First marriage, first mansion
Aimée Crocker just turned 18 when she married for the first time. No pomp, no frills, no bridesmaids. She eloped with Richard Porter Ashe, a randy gent who recently graduated from Hastings College of the Law. San Francisco high society was shocked and appalled. The story of how Porter won the hand of E.B. Crocker’s youngest daughter, as told and retold for decades, was that she was won, literally, as a prize between high stakes gamblers playing poker dice. Several suitors were named by various publications as involved in the showdown over the years including Governor Stoneman’s controversial executive secretary Harry Dam; Lans Mizner, an ambassador’s son, described as “three-quarters Irish and one-quarter Devil”; William Wallace, son of a California Supreme Court judge and grandson of California’s first governor; and the dashing opera singer and Bohemian Club darling Harry Gillig, who would become her second husband.
Porter traced his origins to a “first family” of the Old South — a family that contributed governors, lawmakers and warriors to colonial history. Born on the fourth of July, Porter was not only a real live nephew of Uncle Sam; he was also nephew to Congressman John Baptista Ashe, who served in the Continental Congress, and to Civil War Admiral David Glasgow Farragut.
At first, when the widowed and wealthy Mrs. Edwin Bryant Crocker learned of Aimée ’s unceremonious nuptials, she refused to recognize the marriage. Margaret reluctantly announced her daughter’s engagement two weeks after the marriage. Soon the secret was out. Mother Margaret decided to throw the young couple a grand party at her home inviting some 250 guests. The grounds surrounding the residence were handsomely illuminated by Chinese lanterns. The entire house, including the conservatory and art gallery, was thrown open for the reception of the guests.
News of their hasty marriage became secondary to the catastrophic story of their honeymoon which immediately catapulted Mr. and Mrs. Ashe from the gossip columns onto the front pages of newspapers on both coasts.
In the early 1880s, Charles Crocker, after gaining full control of a number of smaller railroads, created the Southern Pacific’s “Sunset Route” from New Orleans to California. The line opened to great fanfare on January 12, 1883. Southern Pacific Railroad had consolidated its dominance over rail traffic to the Pacific. Eight days later renegade newlyweds Aimée and Porter boarded a train for Los Angeles from San Francisco on the same Southern Pacific Rail Line headed for a sunny honeymoon. There were seven cars on the train, a day coach filled with Chinese coolies, two sleeper cars, an express car, a baggage car, and the mail car. At the summit of the Tehachapi grade, the ill-fated train broke loose. It went down grade at a frightful speed for about four miles when the hindmost sleeper, occupied by Aimée and Porter and her maid, Minnie Patterson, jumped the track and went over a fifteen-foot embankment pulling the other cars with it. The passenger coach and the smoker remained on the tracks.
The crushed and splintered cars then caught fire. The noise of the crackling, burning wood blended with the piercing shrieks of the wounded and dying, all lighted up by the lurid glare, made a hideous scene. Many of the passengers were roasted alive before the eyes of those who were unable to afford them the slightest help. The scene was appalling beyond description. ln the same sleeper as the newlyweds, it was reported, were sixteen other people that were killed. Mr. and Mrs. Ashe escaped miraculously. Miss Patterson, Aimée’s maid, was badly bruised and had two broken ribs on her right side. Mr. Ashe had his left eye bruised slightly. Aimée was unhurt.
It was the world’s first runaway passenger train wreck.
A search for the dead showed that 21 persons had perished with another 12 being seriously injured. Among the victims were the wife of ex-Governor John Gately Downey and Colonel Larrabee, ex-Congressman from Wisconsin. Eleven victims were mangled beyond all recognition. Every scrap of baggage on the train was consumed; half the mail was burned up. A considerable amount of money was found in the vicinity of the disaster. Porter lost $1600 in cash, which was in his clothes. Jewelry of all kinds, rings, watches, bracelets, were picked up and tagged. The bodies and parts of bodies were similarly numbered.
After the crash, loving thankful letters were exchanged between Aimée and her forgiving mother. Margaret Crocker sent the runaway couple off to Europe, then commissioned a splendid mansion, on Van Ness Avenue in the ultra-exclusive Nob Hill neighborhood of San Francisco, blocks from Uncle Charles Crocker’s stately manor. She would present the home to Aimée and Porter as a wedding gift. California Architect and Building News announced the Ashe mansion project to be designed by the architectural team of Curlett and Culbertson in September of 1883.
Aimée would request a great plunge bath 30 feet long by 10 feet wide, which formed one of the adjuncts of a regularly fitted Turkish bath. When the architects suggested a spot in the yard to excavate she corrected, “No sir, I want it on the top floor.” It was included in the third floor plan as she wished. It had splashing fountains and sprays of perfume water and growing poppies and luxurious couches and all other things which epicureans delight in.
