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Behind the bush: a history of Danielle Steel's Spreckels Mansion

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While the famed romance writer’s massive foliage has won the hearts/ire of many, it’s time to take a look at the structure hiding behind

Front of Spreckles mansion with hedges hiding most of it except for the top floor. Photo by Patricia Chang

Danielle Steel’s hedge (in vulgar parlance, Danielle Steel’s bush) is as San Francisco as sourdough bread, International Orange, and Lombard Street. Derided by urban design critic John King as comically off-putting, we cannot help but adore the massive shrubbery the romance author installed outside her mammoth Pacific Heights mansion.

Makes you wonder what’s hiding behind it. Which is why we’re taking a deep dive behind the hedges and into the stately structure’s history on the other side.

The Spreckels Mansion at 2080 Washington—best known as the former residence 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.

2080 Washington Street in the 1950s, before the infamous hedge.
Photo courtesy of the SF Public Library

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 Eighth 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.

Claus was the sugar daddy, if you will, to 13 children with his wife Anna but only 5 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.”

Adolph and Alma with their children.
Adolph and Alma with their children.
Photos via SF Public Library.

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.

Alma looking fierce as the Goddess of Victory atop the Dewey Monument in Union Square.
Alma looking fierce as the Goddess of Victory atop the Dewey Monument in Union Square.
Photos by Peter Kaminski

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

Spreckels Mansion in 1913.

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 13 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.

Rodin's “Thinking Man” at Legion of Honor, courtesy of Alma herself.
Rodin's “Thinking Man” at Legion of Honor, courtesy of Alma herself.
Photo by Omar Bárcena

The house at 2080 Washington was often the headquarters of Alma's charity efforts, from garage sales and raffles—once of a Rodin—during World War I in the massive five-car garage to the conversion of the garage into a recycling center and air-raid shelter in World War II. It housed a thrift shop that funded the Legion of Honor until 1978. Later in life, Alma secluded herself in the house was rumored to swim naked. When she died in 1968, the house was left to her two surviving daughters.

The hedge and home as they appear today. Photos by Patricia Chang

The hedge and home as they appear today.

After Alma's death, the mansion was divided into four units until Danielle Steel purchased the property and restored it to a single family residence. She hasn't made many friends in the neighborhood, between that enormous hedge and rumors that she has bought more than 25 parking permits in the neighborhood for guests of her parties to use.

Danielle Steel is notoriously private, so there's not much info on what the house looks like today, but she has said in interviews that she used to write her novels out of a closet-sized office in her bedroom.

Though she still owns the home, Steel spends the majority of her time in Paris. After extracting herself from the city’s antiquated society scene, she fled Baghdad by the Bay for chicer ground.

“San Francisco is a great city to raise children, but I was very happy to leave it,” said Steel after leaving SF, fabulously and famously adding, “There's no style, nobody dresses up—you can't be chic there. It's all shorts and hiking books and Tevas—it's as if everyone is dressed to go on a camping trip.”