pay for the new mansion. The San Francisco Chronicle for December 24th 1894 provides a complete "preview" of the house. The property was purchased in 1894. Height restrictions were placed on Whittier's property acquired in 1894 and 1901 to the north and on Pacific Avenue. Plans for 2090 Jackson Street were drawn by Edward Swain. Excavations began in September of 1894 (C. A. Warren, at a cost of $700). Contracts were signed all through the later part of 1894 for various materials and construction (O. E. Brady for stone work at $8,670; C. Chisholm for carpentry, and Forderer Cornice Works for Spanish tiles, at $4,200). Plumbing began in 1895 (E. J. Duffy, at $2,750). The hydraulic Otis elevator (registered by the Otis Company as one of the earliest residential elevators in San Francisco) was installed by Cahill and Hall Elevator Company in March of 1895 at a cost of $1,225, Ventilation and heating were contracted by W. W. Montagne in May, at $2,665. George Goodman installed concrete floors where needed, in and after September at $l,8l6.

The tile work for five bath-rooms was done by Montague and Company at a cost of $1018. This last entry in the informative California Architect and Builder (which had chronicled earlier contracts), for November, 1895, signalled the effective completion of the house, although it was not occupied until August of 1896 after interior finishing was accomplished. Whittier undoubtedly arranged for purchase of many of the rare marbles and imported woods through some of his earlier business contacts in distant parts of the world; Belgian glass had been a staple in Whittier, Fuller and Company's merchandise. Native woods were used wherever feasible, and it has been said that the granite front steps were imported from Whittier's native Maine - although Folsom or Raymond granite would have seemed more logical in California. The final cost of the house with its various interior fittings was estimated to be about $152,000.

As mentioned earlier, Mrs. Whittier had died before the house was started. She had been killed in a runaway horse and carriage accident in 1885. There was one son (W. R, Whittier, sometimes erroneously called W. F. Whittier, Jr.), and two daughters who survived into maturity. Frank Whittier eventually left San Francisco for Hemet in Riverside County - a town he founded and developed. For a time, the house was occupied by his younger surviving daughter and her husband, Mr. and Mrs. William Boyd Weir. (Their own home was in Menlo Park.)

Frank Whittier died in 1917, and his estate was distributed on September 13, 19l8._ Mrs. Weir assumed control of the 2090 Jackson Street property. During the 1920's and 1930's, the house was apparently rented to various occupants. William Dargie, publisher of the Oakland Tribune, who had married a member of the pioneer Peralta family, lived here in the 1920's. (An anonymous society columnist, writing in the Argonaut for May 17, 1957 provides a number of family and social facts about the house . It was, as she points out, sheer coincidence that Joseph R. Knowland, the later publisher of the Oakland Tribune, became an "occupant" in his role as former President and current Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the California Historical Society.)

In 1941 Mrs. Weir conveyed the property to the Title Insurance Company (April 16), as temporary holder, from whom it was conveyed to Herman Loeper on April 28, and thence to Das Deutsches Reich the following day. It served as the San Francisco consulate of the Nazi regime from late April until July. The dashing Fritz Wiedemann, society darling consul, entertained elegantly and conducted clandestine business for the Nazis - attempting to intimidate German-Americans into "serving the party". After his enforced eviction from the United States in July (a false start via Japan was turned into definite return to Germany via New York), the house remained empty during World War II. It was held in trust by the Alien Property Custodian who later turned it over officially to the United States Attorney General's Office. On March 10, 1950, it was auctioned, along with most of the contents, to Mrs. Echo Leonetti.

Mrs, Leonetti remarried and it was as Mrs. Hill that she sold 2090 Jackson Street to George F. and Mary Barton on June 8, 1951. Title to the property passed from the Bartons to Robert Wilhelm, a single man, resident in Southern California, and to Paul and Isabelle Dessez - half interests held by Wilhelm and the Dessez' on August 26, 1955. The Bartons still held a mortgage on the property, Mr, George Harding of the California Historical Society (then Chairman of the Finance Committee) had for some time been searching for a new, permanent home for that organization. He inspected the property - being handled through Coldwell and Banker of San Francisco - in March of 1956, On March 29, 1956 the California Historical Society obtained an option for thirty days, at a purchase price of $75,000. A Special meeting of the Board of Trustees of the Society was called by President Joseph R. Knowland for April 2 and purchase of the property was authorized. The date of recordation with the Dessez' was May 16 and with Robert Wilhelm, May 22, 1956, although the deed to the Society is dated May 2. The owners (Wilhelm and the Dessez1) were paid $40,915.57 in cash; and the Society assumed the Bartons' mortgage of $34,084.43. An open house was held on November 30, 1956 for the Society's membership in the "Mansion". The mortgage was completely retired in 1959 and the property has been unencumbered since that date.

It was during the Bartons' period of ownership that Mortimer Adler's Institute of Philosophical Research occupied the first two floors. The lease to Adler was dated July 11, 1952 and extended to September 10, 1956. This lease was assigned to the California Historical Society and Adler continued occupancy for the balance of the lease period. The Dessez' occupied the top floor as an apartment during this time.

Since purchasing 2090 Jackson Street in 1946 the California Historical Society has added the properties at 2099 Pacific (built for J. D. Spreckels, Jr., in 1905) and 2083 Pacific (built for J. D. Spreckels, Jr., in 1905) - so that the Society controls the same area which William Frank Whittier once had owned and restricted by height limitations. The house and property at 2099 Pacific Avenue were acquired in 1962. This building now serves as the Society's Library, named "Schubert Hall" in honor of Miss Ottilie Schubert, from whose estate her brother Walter provided a large part of the money required for renovations. The house and property at 2083 Pacific were acquired in 1963. Both purchases were made possible by a bequest from the Edith Allyne estate.