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Merchants Made the Money Back in the Day

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If you thought the Silicon Valley folks were rolling in dough, those guys have nothing on the original Bay Area whales. From railroads to mining to merchants, the historic money makers of yore dominated the west, and had the luxurious spreads to prove it.

Adolph and Alma Spreckels mansion: the house that sugar built [Photo: SAN FRANCISCO HISTORY CENTER, SAN FRANCISCO PUBLIC LIBRARY]

It wasn't necessarily gold mining that made people rich whales back in the day, it was selling stuff to the miners. There were loads of folks who needed supplies, and San Francisco was just a little village when they all arrived. These merchant millionaires used their money to buy lots of real estate.

Levi Strauss: Perhaps you've heard of him? The world's most famous jeans company started out selling dry goods throughout the west in the 1850s - they didn't get a patent for the pants until 1873. He never married, and left the company to his four nephews, Jacob, Louis, Abraham, and Sigmund Stern (of Stern Grove). It's still run by their descendents.

James Lick: James Lick started his career building pianos, establishing a successful piano manufacturing fortune in South America. He travelled to California in 1848, just before the discovery of gold, and bought up 50 lots in San Francisco, as well as large tracts in Santa Clara County, near Lake Tahoe, in Napa County, in Virginia City, Nevada, in present-day Griffith Park in Los Angeles, and the entire Catalina Island. At the time of his death, he was the wealthiest man in California, but left the majority of his $60M estate to charities, including the Lick Observatory, Lick Public Baths, University Mound Old Ladies Home.

Domingo Ghirardelli: Born in Italy, Ghirardelli opened a confectionery shop in Lima, Peru next to James Lick's piano business. After opening a tent store in Stockton for the miners, he opened stores in San Francisco, and 1852 started new confectionery company called Ghirardely & Girard. Needing more space, the company purchased Ghirardelli Square in 1893.

Faxon Atherton: You have to be a pretty big deal to have a whole town named after you. Originally from Massachusetts, Atherton became a shipping merchant and lived in Valparaiso, Chile for many years. He moved his family to San Francisco in 1834, and got super rich with his shipping business and the import and export of goods during the Gold Rush.

Claus Spreckels: Claus Spreckels first started a brewery when he brought his family to San Francisco, but soon got into the sugar industry. Claus had his built sugar fortune by allegedly acquiring the Island of Lanai for $1 in poker game with King of Hawaii. His son Adolph ran the company after he died, and along with his wife Alma, founded and paid for the California Palace of the Legion of Honor. His other son John went on to establish a transportation and real estate empire in San Diego.

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1. Pine Brook (Atherton)

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237 Atherton Avenue
Atherton, CA 94027

Philanthropist Madeleine Haas Russell (niece to Levi Strauss’ nephew Jacob) built the 12-acre Atherton estate in 1911, with a Gardner Dailey guesthouse added later. It was recently listed for $59.5M. [Photo: Business Insider]

2. Stern Mansion (Pacific Heights)

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1998 Pacific Avenue
San Francisco, CA 94109

Built in 1900 by Levi Strauss’ nephew Sigmund Stern in 1900. After his wife died, the mansion was taken down in mid 1960’s and replaced with apartments. [Photo: SAN FRANCISCO HISTORY CENTER, SAN FRANCISCO PUBLIC LIBRARY]

3. Lick Mansion (Santa Clara)

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554 Mansion Park Drive
Santa Clara, CA 95054

Lick built the beautiful 24-room Lick Mansion, but lived there only briefly before abandoning its opulence to construct a less pretentious home. The Lick Mansion and grounds were preserved and today are open to the public. [Photo: Eugene Zelenko]

4. Lick House Hotel (Downtown)

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1 Montgomery Street
San Francisco, CA 94104

Opened in 1862, it’s dining room was a copy of one Lick had seen at the Palace of Versailles, and became the meeting place of San Francisco’s elite. The Lick House was destroyed in the 1906 Earthquake and Fire. [Photo: SAN FRANCISCO HISTORY CENTER, SAN FRANCISCO PUBLIC LIBRARY]

