Mr. Crocker’s House & Collection
…or…The Showdown on Nob Hill
In the fall of 1873, the super-rich railroad tycoons of the Central Pacific moved their headquarters from Sacramento to San Francisco. In no time the millionaires’ majestic mansions appeared at the crest of the city’s highest hill commanding panoramic views from Golden Gate to Grizzly Peak. The first “Big Four” associate to lord over the city on Nob Hill, Leland Stanford, president of the CPRR, broke ground on his 50-room, 41,000 sq ft palace at 905 California Street in 1875. Leland sold half of his lot to partner Mark Hopkins, who would build his own 34-room English Gothic castle.
Charles and Mary Crocker began purchasing lots a few blocks west at California and Taylor Streets in September of 1873 so they could build their French Renaissance dream mansion. Across the street, second tier associate General David Colton built a wood-frame, Palladian-style palazzo which was later purchased by the fourth in the railroad quartet, Collis Huntington.
The burly mansions of Nob Hill became the cynosure of the city, one of the sights where town cousins brought their country cousins when they arrived from the interior. It was the Mecca for all San Francisco sightseers.
Like their counterparts in New York and Newport, the mansions on Nob Hill represented a new architectural genre designed for newly moneyed industrialists. Far larger and more opulent than previous private homes in the United States, they were intended for public gaze and enjoyed as much celebrity status as their occupants. They were the sites of lavish receptions, fêtes and balls; their music rooms, “gentleman” libraries, and art galleries offered desirable emblems of art and culture.
Surprisingly little of these Victorian structures remain. Their plans in many cases have vanished, their contents have been dispersed or lost, and the buildings themselves have largely disappeared. Piecing together a clear picture of the homes and collections of the industrial age nouveau riche millionaires is challenging. In the case of the Nob Hill gang, detailed newspaper descriptions of the buildings and contents remain. Period inventories of the paintings collected by Hopkins, Huntington and Stanford exist (as does a full catalogue of over 700 paintings from the collection of E.B. Crocker). A bank of photos of the Stanford mansion by Eadweard Muybridge along with a small collection of photos of the other three exist as does some original plans by architect S. C. Bugbee and Son who designed three of the four homes. The tightly knit fraternity that was the Central Pacific partners, shared not only their architects, but their interior designers. They also shopped many of the same art houses and show rooms.
The Charles and Mary Crocker home was built in the Second Empire/French Renaissance style which permitted an ornate elaboration of detail. It was a privilege that architects were not slow to take advantage. The Crocker House project was initiated by S.C. Bugbee, a prominent architect in the city of San Francisco, who also designed the California Theater and Wade’s Opera House. When he died in 1877, Crocker hired Curlett and Culbertson, the same firm that built the fantastic Ashe mansion owned by Charles’s niece Amy Crocker Ashe, to complete the project.
The grand entrance, approached from California Street by a wide and impressive staircase of granite, cut in two a beautiful and bountiful garden. A series of massive granite piers, two of which were crowned with bronzed and gilt metal lampposts, guided the path. The facade of the house was formed of an English basement of massive granite and of a two-storied structure consisting of a center and two wings, surmounted by a very ornate Mansard story having a double-storied tower in the center.
The broad portico of the entrance was supported by four fluted pillars and crowned with a curvilinear pediment that was adorned with pendent triglyphs. Above the portico was a balcony which was surrounded by arched voussoir windows, four more Corinthian columns, and elegant balustrading. A triangular pediment with a warrior in the center pointed to the most arresting feature of the house, the 76-foot lookout tower, by far the highest point in San Francisco, from which the Crockers and their guests, “could survey with delight the four points of the compass, the city lying below, the tranquil waters of the bay, the bustling docks and shipping, the purple-red Contra Costa hills, the grayish-purple cone of Mount Diablo, the far expanse of the Pacific waters, [and] the great shoulder of Tamalpais,” according to one bedazzling reporter. Charles was particularly proud of it. On many occasions he invited guests to share this unique spectacle, remarking that “no other house in the city looks down on us.”
The San Francisco Chronicle declared it, “a princely mansion abounding with touches of original talent in its ornamentation, set in a fair and lovely garden that refreshes the eye and cheers the spirit with its expanses of verdure and its wealth of flowers.” Featured in the book and photographic album Artistic Homes of California, originally published by the San Francisco Newsletter in 1888, the Crocker House was proclaimed, “one of the most beautiful architectural masterpieces to be found in any State in the Union.”
The peristyle and outer hall of the main entrance was a mosaic of rare marbles, but with simple designs. There were diamond shapes of jaune fleuri, rich borders of Lumachel (or fire marble), dottings of Sarrancolin, fine fringe-like broad edgings of Griotte, bits of rouge royale, crossings of Campua and verd des Alpes, and an exquisite variety of French and Pyrenean marbles. Huge vases holding rare tropical plants greeted guests.
From the carriage entrance on Sacramento street there was a broad pavement of patent stone that swept through the fair lawn to the grand and graceful porte-cochère supported by six columns resting on circular granite bases. A driveway connected to the palatial stables, which encompassed a quarter of the NW corner of the grounds, also traveled around the east wing of the house to California Street.
In May of 1869, the Transcontinental Railroad, linking East and West, the Atlantic and the Pacific, was finished. It was a monumental feat. The Crocker brothers, Charles and Edwin, who was the CPRR’s chief legal counsel, were national and international heroes and became among the richest men in America. But the years of hard work had taken their toll. Edwin Crocker suffered two debilitating strokes resulting in a “softening of the brain.” He was forced into an early retirement at aged 51, leaving the firm after just five years. Charles also became quite ill and collapsed from exhaustion. The same doctor who treated Edwin diagnosed Charles as diabetic and told him that he would likely follow the same path as his brother if he didn’t put an end to his grueling work schedule. Edwin took his family on a Grand Tour of Europe and began to assemble a significant collection of paintings and drawings. When he returned in 1871, he embarked on an ambitious renovation project at his O Street mansion that included an art gallery addition.
Charles threw himself wholeheartedly into the building of an extravagant three-story abode at 8th and F Streets, which was replete with Victorian ornamentation, fluted Corinthian columns, elaborate pediments, balconied second story rooms, verandahs, lustrous demask curtains, ornately carved tables, crystal chandeliers and settees aplenty.
