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Inside San Francisco's Most Mysterious Castle

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Photo by Patricia Chang

Photos via Patricia Chang
When Bill Gilbert was growing up near Candlestick Park, all the kids said that Albion Castle was haunted. Gilbert himself wasn't sure, but every time his parents took him to eat at the at the old Dago Mary's restaurant across the street, he would look at the gates that front the 145-year-old stone structure and wonder. Little did he know that as an adult, he would own the keys to the castle (literally).

For most San Franciscians, Albion Castle is either unknown or an enigma. Gilbert says that before the castle was built in Hunter's Point, it was simply a pond fed by natural springs. "Native Americans camped and hunted there because of the water," he says. It was the access to fresh water that inspired a pair of British brothers named Burnell to found the Albion Ale and Porter Brewery on the site. Inspired by Norman castles, they built a large, stone structure over the springs and harnessed the waters to produce their beer. After the company closed, it was purchased by an artist, then a water company, and then a private citizen. It continued to slowly decay until Gilbert bought it in 2012. Although he had dreamed about it as a boy, he had never set foot on the property until it came on the market. For him, the purchase was about nostalgia and a love of SF history. He decided to bring the building back to life.


And here's where fate steps in again for the castle. Gilbert owns an apartment building in North Beach, and he happened to rent a unit to interior designer Ellice Condon, principal at Velvet & Green. When Condon submitted a proposal to update her apartment, Gilbert was so impressed with it he asked her to remodel Albion Castle. "My charge was to make it look regal on a budget," Condon says. "They wanted me to keep what was special about it, and make the parts that weren't in line with them special too." She says that in many areas of the castle, such as the living room, original woodwork was still as lustrous as the day it was installed. But in other parts, woodwork and walls had been painted colors that were more reminiscent of a circus tent than Buckingham Palace. Bright shades of maroon and blue were everywhere.


Condon started by selecting a palette befitting a castle, and the Benjamin Moore shades she chose have names that fit the bill. "The place was a melange of colors so, after looking at castles online for inspiration, I picked the colors 'Dragon's Breath,' 'Apparition,' and 'Cloud Cover,' she says. "I was looking for dignified colors that I could use throughout to unify the space."


Walls that had been painted bright colors were repainted soft white; painted woodwork reverted to brown to match the existing, unpainted trim. "We left raw stone alone," says Condon.


From the castle's earliest days, part of it was living space. "The kitchen was here from the beginning of the project," says Condon. "I don't know how old the cabinets are, but the detailing on them is amazing."


Condon says furnishing the rest of the house was a treasure hunt. "I had to find new light fixtures and furnishings for every room, and I had tight style and budget constraints," she says. "I looked everywhere from salvage yards to Ross. The good news is that the castle seems to lend itself to an eclectic, bohemian feel—so I went with that."


Given that a thick-walled, castle-style building is not known for light-filled rooms, Condon went for fixtures and finishes that added a touch of sparkle. "I installed a lot of crystal and glass pieces," she says. As for upholstery, she went for textiles that would have been familiar to old-school royalty—velvet rules the day.


The basic structure of the castle is a few rooms (kitchen, living room, dining room) at the base of a slender, four-story tower (each floor contains either bedrooms or sitting areas). Gilbert says that, in the old days, the factory stood in front of the tower. "I think that part of the building may have collapsed in the 1906 quake," he says. "The second owner, an artist named Voisan who had a thing for Art Deco, added the living room and dining room." The top of the tower is a loft that Condon outfitted as a casual hang-out space. The views of India Basin from the narrow window are stunning.


But the views from above hardly rival what lies below. The ruins of the former beer factory act as a portal to three below-ground caverns that contain large reservoirs of spring water.


Gilbert has gone to considerable expense to restore the water and the filtration system for the natural springs, and it shows. The water housed in each pool is enticingly clear, and you can see right down to the bottom of the reservoir. "Back in the day, there was talk that the city might take over the land and demolish the building. But it was decided that, if the city should face disaster or an attack, the water would be needed," he says. "I think politics may have play a role in the decision too."


Gilbert says that in the 1960s, the Mountain Springs Water Company was supplying water coolers throughout San Francisco with the stuff (the building was given landmark status in 1973). He hasn't given up the idea of reviving the business, it was a thought he had in the back of his mind when he bought the castle, but at this time, he is the only person who drinks the water. "It tastes really great!" he says.


The retired SFPD lieutenant and his wife live on the Peninsula, so it begs the question: If they aren't making beer or bottling the water, what are they doing with the castle? "We want to rent it out for weddings and events," Gilbert says. "We've already had a lot of inquiries." (Want to live like a royal? You can contact Gilbert for rates.)


Of course, there's another question that demands to be answered: What about those ghosts that frightened Gilbert's childhood friends? "No evidence of haunting," Gilbert reports. "But the old stories have been terrific for security."


· The Albion Castle in Hunters Point Has Finally Sold [Curbed SF]
· Former Castle of Beer in Hunters Point for Sale [Curbed SF]
· Bayview's Castle of Beer is a Steal at a Reduced $1.799M [Curbed SF]
· Albion Castle Receives Another Chop [Curbed SF]
· Hunter's Point: Albion Castle Keeps Coming Back From the Dead [Curbed SF]
· The Albion Castle Leaves the Millionaire's Club [Curbed SF]
· Castle Lovers Rejoice: The Albion Castle's Sale is Pending [Curbed SF]