5. Ghirardelli Shop and living quarters (Jackson Square)

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431 Jackson Street
San Francisco, CA 94111

Opened in 1853, Ghirardelli had a chocolate factory on the first floor and resided with his family on the second floor. It’s now a San Francisco City Landmark. [Photo: Noe Hill]

6. Ghirardelli Square (Waterfront)

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900 North Point Street, GHIRARDELLI SQUARE
San Francisco, CA 94109

Needing additional space, the company purchased the Pioneer Woolen Mill building in 1893, and manufacturing moved to that location. This is the present location of Ghirardelli Square. [Photo: SAN FRANCISCO HISTORY CENTER, SAN FRANCISCO PUBLIC LIBRARY]

7. Ghirardelli House (Oakland)

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1909 Market Street
Oakland, CA 94607

In 1859, Ghirardelli built one of Oakland's first big houses with a garden that took up a square block. It had a large garden with marble fountains and statuary from Italy. It was sold at auction in 1874 when the company temporarily declared bankruptcy during a recession. [Photo: Calisphere]

8. Ghirardelli estate (Berkeley)

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189 Tunnel Road
Berkeley, CA 94705

Designed by big-time California architect Charles Sumner (aka Charles S. Kaiser) in 1908, it’s still standing, but has been torn up and remodeled pretty heavily.

9. Domingo Jr Mansion (Pacific Heights)

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3000 Pacific Avenue
San Francisco, CA 94115

The original neo-Tudor mansion was torn down in 1957, but the original brick wall still remains. The house in its place was designed by Peter Winkelstein (later partner of SMWM). [Photo: Calisphere]

10. La Feliciana (Hillsborough)

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915 West Santa Inez Avenue
Hillsborough, CA 94010

After Domingo Jr. retired in 1922, he and his wife lived out their lives in a rambling, Spanish-style estate on several sloping acres in Hillsborough. The house still exists, though much of the property was subdivided and the house around it are now $2-3M+. [Photo: Calisphere]

11. La Playa (Carmel)

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Camino Real & 8th Avenue
Carmel, CA 93923

Domingo’s daughter Angela married Norwegian-born painter Chris Jorgensen, and they moved into a new large stone house in Carmel, "La Playa," based on Chris's design. They sold it in 1909 after their niece drowned while visiting, and has been the La Playa Hotel ever since. [Photo: La Playa Hotel via SF Gate]

12. Valparaiso Park (Atherton)

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190 Park Lane
Atherton, CA 94027

Purchased in 1860, the 640-acre estate made the Athertons some of the first residents of the area. The simple, symmetrical two-story house The property was eventually subdivided, with the residential development occupying part of the former estate called Valparaiso. [Photo: Calisphere]

13. Atherton Mansion (Pacific Heights)

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1990 California Street
San Francisco, CA 94109

After Atherton's death, his wife Dominga de Goñi moved into San Francisco and had a mansion built. Supposedly their son George haunts the building. In 1923 the property was purchased by eccentric Carrie Rousseau, who lived exclusively in the house's ballroom surrounded by more than 50 cats until her death in 1974. It has since been remodeled into several apartments. [Photo: Found SF]

14. Rudolph Spreckels Home (Pacific Heights)

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1900 Pacific Avenue
San Francisco, CA 94109

The home lasted until late 1950’s and was a residence club, before being taken down and replaced with Mormon Church. [Photo: SAN FRANCISCO HISTORY CENTER, SAN FRANCISCO PUBLIC LIBRARY]

15. John Spreckels Mansion (Pacific Heights):

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2090 Pacific Avenue
San Francisco, CA 94109

Torn down in 1927, the site is now an apartment building. [Photo: SAN FRANCISCO HISTORY CENTER, SAN FRANCISCO PUBLIC LIBRARY]

16. John D. Spreckels Mansion (Mission)

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2504 Van Ness Avenue
San Francisco, CA 94109