The first major art acquisition by an Associate of the Central Pacific was actually made by Charles when he purchased Thomas Hill’s “Yosemite Valley” in 1869, shortly after the opening of the Transcontinental line and the Golden spike ceremony from the Snow and Roos gallery in San Francisco for a whopping $10,000 ($218,000 today).
On the drawing board, at around that time, was partner Leland Stanford’s plan to expand the square footage of his villa from 4,000 to 19,000 square feet.
The citizens of Sacramento took notice of the conspicuous consumption among the Central Pacific bigwigs. Newspapers, particularly The Sacramento Union, began to attack the management of the firm, claiming that the CPRR directors, no longer civic minded shop keepers and respected community leaders, had become egomaniacal vultures only interested in accumulating personal wealth.
The argument became heated. In August of 1871, allied forces at the Sacramento Bee were persuaded by local bankers, merchants, and other prominent citizens to come to the rescue of the embattled railroad barons, publishing the names of 545 influential Sacramentans that agreed, “The projectors and builders of the Central Pacific railroad are our friends and neighbors, and we desire to show our appreciation of what has been done by them for the benefit of Sacramento.”
It would be a different story when the Associates began building in San Francisco.
Decorator to the Big Four
The Crocker house on Nob Hill was a stately manor, as viewed from the outside, noble and hefty, if somewhat governmental. The exterior of the house was the outside of the jewelry casket; the diamonds and pearls were within.
Crocker secured a commission from German émigré cabinetmaker George A. Schastey as lead decorator to all the principal rooms in his mansion. Before Crocker, Schastey was commissioned to decorate CPRR attorney and future nemesis Alfred A. Cohen’s extravagant fifty-two-room Italianate mansion in Alameda, California that he named Fernside. He would work as a sub-contractor under the firm of Pottier & Stymus at both Leland Stanford and Mark Hopkin’s California Street mansions. After completing the Crocker job he was hired as principal decorator at the New York homes of Collis Huntington: at 65 Park Avenue; at a townhouse at 4 W. Fifty-Fourth Street which was given to his mistress Arabella Worsham; and at his palatial Fifty-Seventh Street mansion constructed after Collis’s first wife died and he married Arabella. This house was catercorner to the Cornelius Vanderbilt mansion and down the street from the grand Harriet Crocker Alexander estate, a gift from father Charles to his lovely daughter when she got married.
When Crocker began building his mansion, interior decoration as a distinct profession was still a novelty. Firms like George Schastey & Co., Pottier & Stymus and Herter Brothers began as furniture manufacturers, but evolved to become the first American firms to provide complete interior decoration services. With their own design office and cabinet-making and upholstery workshops, these firms could provide every aspect of interior furnishing—including decorative paneling, mantels, wall and ceiling decoration, patterned floors, carpets and draperies. It was a new concept to have a master plan where all of the components of an interior space were assembled as a Gesamtkunstwerk, a cohesive work of art.
Schastey’s design vocabulary at the Crocker house was shaped and informed by the coming wave of Aestheticism in America, which was a trans-Atlantic, 19th-century design movement. Artists of every variety had to answer to the overly zealous Aesthetic “Art-for-Art’s Sake” craze, which held strong views about the place of art in everyday life. Art became the religion of these Bohemians, and artists were seen as priests and prophets ordained to guide seekers to an alternate, more beautiful reality.
One of the Aesthetic movement’s many lofty goals was to reform the domestic environment by introducing art in every aspect and element of home design and decoration. The well-heeled hedonists of the Gilded Age embraced the craze and its ostentatious offerings, which combined contemporary British trends with European Renaissance revival accents, and Chinese, Islamic and Japanese styles to create imaginative, truly sumptuous surroundings.
In 1882, Charles, Mary and daughter Hattie attended a house decorating lecture/tent revival sermon given by the pin-up boy of the Aesthetic Movement himself–Oscar Wilde.
A Guided Tour of the Mansion
The several very detailed and lengthy descriptions of the interior of Mr. Crocker’s house painted a vivid picture of the lovely domicile.
The main entrance opened into a vestibule, from which the visitor passed through massive mahogany doors into a hall 16 feet wide, running north and terminating in an east-west corridor 18 feet wide that connected the family sleeping room with the art gallery.
Flanking the main entrance were two bronze figures of life size, each bearing a group of four lamps. One was Diana, the swift huntress; the other Phebus Apollo, the radiant Sun God. In the corners were a majolica deer and a pug dog of the same material. To the right and left were doors, the one on the left leading to the reception room, the other on the right to the large library.
On a marble table in the entry, Minton porcelain pilgrim bottles representing a grim lion and grimmer tiger rested. A marble statue of Erate, the nymph of love songs, occupied a niche on the right-hand side. Beyond the hall stands (for canes, umbrellas and parasols) made of Sandwich Island mahogany, were two Japanese bronze vases five feet high depicting peacocks in high relief, a pheasant with expanded wings, and a crawling dragon with threatening claws and devouring jaws.
The walls of the entrance hall were frescoed in soft hues and the ceiling was finished in neutral blues and grays. The east and west corridor had similar decorations in wood and like coloring and was lighted by elegant chandeliers. The chandeliers, always the pride of the house, were modeled on those in the palace of the Tuileries. The rich carpets throughout the mansion included designs by Kidderminster, Axminster, Aubusson and Moquette.
Schastey and his designers relied most heavily on the Renaissance revival style incorporating their ornamental vocabulary which included richly carved lions, floral swags, ribbons, and interpretations of the grotesque juxtaposed with carved angelic putti (cherubs) with swollen cheeks, puckered lips, and enlarged foreheads. Another element found throughout Schastey and Co.’s work was the use of satinwood with purpleheart, distinctive jigsaw-cut panels, complex marquetry executed in pewter and a variety of other metals and mother-of-pearl, and his signature furniture with paw feet appearing in monstrous scale. Schastey was a magpie collector of historical motifs and was in lockstep with Gilded Age America’s taste for exotic clutter. He contributed innovations like the unconventional use of oak with an ebonized finish giving it a similar appearance to Japanese lacquer, an imported and expensive material prized for its simplified aesthetic, and associations with the exoticism of the “Far East.”