The house was featured in Artistic Homes of California in 1888 and proclaimed, “magnificent in its proportions, impressive in its architecture and harmonious in every detail.”
A flight of massive granite steps mounted to a marble porch before the double entrance doors of solid oak. The vestibule tiled in colors, with mahogany dado, and frescoed walls and ceiling opened into a spacious entrance hall. All the floors of the first story were oak inlaid with walnut in border designs.
From the stairwell, set above the landing, was a rich stained-glass window, representing a battle scene.
On the right of the entrance hall was the reception room finished in white and gold, the walls tinted in French “elephant’s breath” gray. In the north, recessed within a square bay window, was a mantel of California onyx, surmounted by a mirror in a frame of bronze relief.
In addition to the vivacious Turkish bath on the third floor, the Ashes’s San Francisco mansion had an exotic Turkish parlor with burnished metal walls, Eastern upholsteries and ornaments, and a ceiling frescoed with sunbursts. On either side of a fireplace in this parlor was a door that led to a billiard room where the walls and ceiling were majestic with embossed lincrusta in colors. The woodwork in this apartment, including a high paneled dado, was of satin finished redwood.
Directly opposite the reception room was the library finished in black walnut, heavily carved and highly polished with panels of brass relief and a frescoed ceiling. Beyond the library, and also entered from the main hall, was the dining room, finished in mahogany. Communicating with both the library and dining room, was a cozy little breakfast room finished in ash. A magnificent buffet occupied a large portion of the western wall; to its right was another large stained-glass window with a window seat.
In the rear hall, which was of considerable length, was the smoking room and then the basement, which was a cluster of rooms including a kitchen, laundry, storerooms, servants’ dining room and furnace room. In the rear hall was also an elevator, a clothes chute and dust chute.
The Ashes lived as nearly to the standard of the unsurfeited gods as mortal money and mortal ingenuity could take them. The Ashes were sensualists. Voluptuaires. Their plunge pool, which was said to have no counterpart in California, was the realization of a Romanesque ecstasy. A bath with the young men and maidens of the Ashe set was the chiefest aspiration of the rapid jeunesse dorée — the youthful part of San Francisco’s fashionable society. In time, the fame of the Ashes as hosts of distinction became worldwide, and their home on Van Ness became a Mecca for many visiting celebrities. Porter’s friendships with actresses Lillie Langtry and Lotta Crabtree were the source of much gossip.
Porter and his grandiose home would later receive a heaping helping of consternation from one of his chief critics — Ambrose Bierce. He wrote a long, scathing poem about Porter Ashe in his piece in Black Beetles in Amber called “The Van Nessiad.” When Porter sought to build stables on his estate without the permission of the city and against the wishes of his neighbors, Bierce held that the property didn’t need stables for horses as it already housed an ass.
When the marriage ended in 1887 the exquisite, the extravagant mansion was rented and then sold to the W.S. Hobart family. Alice and sister Ella would both have their debut there and, like the Ashes, threw many raucous parties.
Van Ness was originally a quiet residential street, a grand boulevard of wealth and beauty lined with eucalyptus trees. By the 1890s there were many a fine mansion and well known residents including not only the Ashes but the Spreckles, the Neustadters, the Stetsons and the Giannini family.
The avenue was at it’s zenith when the famous shake and bake of 1906 struck. As the earth rumbled and streets shifted so did the gas lines throughout the city. Thousands of homes had gas lines filling their walls, ceilings and all branching off the main street lines. With the shaking came breaking of these lines. Van Ness was used as a firebreak by the U.S. Army during the earthquake and fire. Many of the buildings were dynamited along the street by soldiers in an ultimately successful attempt to prevent the firestorm from spreading west to the entire city.
Following the quake, Van Ness served as the temporary commercial center and main thoroughfare of San Francisco, as it ultimately evolved into a busy commercial district in its own right.
City of Paris
The Ashe/Hobart mansion survived the earthquake. Unoccupied at the time, it was within weeks leased to the owners of the upscale City of Paris Department Store who used it for several years as the chain’s headquarters and signature store before returning to its Union Square location. When it moved back downtown, the Ashe-Hobart house again was left to itself, to become the basis of tales of ghosts and mysteries and romance, which grew as years passed. No one would lived there, in spite of its fashionable location. Van Ness gradually was filled with auto showrooms — from four in 1908 to fifty in 1921.
On February 10, 1913, in spite of a salt water sprinkler system that was installed, the house “passed out in a blaze of some magnitude.” It was surmised that tramps took over the deserted structure and carelessly left a lit cigarette.
The City of Paris fell victim to the nationwide trend of local department store closures and announced their departure in 1971. Despite several attempts to save the historic building, including a case heard before the California Supreme Court, the building was demolished in 1981 to create room for the current Neiman Marcus department store. As a result of the preservation fight, Neiman Marcus agreed to save the old department store’s glass dome and incorporate the City of Paris’ signature rotunda into their building.