John also had a mansion at the corner of today’s Van Ness and 21st Street, with his brothers Adolph and Claus living up the street at Van Ness between 16th & 17th Streets. [Photo: SAN FRANCISCO HISTORY CENTER, SAN FRANCISCO PUBLIC LIBRARY]

17. Claus Spreckels Mansion (Pacific Heights)

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1735 Van Ness
San Francisco, CA 94109

Burned down in 1906 Earthquake and Fire. An apartment building, cutely named the Spreckels Mansion, sits on the site now. [Photo: SAN FRANCISCO HISTORY CENTER, SAN FRANCISCO PUBLIC LIBRARY]

18. John Spreckels Jr (Pacific Heights)

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2099 Pacific Avenue
San Francisco, CA 94109

Built in 1910 as a wedding present from his father John Sr., the building became the California Historical Society library in the 1950’s, before being turned back to a private residence in early 1990’s. [Photo: Noe Hill]

19. Adolph and Alma Spreckels Mansion (Pacific Heights)

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2080 Washington Street
San Francisco, CA 94109

After Alma’s death, the mansion was divided into four units until Danielle Steele purchased the property and restored it to a single family residence. [Photo: SAN FRANCISCO HISTORY CENTER, SAN FRANCISCO PUBLIC LIBRARY]

20. Spreckel's Aptos Hotel (Aptos)

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299 Claus Court
Aptos, CA 95003

In 1874 Claus purchased a large tract of ranch and timber land in Aptos, and built a large resort hotel and extensive ranch complex. [Photo: Rio Del Mar Improvement Association]

21. California Sugar Refinery (Potrero Hill)

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199 Humboldt Street
San Francisco, CA 94107

By the late 1870s the 8th and Brannan Street facilities were running at capacity, so Spreckels chose a site in Potrero Point to open a larger sugar refinery with water access. The huge 1881 brick refinery buildings were in use until demolished in 1951. [Photo: Found SF]

22. Town of Spreckels

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98 3rd Street
Salinas, CA 93901

In 1899, Spreckels opened a factory closer to the main sugar beet fields, which operated from 1899 until 1982. A company town grew up around the plant, and still exists south of Salinas. The town and the sugar factory were used it as a setting in John Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flat. [Photo: Monterey County]

23. Spreckels estate (Sonoma)

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1225 Sobre Vista Road
Sonoma, CA 95476

Built in 1898, the estate served as the summer home for Adolph and Alma Spreckels. When Adolph died in 1924, Alma inherited 280 acres of Sobre Vista in the hills in the northwest Sonoma Valley. The estate became known as the "San Simeon of the North". Sobre Vista was subdivided in the 1950's, and is now one of the most expensive communities in Sonoma. The Spreckels house itself recently sold for $2,995,000. [Photo: Trulia]

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1. Pine Brook (Atherton)

237 Atherton Avenue, Atherton, CA 94027

Philanthropist Madeleine Haas Russell (niece to Levi Strauss’ nephew Jacob) built the 12-acre Atherton estate in 1911, with a Gardner Dailey guesthouse added later. It was recently listed for $59.5M. [Photo: Business Insider]

237 Atherton Avenue
Atherton, CA 94027

2. Stern Mansion (Pacific Heights)

1998 Pacific Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94109

Built in 1900 by Levi Strauss’ nephew Sigmund Stern in 1900. After his wife died, the mansion was taken down in mid 1960’s and replaced with apartments. [Photo: SAN FRANCISCO HISTORY CENTER, SAN FRANCISCO PUBLIC LIBRARY]

1998 Pacific Avenue
San Francisco, CA 94109

3. Lick Mansion (Santa Clara)

554 Mansion Park Drive, Santa Clara, CA 95054

Lick built the beautiful 24-room Lick Mansion, but lived there only briefly before abandoning its opulence to construct a less pretentious home. The Lick Mansion and grounds were preserved and today are open to the public. [Photo: Eugene Zelenko]