Schastey subcontracted parts of the commission to artists with specialized skills, coordinating the efforts of painters, plasterers, cabinetmakers, stoneworkers, and upholsterers to create cohesive effects that were both sophisticated and novel. Mural decorations were the keynote rather than an abundance of small furniture at the Crocker house, which gave it a general appearance of roominess. For the painted decorations throughout the first and second floors, Schastey sent an associate–Italian painter G. G. Garibaldi–to work in concert with three San Francisco painters specializing in mythological and allegorical subjects: Domenico Tojetti, who carried out commissions at the Vatican, and his sons Virgilio and Eduardo.
To the right of the entrance was the library/family sitting room, which had ample and cheerful views of California Street and beyond to the brown San Bruno hills. The trimmings were in satinwood, the chairs, tables and bookcases were of black walnut, the upholstering in rich Moroccan crimson-colored leather. The furnishings by Shasta of New York were quiet in tone…elegant, solid and durable. The library was profusely lighted with ornate chandeliers and bronze Cupid sconces. In one corner was a portrait of Charles Crocker. Around this room were many plaques by Minton and by Haviland, purchases from the Exposition Universelle, the 1878 Paris World’s Fair.
The frescoing was by Gariboldi. Virgilio Tojetto painted the center panel of the ceiling, which was sixteen feet square and represented “Science illuminating the arts.” Various figures representing Music, Poetry, Science and History were depicted, with the figure of Music being half nude. The 21 surrounding panels had been ornamented with great success by Gariboldi.
Guglielmo Giuseppe Garibaldi was also hired to work at the Stanford mansion. He had numerous private commissions decorating palaces in Milan, Rome, Verona, and Vienna and later New York and San Francisco. In Manhattan he painted mural decorations for the Grand Opera House, Augustin Daly’s Fifth Avenue Theatre, Booth’s Theatre and the Gilsey House (former home of Amy Crocker Gillig). While working at the Crocker house, the decidedly goofy artist, who dressed in the costume of a Grand Duke, kept a studio at the converted Old Supreme Courthouse building, a well known Bohemian bastion, alongside fellow eccentric painters Julian Rix, Jules Tavernier and Joseph Strong, that was frequented by a very young Amy Crocker.
The dining room was in the NE corner of the house and at the end of the branch corridor which passed the family bedrooms. It was outfitted in the popular Louis XIV Revival style and featured a massive 16′ x 16′ sideboard in oak and walnut with mottled panels of ash-root. It was the altarpiece of the room. The central panel of the top, as well as those of the sides, were mirrors. The main shelf was of marble, resting on sculptured figures. In front of the mirrors were bracketed shelves. The sideboard was crowned by a leering head of Bacchus, the god of wine, and beside him lounging cherubs, skillfully carved. The magnificent piece also incorporated candelabra-style grotesques and carved meandering acanthus plants.
This George Schastey and Co. entry was the admiration of thousands at the International Centennial Exhibition of 1876, in Philadelphia, where it won a bronze medal (first place) and was praised for its “artistic design and practicability,” “thorough workmanship,” and “excellent finish.”
The Crocker master bedchamber was 20 x 30 feet; the finishing was inlaid rosewood and amaranth; the furniture was upholstered with luxurious yellow satin; draperies were the same color. The carpet was a Moquette. The ceiling was charmingly frescoed in French gray, and had as its chief feature a canopy of lace exquisitely detailed by Tojetti. Mary Crocker’s adjoining boudoir got high praise by critics and the press. One reporter wrote that it, “resembled a fairy cave in a crystal mountain.” It was trimmed with maple wood and tule, and had a mantle piece of veined Mexican onyx. A watercolor by Giovanni Filosa, “Ladies in the Fields,” was singled out as a particularly charming piece.
The other bedrooms were numbered instead of being named by style (as in the Stanford mansion) with the most noteworthy of the lot being #4, which was intended for the use of a younger male members of the family and was furnished in bamboo with Chinese and Japanese furniture, drapery and ornaments. Number five looked out on Taylor and California streets, and was finished in ivory. The woodwork was painted with a flurry of flowers, the carpet was an Aubissom of luxurious design and the furniture and draperies were of blue satin.
The considerably more pretentious Leland Stanford gave his rooms names that suggested the kingdoms and empires of ancient Rome, the Ottoman Empire, India, Louis XIV’s France, and Flanders. He had portraits depicting Mozart, Beethoven, Raphael, Michelangelo, Rubens, and Van Dyke painted on the ceiling in his Music and Art room, and Shakespeare, Benjamin Franklin, James Fenimore Cooper, Robert Fulton, Samuel Morse, and inventor of the railway locomotive, George Stephenson, painted in his library. Stanford had two indoor fountains and nineteen bedrooms, each with their own sink. A marked difference of the interior decorations between Crocker’s house and the Stanford mansion was the number of mirrors. An overabundance of mirrors gave the Stanford interior the magnificence of a heathen temple and made his enormous mansion look even larger.
Other noteworthy features of the house included a billiard room, entered from the east west hall or the art gallery, which was finished in birch and walnut and had a royal Axminster carpet. A great drawing room, which occupied the southwest corner of the building, similar in size to the library and had a superb Aubusson carpet said to have cost $8,000. On the landing of the main stairway was a very intricate clock, twelve feet high, made of several kinds of marble and of Mexican onyx, that told not only the hours, minutes and seconds, but the day of the week, the month and the year. Crocker’s mansion was a showpiece of technology with similar mechanical conveniences to the Stanford mansion, which included an elevator, steam heat, electric annunciators in every bedroom, an electric burglar alarm and plate warmer in the pantry, and an electric orchestrion in the music and art room.
The attic, reached by a rear staircase, was 13 feet high, and had handsomely furnished extra guest chambers and servants sleeping and sitting rooms, with elegant appointments that pervaded throughout the mansion. The basement was built of brick, with solid brick partitions, and was devoted to the kitchen, larders (a nineteenth century version of a freezer room), storerooms, a laundry, wine cellars, fire and furnace rooms, and separate dining rooms for the social circle below the stairs and luxurious bed and bathrooms and other conveniences for their use. The downstairs, dedicated to “the help,” was nearly as lovely as the upstairs.
