Nob Hill has always been home to San Francisco’s upper crust. It was settled by tycoons and is one of the highest-income neighborhoods in the United States, and one of the most desirable and expensive real estate markets in the country.
Nob Hill was one of San Francisco’s original “Seven Hills,” but back then it was known as California Hill because California Street climbed its steep Eastern face. As the city began its rapid urbanization in the late 19th century, it was quickly recognized as a prominent place the elite could build because it was close to the center of the city, but its altitude offered spectacular views and solitude above the hustle and bustle of the rapidly growing city.
The hill’s first residents became known as the Big Four, Charles Crocker, Leland Stanford, Mark Hopkins and Collis Huntington. They were tycoons that had made their fortunes as railroad barons (though many historians have labeled them as profiteers). The four themselves, however, personally preferred to be known as The Associates.
In the 1870s, the Big Four each built mansions just east of the hill’s peak (which is around the intersection of Jones and Sacramento Streets). Other wealthy citizens built large estates on the summit soon after, including James Flood and James G. Fair, who had made their fortunes mining silver out of the Comstock Lode. Lowly citizens of San Francisco would often trek up the hill to admire the grand mansions on what was sometimes called “The hill of palaces.”
These early citizens, for some reason, were referred to as nabobs, which is a Hindu word that means “a person, especially a European, who has made a large fortune in India or another country of the East; a very wealthy or powerful person.” In a series of abbreviations, the Big Four became known as The Nobs, and California became known as Nob Hill.
The 24.8 percent grade (on the south face) of the hill was taxing on the horses (and pedestrians) so the affluent residents of Nob Hill had their own cable car line installed in 1878. It is still in operation today. The history of the cable cars is fascinating and is featured at the San Francisco Cable Car Museum at Washington and Mason streets. Its mezzanine gallery is free and open to the public and displays the actual motorless machinery that operates the city's various cable cars to this day.
The 1906 earthquake and fire essentially wiped out the entire neighborhood. All that was left of the mansions of the Big Four were granite walls surrounding them which still show black scars from the smoke and intense heat. The only structures that survived were the stone exteriors of newly completed Fairmont Hotel and the mansion of tycoon James Flood. The interiors of both buildings were completely gutted by the fires and needed to be rebuilt. The Fairmont Hotel was refurbished and is still in operation today and the Flood mansion is now the headquarters of the exclusive Pacific-Union Club.
After the earthquake, the founding tycoons rebuilt their mansions in other parts of San Francisco, but Nob Hill retained its elite status. Luxury mansions were built on the sites of these former mansions. The 606-room Fairmont San Francisco Hotel now sits on the block James G. Fair left to his children. Its Penthouse Suite goes for $18,000 a day and includes butler, maid and limousine services.
In 1972 the Stanford Court was built where the city’s three cable car lines intersect. It was the site of luxury apartments from 1912 to 1971, and then was gutted and rebuilt from the inside out to create 394 rooms. The courtyard is domed in Tiffany-style glass.
The Mark Hopkins Inter-Continental Hotel is built on the site where Mary Hopkins’ excessive chateau was so showy that it provoked ridicule in her day. On its top floor is the Top of the Mark. a panoramic bar 537 feet above the bay which became a symbol of the good life back home for thousands of servicemen who enjoyed the view on their way to the Pacific theater during World War 2.
Some of the founders’ legacies are a bit more philanthropic. The most prominent park in the neighborhood is Huntington Park, which is built on a block of land donated to the city by Central Pacific Railroad baron Collis P. Huntington’s widow for the purpose of building a park in 1915. The park’s centerpiece, a fountain that is a copy of Rome’s Fontana delle Tartarughe (Fountain of the Turtles) by Taddeo Landini (1585), was a gift of the Crocker family.
The Crocker family also donated the land on which the Grace Cathedral, the largest Gothic structure in the west (as well as the west coast's largest Episcopal cathedral), is built. The cathedral has many stunning features, including indoor and outdoor labyrinth paths that are intended for contemplative walking. Most striking, however, are the gilded bronze doors that stand at the top of the steps to the Cathedral’s east entrance. They were originally created by Lorenzo Ghiberti for the Baptistery in Florence and were the 15th century portals Michelangelo deemed fit to be the gates of heaven (Porta del Paradiso). Their 10 rectangular reliefs depict scenes from the Old Testament.
Because it is home to extremely elite homes and luxury hotels, Nob Hill is obviously also home to top of the line shops and eateries. This includes several Michelin starred restaurants. The hotel’s themselves have top rated restaurants that serve everything from squab in Armagnac to foie gras and sweetbreads. The Tonga Room in the Fairmont Hotel is a legendary tiki bar that even includes an indoor rainstorm.
Lest you think that Nob Hill is secluded on the hill, though, it is important to note that the neighborhood is also influenced by its adjacent districts. Chinese immigrants blend into Nob Hill’s eastern border from the abutting Chinatown, and Polk Gulch on the western edge and Tendernob on the south are lined with nightclubs and popular bars.
Nob Hill is one of the few areas of the city unaffected by gentrification due to the simple fact that it was always home to the city’s wealthiest residents. It is and always has been home to San Francisco’s elite.