554 Mansion Park Drive
Santa Clara, CA 95054

4. Lick House Hotel (Downtown)

1 Montgomery Street, San Francisco, CA 94104

Opened in 1862, it’s dining room was a copy of one Lick had seen at the Palace of Versailles, and became the meeting place of San Francisco’s elite. The Lick House was destroyed in the 1906 Earthquake and Fire. [Photo: SAN FRANCISCO HISTORY CENTER, SAN FRANCISCO PUBLIC LIBRARY]

1 Montgomery Street
San Francisco, CA 94104

5. Ghirardelli Shop and living quarters (Jackson Square)

431 Jackson Street, San Francisco, CA 94111

Opened in 1853, Ghirardelli had a chocolate factory on the first floor and resided with his family on the second floor. It’s now a San Francisco City Landmark. [Photo: Noe Hill]

431 Jackson Street
San Francisco, CA 94111

6. Ghirardelli Square (Waterfront)

900 North Point Street, GHIRARDELLI SQUARE, San Francisco, CA 94109

Needing additional space, the company purchased the Pioneer Woolen Mill building in 1893, and manufacturing moved to that location. This is the present location of Ghirardelli Square. [Photo: SAN FRANCISCO HISTORY CENTER, SAN FRANCISCO PUBLIC LIBRARY]

900 North Point Street, GHIRARDELLI SQUARE
San Francisco, CA 94109

7. Ghirardelli House (Oakland)

1909 Market Street, Oakland, CA 94607

In 1859, Ghirardelli built one of Oakland's first big houses with a garden that took up a square block. It had a large garden with marble fountains and statuary from Italy. It was sold at auction in 1874 when the company temporarily declared bankruptcy during a recession. [Photo: Calisphere]

1909 Market Street
Oakland, CA 94607

8. Ghirardelli estate (Berkeley)

189 Tunnel Road, Berkeley, CA 94705

Designed by big-time California architect Charles Sumner (aka Charles S. Kaiser) in 1908, it’s still standing, but has been torn up and remodeled pretty heavily.

189 Tunnel Road
Berkeley, CA 94705

9. Domingo Jr Mansion (Pacific Heights)

3000 Pacific Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94115

The original neo-Tudor mansion was torn down in 1957, but the original brick wall still remains. The house in its place was designed by Peter Winkelstein (later partner of SMWM). [Photo: Calisphere]

3000 Pacific Avenue
San Francisco, CA 94115

10. La Feliciana (Hillsborough)

915 West Santa Inez Avenue, Hillsborough, CA 94010

After Domingo Jr. retired in 1922, he and his wife lived out their lives in a rambling, Spanish-style estate on several sloping acres in Hillsborough. The house still exists, though much of the property was subdivided and the house around it are now $2-3M+. [Photo: Calisphere]

915 West Santa Inez Avenue
Hillsborough, CA 94010

11. La Playa (Carmel)

Camino Real & 8th Avenue, Carmel, CA 93923

Domingo’s daughter Angela married Norwegian-born painter Chris Jorgensen, and they moved into a new large stone house in Carmel, "La Playa," based on Chris's design. They sold it in 1909 after their niece drowned while visiting, and has been the La Playa Hotel ever since. [Photo: La Playa Hotel via SF Gate]

Camino Real & 8th Avenue
Carmel, CA 93923

12. Valparaiso Park (Atherton)

190 Park Lane, Atherton, CA 94027

Purchased in 1860, the 640-acre estate made the Athertons some of the first residents of the area. The simple, symmetrical two-story house The property was eventually subdivided, with the residential development occupying part of the former estate called Valparaiso. [Photo: Calisphere]

190 Park Lane
Atherton, CA 94027

13. Atherton Mansion (Pacific Heights)

1990 California Street, San Francisco, CA 94109

After Atherton's death, his wife Dominga de Goñi moved into San Francisco and had a mansion built. Supposedly their son George haunts the building. In 1923 the property was purchased by eccentric Carrie Rousseau, who lived exclusively in the house's ballroom surrounded by more than 50 cats until her death in 1974. It has since been remodeled into several apartments. [Photo: Found SF]