The appointments of Mr. Crocker’s house were as extensive and complete as those of a first-class hotel.
Pièce de Résistance
The entrance of the art gallery from the corridor was between two stately fluted pillars that stood just within the doorway. There was only one window on the California Street side, but it was amply lit from skylights. A deep semicircular recess, skirted by handsome Corinthian columns occupied the western side. The finishing was in silverwood and rosewood, and the ceiling was richly frescoed. The floor was all laid down in parqueterie.
On the walls were cut-crystal candelabra of the most exquisite workmanship, and in the corners were inviting lounges, cosies, tete-a-tetes, vis-à-vis, and every description of seat that invited flirtation, conversation and contemplation.
On each side of a marble statuette of Hebe were candelabras of onyx and bronze fire-gilt, with polished bases of green Campan marble. In one corner of the gallery was a Barbedieene bronze of Zephyr and Flora, very beautiful, fixed on a pedestal of Griotte marble, with a base and capital of Blue Belge, the richest and costliest black marble.
In the center were two tall cylindrical French vases, made by Laurin at Bourg in Reine, and painted with flowers. On a companion buffet were two vases of the famous pâte-sur-pâte, made by Solon for Minton.
In 1880, writer and art critic Earl Shinn (under the pseudonym Edward Strahan), published his lavishly produced, monumental three-volume Art Treasures of America, a compendium of the country’s major collections. He visited all of the Nob Hill homes and declared that he had met, “A group of really enlightened patrons in California…Among their galleries, you forget that an ocean and a mighty continent intervene, and fancy yourself in the patchouli perfume characteristic of the Paris Salon.” None of the palaces on California Street showed a richer gallery than Mr. Crocker’s according to Strahan.
Charles & Edwin Crocker and Leland Stanford, as art enthusiasts, were life members of the San Francisco Art Association. Charles Crocker, like his brother E.B., acquired many pieces in his collection during his European Grand Tours, and his trips to Paris, but he also supported the brokers at the Knoedler Gallery in New York. Founded in 1848 as the New York branch of Goupil & Cie., Knoedler, initially catered to the taste for anecdotal genre paintings among U.S. collectors. Goupil & Cie. was a central force in the French art market of the nineteenth century and carried the work of 19th century academic artists, major artists of the Romantic generation, all the principal figures of the Barbizon School, some of the Impressionists, with minor trade in Old Masters, particularly Dutch. Vincent Van Gogh was an art dealer at the Paris branch working under his uncle who was a partner at Goupil.
Unlike his brother, who would open his gallery for charities and public events, Charles became associated with a tight clique of connoisseurs and his gallery was more of a sacred sanctuary for invited guests. His paintings were precious investments that gave him personal pleasure.
The gallery was filled with canvases from the best German and French easels, including Boginet, Vibert, Von Bremen, Moran, Lenoir, Worms, Eberle, Ludwig Knaus, and the great masters Jean-Léon Gérôme, Cabanel and Boldini. Some paintings were singled out by the reviewers for their brilliance including: “The Betrothal Presents,” by Paul Leyndecker, “The Family of Catherine of Medici,” by Leon y Excosure, “The Female Brigand Chief,” by Adolphe Leslel, “Winter Horse-piece,” by Christian Adolph Sehreyer, and Emile Breton’s “A Village of Artois in Winter,” which was shown at the 1876 Philadelphia World’s Fair. No piece got more positive notices than “Penelope” by Alexandre Cabanel. Charles had it hung in the recess of his gallery’s circular pavilion, in the central place of honor.
Jean-Louis Ernest Meissonier’s “The Smoker,” was purchased by Charles for an outrageous $12,000 and his “Standard Bearer” for $15,000. Meissonier was among the most collectible artists in the world at the time. He was a very Bohemian member of the famous club of hasheesheaters, or haschichins, celebrated by Theophile Gautier. His influence made genre painting the predominating art of France.
Charles had been struck by the work of Wilhelm von Kaulbach in the Treppenhaus (grand staircase) of the Neues Museum in Berlin when he visited and wanted some pieces recreated for his own home. Six grand and glorious frescoes were painted at the museum which traced the progress of man in Christian stories from the Tower of Babel to the Protestant Reformation. It wasn’t these religious stories told in vast frescoes that interested Charles (by his own accounts, he was not a religious man). He commissioned artists to recreate the frieze that stood above Kaulbach’s masterpieces, as a fresco, which to Crocker told a more complete, accurate and lively story of the progress of mankind.
Described as “the child’s-play of an ingenious mind” the frieze was a series of tableaux representing various events in the history of the world and symbolizing different stages in the progress of the arts and sciences as told by the clever caprices of little genii and cherubs, hybrid creatures and animals.
A San Francisco Chronicle critic was so enthralled by Kaulbach’s “Der Fries” in the Crocker gallery that he shared its entire story to his readers:
Beginning at the southwest corner of the gallery, there was seen a group representing the mythological origin of mankind according to the Greeks, Romans and Egyptians. The characters of Prometheus, Pallas Athene, Romulus and Remus, Isis and Osiris [were depicted]… as was Pan playing a flute, Apollo carving a lyre, and the incomparable Zeuxis painting a bunch of grapes, symbolizing the birth of music, sculpture and painting in Greece. The Christian era symbolized by a cross, a crown of thorns and a serpent were depicted….The tottering reign of Augustus and the passage of the Rubicon came next, followed by Emperor Constantine being driven from his capital by the Arabs. Peter the Hermit and Richard Cœur de Lion were the principal figures of the Crusades depicted…The struggle for supremacy between the Popes and the sovereigns of Europe during the Middle Ages was represented by Gregory VII hurling his anathema against Henry IV of Germany. Copernicus represents astronomy and an alchemist in search of the philosopher’s stone. The horrors of the Inquisition followed, and was represented by a scene of torture. The Pope, Martin Luther, Kant, Goethe and Mephistopheles made up the tableau of the German reformation. The overthrow of superstition is typified in Humboldt bearing upon his head his “Cosmos” and a small Hercules with a club. The last figure was reached which held the laurel to bestow upon deserving men of all nations.