1990 California Street
San Francisco, CA 94109

14. Rudolph Spreckels Home (Pacific Heights)

1900 Pacific Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94109

The home lasted until late 1950’s and was a residence club, before being taken down and replaced with Mormon Church. [Photo: SAN FRANCISCO HISTORY CENTER, SAN FRANCISCO PUBLIC LIBRARY]

1900 Pacific Avenue
San Francisco, CA 94109

15. John Spreckels Mansion (Pacific Heights):

2090 Pacific Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94109

Torn down in 1927, the site is now an apartment building. [Photo: SAN FRANCISCO HISTORY CENTER, SAN FRANCISCO PUBLIC LIBRARY]

2090 Pacific Avenue
San Francisco, CA 94109

16. John D. Spreckels Mansion (Mission)

2504 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94109

John also had a mansion at the corner of today’s Van Ness and 21st Street, with his brothers Adolph and Claus living up the street at Van Ness between 16th & 17th Streets. [Photo: SAN FRANCISCO HISTORY CENTER, SAN FRANCISCO PUBLIC LIBRARY]

2504 Van Ness Avenue
San Francisco, CA 94109

17. Claus Spreckels Mansion (Pacific Heights)

1735 Van Ness, San Francisco, CA 94109

Burned down in 1906 Earthquake and Fire. An apartment building, cutely named the Spreckels Mansion, sits on the site now. [Photo: SAN FRANCISCO HISTORY CENTER, SAN FRANCISCO PUBLIC LIBRARY]

1735 Van Ness
San Francisco, CA 94109

18. John Spreckels Jr (Pacific Heights)

2099 Pacific Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94109

Built in 1910 as a wedding present from his father John Sr., the building became the California Historical Society library in the 1950’s, before being turned back to a private residence in early 1990’s. [Photo: Noe Hill]

2099 Pacific Avenue
San Francisco, CA 94109

19. Adolph and Alma Spreckels Mansion (Pacific Heights)

2080 Washington Street, San Francisco, CA 94109

After Alma’s death, the mansion was divided into four units until Danielle Steele purchased the property and restored it to a single family residence. [Photo: SAN FRANCISCO HISTORY CENTER, SAN FRANCISCO PUBLIC LIBRARY]

2080 Washington Street
San Francisco, CA 94109

20. Spreckel's Aptos Hotel (Aptos)

299 Claus Court, Aptos, CA 95003

In 1874 Claus purchased a large tract of ranch and timber land in Aptos, and built a large resort hotel and extensive ranch complex. [Photo: Rio Del Mar Improvement Association]

299 Claus Court
Aptos, CA 95003

21. California Sugar Refinery (Potrero Hill)

199 Humboldt Street, San Francisco, CA 94107

By the late 1870s the 8th and Brannan Street facilities were running at capacity, so Spreckels chose a site in Potrero Point to open a larger sugar refinery with water access. The huge 1881 brick refinery buildings were in use until demolished in 1951. [Photo: Found SF]

199 Humboldt Street
San Francisco, CA 94107

22. Town of Spreckels

98 3rd Street, Salinas, CA 93901

In 1899, Spreckels opened a factory closer to the main sugar beet fields, which operated from 1899 until 1982. A company town grew up around the plant, and still exists south of Salinas. The town and the sugar factory were used it as a setting in John Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flat. [Photo: Monterey County]

98 3rd Street
Salinas, CA 93901

23. Spreckels estate (Sonoma)

1225 Sobre Vista Road, Sonoma, CA 95476

Built in 1898, the estate served as the summer home for Adolph and Alma Spreckels. When Adolph died in 1924, Alma inherited 280 acres of Sobre Vista in the hills in the northwest Sonoma Valley. The estate became known as the "San Simeon of the North". Sobre Vista was subdivided in the 1950's, and is now one of the most expensive communities in Sonoma. The Spreckels house itself recently sold for $2,995,000. [Photo: Trulia]

1225 Sobre Vista Road
Sonoma, CA 95476