Kaulbach’s “Der Fries” presented the dramatic events and the conspiring people that shaped world history as told by mythological creatures that looked as if they belonged in a child’s coloring book. The frieze was both whimsical and all encompassing–a reflection of Charley Crocker’s formidable and resolute, larger-than-life demeanor and his jolly personality.
The Elephant in the Yard
The most discussed architectural feature of the Crocker estate was by far a wall that was installed in the back yard. It has become a part of the lore of the great city of San Francisco.
The trouble began in 1871 when the Crocker brothers decided to bail out of the business. They sold out all their railroad interests in the Central Pacific, and other lines on the coast, to the other members of the Sacramento syndicate. Physically unwell, the brothers both opted for an early retirement. Like E.B., Charles went on a two-year Grand European Tour. When he wasn’t enjoying German healing spa towns like Baden-Baden and visiting the art museums of Germany and Italy, he was purchasing crates and crates of worldly goods, including furniture, antiques and art for his house in Sacramento. With the end of the Franco Prussian war in 1871, much of Europe, particularly France and the Italian Papal states, was in turmoil approaching civil war. Fire sales at the grand mansions prompted wealthy Americans to go on Continental spending sprees. Entire rooms of furniture complete with paneling, paintings, drawings, sculpture, and tapestries were bought at rock bottom rates. E.B. came back with more paintings than what was held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
A report that the Crocker brothers’ retirement package included a cool $10 million a piece had the citizens incensed. The Chicago Tribune reported:
…when we hear that Charles Crocker, formerly a retail dry goods merchant at Sacramento and his brother Edwin, a not eminent attorney of the same place, retired from their connection with the railroad, each receiving a private fortune of $10 million we cannot help thinking that these government subsidies were given to them, not for their private use, but as Trustees in trust for the carrying on of a great national undertaking and when we hear that these most fortunate gentlemen are traveling in Europe, purchasing art treasures, building palaces for themselves and museums for their costly pictures and marbles, we are selfish enough to think that this money would have been better expended in building a cheaper railroad, and one over which our goods and grains, our oars and timbers, our wool and wines, our silks and teas, our coal and iron could have been transported more economically. And we the people have built the roads, not they the Crockers, we think they should enjoy less millions…
Charles returned to the firm in 1873 and his wealth increased exponentially over the next decade (at the end of his life he was counted among the top ten richest men in America). By 1877, when the mansions of Central Pacific’s Palace Row were in various stages of construction, the hostility and resentment reached a fever pitch. Robert Louis Stevenson weighed in about the enormous concentration of wealth embodied by these mansions in The Magazine of Art:
The great net of straight thoroughfares lying at right angles, east and west and north and south, over the shoulders of Nob Hill, the hill of palaces, must certainly be counted the best part of San Francisco. It is there that the millionaires are gathered together vying with each other in display. From thence, looking down over the business wards of the city, we can descry a building with a little belfry, and that is the Stock Exchange, the heart of San Francisco: a great pump we might call it, continually pumping up the savings of the lower quarters into the pockets of the millionaires upon the hill.
Mrs. Robert Louis Stevenson would later build her own mansion just north of Nob Hill on the top of Russian Hill.
Accused of embezzlement by his former employers, Central Pacific attorney Alfred A. Cohen, after lashing out against the Big Four’s business practices, attacked Crocker personally, denouncing him as a nouveau riche parvenu, crass and crude, and swore that his attempts at becoming a genteel, cultured, and sophisticated man-of-the-world would fail:
He said: “I will drop the obsequious smile with which I used to roll up calico and tape for my customers, and in its place there shall come the arrogant, supercilious grin of oleaginous self-satisfaction, I will build myself a mansion which I will set upon a hill. I will upholster and furnish it so that visitors shall be filled with doubt whether it is designed for a haberdasher’s shop or a stage-scene of a modern furniture drama. I will purchase goblin tapestries, and employ some one to tell me whether they should be hung upon the walls as paintings or spread upon the floor as mats. I will buy pictures from the galleries of the Medicis, and employ M. Medici himself to make the selections. I will show to the world how an intelligent patron of art and literature can be manufactured by the powers of wealth out of a peddler of pins and needles. I will visit Europe and remain until I can ornament my ungrammatical English with a fringe of mispronounced French. I will wear a diamond as large as the headlight of one of my locomotives; and my adipose tissue shall increase with my pecuniary gains until my stomach is as large as my arrogance, and I can strut along the corridors of the Palace Hotel a living, breathing, waddling monument of the triumph of vulgarity, viciousness and dishonesty.”
Leland Stanford, lobbying on behalf of the companies’ interests acted as spokesman and attempted to squelch criticism. As his potentate’s palace was being built, Stanford gave an interview to the San Francisco Chronicle where he outlined that the railroad was in fact an agent of widespread and trickle down wealth:
I know the mistrust there is abroad in the community against myself and the management of this great railroad enterprise; but I shall outlive it and all the jealousy such misunderstanding has inspired. I shall hope to live to sit upon yonder balcony and look down upon a city embracing in itself and its suburbs a million of people. I shall see trains of cars laden with merchandise and passengers coming from the East across the present Transcontinental Railroad. . . . I shall see cars from the city of Mexico, and trains laden with the gold and silver bullion and grain that comes from Sonora and Chihuahua on the south, and from Washington Territory and Oregon on the north. I shall see railroads bearing to and fro the produce and merchandise of each extreme. I shall look out through the Golden Gate and I shall there see fleets of ocean steamers bearing the trade of India, the commerce of Asia, the traffic of the islands of the ocean-steamers from Australia and the southern Pacific. I shall see our thronged and busy streets, our wharves laden with the commerce of the Orient, and I shall say to myself, “I have aided to bring this prosperity and this wealth to the State of my adoption and to the city in which I have chosen my home.
Ambrose Bierce, the town crier from The Wasp, responded:
Governor Stanford of the Central and Southern Pacific is a pirate and a pig, but Governor Stanford of California Street is a gentleman and a philanthropist. In his dual character of malefactor and benefactor he somewhat resembles the ideal highwayman dear to the hearts of the novel writers, who sometimes bestows in charity as much as one half of 1% of its plunder.
When Charles Crocker’s homestead was being built, the once national hero became involved in a much publicized imbroglio with Mr. Nicholas Yung, a German immigrant of the undertaking firm of Massey & Yung, who lived on the only sliver of the block bounded by California, Sacramento, Taylor and Jones streets that the millionaire did not own. Crocker had to buy out 12 property owners to acquire the block. Yung, the last holdout, was a tough negotiator.
The Yungs enjoyed the panoramic views available from their residence and refused to sell to the millionaire for his offer of $3,000. As his mansion was nearing completion, Crocker improved his cash offer to the Yungs to $6,000, but they again refused. A solipsistic Crocker put forth a suggestion to the price-gouging undertaker that he was considering building a 30-foot wall on three sides around the Yung abode, drastically cutting light, views and air to the building. Following this overt act of intimidation, the defiant Yung upped his ante to $12,000.
A peace treaty would never be signed.
True to his word, Charley then spent $3,000 to erect a wall that would forever separate the neighbors. Yung lost in court when he challenged the legality of the spiteful wall. The undertaker spoke of retaliation against the railroad baron, telling The Chronicle that he was going to build a giant coffin on his roof emblazoned with a skull and cross-bones as a sort of ominous and foreboding condemnation and veiled threat to the great and powerful Crocker. Nicholas and his family were eventually forced to move.
The backlash against Crocker was immediate and far reaching. The wall was an eyesore. Acerbic combatant Ambrose Bierce reported:
An obsequious court permitted the outrage, and, deprived of sun and air and light for the crime of asking what he thought a fair price for his property, Mr. Yung and his family were forced from their home and went elsewhere. The reports of his attempt at “extortion;” the statement that he had demanded a preposterous price for the land which he thought his wealthy neighbor must have; the allegations of “insolence “—all these are untrue.
The Showdown on Nob Hill
The Yung-Crocker feud soon became politicized. In 1877, the wall would become the object of threats from the radical pro-labor, anti-Chinese Workingmen’s Party of California. In late October, party supporters led by local politician Denis Kearney staged a march up Nob Hill and a mass rally. The ever maddening mob of some 1,500 or 2,000 people, with fanatic fury, denounced the “railrogues” and decried the excesses of capitalism. They marched to condemn their low wages and protest what they saw as an insidious collusion of imported Chinese labor and oligarchic monopolists. Working white men were being undermined. Kearney addressed the crowd:
The Central Pacific men are thieves, and will soon feel the power of the workingmen. When I have thoroughly organized my party we will march through the city and compel the thieves to give up their plunder. I will lead you to the City Hall, clear out the police force, hang the Prosecuting Attorney, burn every book that has a particle of law in it, and then enact new laws for the workingmen. I will give the Central Pacific just three months to discharge their Chinamen, and if that is not done Stanford and his crowd will have to take the consequences. I will give Crocker until November 29th to take down the fence around Yung’s house, and if he does not do it I will lead the workingmen up there and tear it down, and give Crocker the worst beating with the sticks that a man ever got.
The populist politician had been riling his growing crowds all summer leading with the racist rallying cry, “The Chinese must go!” He commanded that the working men should, “lynch railroad magnates, thieving millionaires, and scoundrelly officials.” Kearney forewarned that “bullets would replace ballots” if the condition of the laboring classes were not improved. A three-day long riot ensued. Chinese laundries and wash-houses were destroyed. Several people were killed. The mobs also attacked the wharves of the Pacific Mail Steamship Company, that company being held responsible for the transportation of the Chinese immigrating to California.
Charles testified that he, his wife, his daughter and two sons were in his house on the evening of “the Nob Hill meeting.” He first heard the roar of the crowd and noticed a bonfire at the intersection of Mason and California streets. He prepared for an insurrection:
My wife and daughter were alarmed, and would every now and then exclaim, “They are coming!” My daughter’s face was white with fear, and she trembled. I was not alarmed, but felt apprehension concerning my property, and prepared to give a warm reception to any one who should attack my house. I had seen in a paper a notice that the meeting would be held. I had arms in my house, and was prepared to use them if necessary…
Shortly after his address, Kearney was arrested for attempting to incite violence. He received a hero’s welcome when he was released from prison a few days later after promising to tone down his rhetoric.
The Workingmen’s Party had many grievances. Unemployment and inflation was high. A severe economic crisis swept the country in the 1870s that is known to history as the Long Depression. The party took particular aim against the Central Pacific Railroad which had employed thousands of Chinese men. They adopted a radical platform which proposed to “unite the poor and the workingmen into one political party;” to “defend themselves against capitalists;” to “wrest the government from the rich and restore it to the people;” to “rid the country of cheap Chinese labor by any means to destroy land monopoly;” to “tax the rich so as to make great wealth impossible;” and to “elect only workingmen to office.”
The party won 11 seats in the State Senate and 17 in the State Assembly by 1878 and then rewrote the state’s constitution, denying Chinese citizens voting rights in California. The new constitution included the formation of California Railroad Commission that would oversee the activities of the Central and Pacific Railroad companies, which were run by Crocker, Huntington, Hopkins and Stanford. Their goal to “rid the country of Chinese cheap labor” led eventually to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.
Mr. Crocker didn’t take down the fence. He wouldn’t capitulate to the bully Kearney and his mad mobsters. He let it stand as a message not to the Yungs but to his real opponents, Kearney and the Workingmen’s Party. Crocker was a devoted Lincoln Republican, a fierce abolitionist and a defender of the Chinese. He was also an unrepentant capitalist, proud to call himself a self-made man.**
Ten years after the Nob Hill showdown, that ever stinging wasp Ambrose Bierce wrote that the Crocker mansion on California St. was hideous and that he’d like to burn it down. His wish would be granted.
A quarter century of rivalry between the Yungs and the Crockers finally came to end in 1902, when Nicholas Yung’s four daughters agreed to sell their property to Crocker’s descendants. The wall was torn down in 1905. The following year, the Great San Francisco earthquake and fire leveled Crocker’s grand and beautiful mansion and those of all of his partners as well as his son William’s mansion located just east of the Crocker estate.
The Crocker family subsequently donated their properties to the Episcopal Diocese of California. San Francisco’s largest church, the Grace Cathedral, now stands on the site.
The saddening loss of masterpieces on Nob Hill after the San Francisco earthquake and fire has never been fully itemized. All of the Big Four had died and their palaces stood mostly unoccupied except for staff and security guards for over a decade. But much of the furnishings and art remained. George Crocker rented out his parent’s Nob Hill home to J.P. Morgan for a month in 1901, five years before the earthquake. It was then fully furnished with all the art hung in the gallery and all the statuary in place.
William Crocker lost everything but a few paintings and tapestries and, thankfully, the monumental Man with the Hoe by Francois Millet (which now resides at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles). Innumerable priceless first editions and two Shakespeare folios were also destroyed.
The Mark Hopkins storybook Gothic castle became an art academy and gallery in 1893 after it was donated to the city by his deceased widow’s second husband, Edward Searles. Students and employees managed to save some paintings but many great works by local and internationally known masters were lost including pieces donated by mayor James Phelan, Phoebe Hearst, Collis Huntington and the French government. A marble statue donated by George Crocker “The Flight from Pompeii” by Benzoni survived.
Roughly 125 paintings and two dozen sculptures were lost at the Stanford mansion. They had been bequeathed to the University Art Museum in Palo Alto by Jane Stanford who died a year earlier, but hadn’t yet been transported. Twenty-two Old Master paintings perished along with the elaborate furnishings. More than a dozen works by Thomas Hill, two by Bouguereaus, landscapes by Julian Rix, not to mention paintings by Meyer von Bremen, Toulmouche, Worms, and Gérôme were destroyed as well as William Keith’s hauntingly beautiful “Mount Diablo.”
At the Huntington house, two pieces by Old Master Bartolomé Murillo, the leading painter in Seville in the later 17th century and one of the most admired and popular of all European artists in the 18th and 19th centuries, were incinerated. They were valued at 100 thousand dollars a piece then or seven million dollars today.
Another severe loss of art occurred at the nearby Bohemian Club, which lost not only works by much collected artist-members which were decorating its walls, but a dozen paintings on loan for the summer “jinks” by Old Masters including a Murillo, a Diaz, and a Rembrandt.
Miraculously, six of the eleven much admired pieces in the Charles Crocker collection which were featured in the series Art Treasures of America survived the earthquake of 1906. They were possibly shipped back East years earlier to the estates of daughter Hattie or son George or rescued by some vigilant servants.
“Expectations from our Aunt” is a scene of manners by Parisian Jules Worms, called a “capital comedy-painting.” Like a queen on her throne, in front of the vuelle of her stately Louis Quatorze bed, an old lady of uncertain temper sits glowering. For fear of drafts she is wrapped in the old-fashioned hood and mantle worn by dowagers. The expression shows that her intellect is concentrated on her own aches and pains.
“Sword-Dance in a Café” was painted by Jean-Léon Gérôme, an academic artist, steeped in Orientalism, who was arguably the world’s most famous living artist by 1880. The scene takes place in a gloomy café with a miscellaneous cluster of onlookers. It is distinguished by the daring pose of a dancer with a curly Turkish scimitar balanced on her head. Dusty beams which come through the skylight stab and illuminate. Sword dancers were among the celebrated artist’s more celebrated subjects.
A duplicate of this character was used in another painting by Gérôme, with the addition of a proud Pacha and his suite of spectators. It was purchased by W.H. Vanderbilt and hung in his New York gallery.
Giovanni Boldini’s “Morning Visit” aka “Woman Playing a Lyre and a Listener” shows a fair lady sitting on a canapé, playing a lyre, with a lovely damsel reclining on the lounge beside her, an arm thrown over the musician’s back, and her pretty head reclining in her friend’s lap.
Boldini was a family favorite. Charles commissioned him to paint a portrait of daughter Harriet. Later daughter-in-law Ethel Crocker and granddaughters Ethel and Helen had their portraits painted by Boldini.
“Cambyses at Pelusium” by Paul Lenoir was accepted at the 1873 Paris Salon, the French art world’s ground zero, and was praised by critics. The piece is an illustration of the story Stratagems of Polyaenus (written around 160 AD) about the capture of Egypt by the Persian king Cambyses almost without resistance from the Egyptians, whose religious fears were aroused by their being assailed with sacred cats. “Cambyses at Pelusium,” became a popular print after a photogravure plate was made, which ensured that it would reach a wide audience through reproduction and redistribution.
Charles Crocker had a celebrated sense of humor and was described as “jolly, easy, mirthful…and full of bonhomie.” He enjoyed the lighthearted debaucheries and caprices depicted in some of his acquisitions.
Two pieces by French artist Jehan-Georges Vibert survived the earthquake. “The Convent in Arms” represents a line of Spanish barefoot Capucin monks, in the cloister, being drilled by a truculent captain from the Spanish army.
“Gulliver and the Lilliputians,” originally titled “The Sleeping Gulliver Reconnoitered by the Lilliputians,” depicts the first chapter of Jonathan Swift’s famous 1726 satire Gulliver’s Travels and features the iconic image of an enormous sleeping Gulliver, tied up and staked to the ground, surrounded by tiny Lilliputians. It is masterful in technique and it features over 50 distinct characters. It is not typical of Vibert’s canon. The artist was best known for his humorous paintings of cardinals and monks.
Vibert did the striking Gulliver painting specifically to garner attention at the Paris Salon of 1870. It was a popular success and most of the critics were kind to him. The critic Ménard reported that it “attracted a crowd from its very first day on view.” And he went on to praise “the ingenious combination of the groups, the piquant expressions of the figures, the costumes and the attitudes of the various characters so full of fantasy and most appropriate to the subject.” Théophile Gautier called it a “very jolly thing, full of invention and very lively in the painting, with Gulliver sleeping on the beach like a mountain in the middle of the Lilliputians who explore his body. Nothing more droll can be imagined than these petite folks in their costumes, half Mongol half Persian.” It was a painting that transcended the artist.
So popular was the piece that Vibert painting two of them. They were identical in every way with the Crocker painting being four inches smaller. The second Gulliver, purchased by William T. Walters of Baltimore, now hangs at the Arkell Museum in upstate New York. It was a common practice of Vibert to paint such repliques of his most popular paintings. In addition to the two known oil versions, to further cash in on the Gulliver buzz, Vibert produced both a watercolor and an engraving of the subject.
Crocker enjoyed Vibert’s piece and hung it proudly in spite of the fact that it wasn’t a one-of-a-kind. Perhaps it narrated a story that held more personal meaning to him like the wonderful Kaulbach frieze at the Neues Museum that he had duplicated. Perhaps Charles identified with the giant Gulliver being attacked, tied down and held back by the short-statured and small-minded, morally corrupt and nasty Lilliputians.
By the 1890s, wealthy collectors turned from away from academic and genre paintings to the Old Masters and, later, the Impressionists. Works that had fetched top dollar in 1880 barely sold for the cost of their frames in 1950. Fashions have changed again, however, and academic and genre paintings are now eagerly collected, their many fine qualities appreciated once more. Crocker’s Gulliver painting believed to be lost in the earthquake surfaced in 2008 and was sold by Sotheby’s for nearly $1.5 million, three times its pre-auction estimate.
Two years after the Nob Hill Kearney incident, Charles was on to his next building ventures. First came the grand and glorious Hotel Del Monte, Crocker’s pet project, which became one of the most celebrated seaside resorts in the nation. After that, Charles built the Crocker & Huffman Canal (then the world’s largest irrigation canal) and the Yosemite Lake Reservoir in Merced County. To newspaper men he prophesied that this project would eventually be recognized as a more important achievement than the Transcontinental railroad. Another Crocker passion project, on the drawing board but never realized (according to The California Architect and Building News), was a magnificent arts complex for the Art Society as well as musicians, painters, architects and other allied professionals, that included an Opera House…
Coming soon: Charles Crocker, the Archetypal Self-Made Man
**Charles Crocker enjoyed telling his rags to riches story about dropping out of school at aged 9, striking out on his own at 16, living in a log cabin in the wilderness of Indiana (like Lincoln) and crossing the country by Conestoga wagon during the California Gold Rush. He loved also to talk about the fact that he circumnavigated the globe in 1873-74. By the end of his life, the formidable Mr. Crocker became one of the ten richest men in America according to a period publication, “The Owners of the United States,” The Forum, November 1889, p265.
Alice Cooney Frelinghuysen and Nicholas C. Vincent, Artistic Furniture of the Gilded Age: George A. Schastey & Co, (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2016.
“Brilliant. Charles Crocker’s Reception to Gen. Grant,” San Francisco Chronicle, October 22, 1879.
“Buildings to be Rebuilt at Once,” Oakland Tribune ,April 30, 1906.
Carol M. Osborne, Museum Builders of the West: The Stanfords as Collectors and Patrons of Art, (Stanford University, 1986).
Catalogue of paintings in the Crocker Art Gallery, compiled by Mrs. A.L. Doyle, (Sacramento : H.S. Crocker & Co., 1876).
Charles de Limur, Golden Girl: The Remarkable Life of Harriet Valentine Crocker (1859-1935), Edited by Gretchen de Limur, (San Francisco: 2017).
Clara Cornelia Harrison Stranahan, A History of French Painting from Its Earliest to Its Latest Practice, (Scribner, 1888).
“Cohen’s Camera,” San Francisco Chronicle, October 11, 1876.
“Crocker’s House,” San Francisco Chronicle, June 10, 1877.
Diana Strazdes, “The Millionaire’s Palace: Leland Stanford’s Commission for Pottier & Stymus in San Francisco,” Winterthur Portfolio, Winter, 2001, pp. 213-243.
“Gulliver Lost and Found,” Forbes, May 6, 2008.
“In Memoriam, Obsequies of the Late Charles Crocker,” Sacramento Record Union, August 21, 1888, p1-3.
International Exhibition, 1876, Official Catalogue, Department of Art, (Philadelphia: John R. Nagle and Company, 1876)
Jerome Hart, In Our Second Century: From an Editor’s Note-book, (San Francisco : The Pioneer Press, 1931), pp. 52-63.
John Ott, The Manufactured Patron: Staging Bourgeois Identity through Art Consumption in Postbellum America, (, 2014).
Knoedler and Co. Records, approximately 1848-1971, The Getty Research Institute.
Objects of Interest,” The Sacramento Bee, September 22, 1868, p3.
“Palatial Houses,” San Francisco Call, October 5, 1891.
“Prattle,” The Wasp, March 13, 1886, p5.
The Art of Wealth: The Huntingtons in the Gilded Age, (San Marino, CA: Huntington Library Press, 2013.
“Silver Wedding A Marriage Anniversary at the Crocker Mansion, Interior of a Millionaire’s Palace,” San Francisco Chronicle, November 28, 1877, p3.
“The Agitators in Court,” The San Francisco Examiner, Fri November 16, 1877.
The Art Treasures of America Vol. III. Being the Choicest Works of Art in the Public and Private Collections of North America, Edited by Edward Strahan, (Philadelphia: George Barrie Publisher, 1880).
“The Beale Street Wharf Fire,” Daily Alta California, July 26, 1877, p1.
The California Architect and Building News, vol XI, June 20, 1890, p1.
“The Chas. Crocker Residence which will be occupied by J. Pierpont Morgan and Family,” San Francisco Call, October 6, 1901, p12.
“The dispatches briefly allude to a meeting in Sacramento,” Chicago Tribune, September 15, 1873, p4.
“The Owners of the United States,” The Forum, November 1889, p265.
“The Splendid Palaces of Nob Hill,” Detroit Free Press, August 3, 1902.
Thomas Hill Biography and Works 1829-1908, California Art Project, edited by Gene Hailey, 1936-1937, vol 2, bancroftlibrarycara.files.wordpress.com
Tom Hardwick, “Raining Cats, Not Dogs: A Curator’s Take on our Updated Exhibit,” Houston Museum of Natural Science January 8, 2020 https://blog.hmns.org/2020/01/raining-cats-not-dogs
Victorian Classics of San Francisco, Introduction by Alex Brammer, (Sausalito, California: Windgate Press, 1987).