Fernando Nelson – San Francisco Builder

Fernando Nelson wasn’t trained as an architect, but he was one of San Francisco’s most prolific builders, credited with designing or building over 4,000 San Francisco homes. Below is a picture of just three homes he designed along Pierce street in the proposed Duboce Park historic district.

Fernando Nelson homes along Pierce St. in Hayes Valley

Fernando Nelson was born in 1860 in New York, and arrived in San Francisco at the tender age of 16. The first home he is credited with building is from the same year, and can be found at 407 30th St. in Noe Valley. He was a prolific builder, and you can find homes that he had a hand in designing or building in almost every San Francisco neighborhood, including West Portal, Parkway Terrace (in the central Sunset district), the Richmond, Haight-Ashbury,  Merced Manor, the Mission and the Castro neighborhoods.

While he started out by building homes in existing neighborhoods, he eventually focused on buying land in areas where new streetcar lines were being installed, and would develop and sell homes near the new streetcar lines, which is why you see his work in not only the “inner” San Francisco neighborhoods, but also so many of the “outer” neighborhoods. He was – as you might guess – quite financially successful, and built his personal residence in the Presidio Terrace neighborhood. His home at 30 Presidio Terrace was, ironically enough, designed by the noted architecture firm of MacDonald & Applegarth. Here’s a bit about Nelson’s home at 30 Presidio Terrace, taken from the San Francisco planning department:

30 Presidio Terrace is a visual feast of extremely rich textures, including variegated brick in the Flemish bond pattern at the lower level, an approximation of old english half-timbering with rough cement plaster above, and diamond patterned leaded glass. A medieval influence is carried out in the gargoyles at the roof life of the round, one story solarium. The most conspicuous feature of the home is the steep cross-gable roof, particularly the tall front gable which rises almost four stories.  The roof shingles are set in a wave pattern, with rolled edges to simulated thatch. An unusual note in this otherwise consistently styled English Cottage style are the truncated white Tuscan columns at the entry to the garden room.

Nelson’s home at 30 Presidio Terrace has gone on to have many accomplished and distinguished owners, including Fernando Beckenmeyer, Ambassador to Peru, and Dianne Feinstein who was a City Supervisor before becoming Mayor and continues to serve the state of California as a US Senator.

45 Hartford in the Castro neighborhood, home design attributed to Fernando Nelson

He was such a prolific and successful builder that his sons Frank and George both joined in the family business, and while Fernando lived to be 93 years old (dying in 1953) many of the homes associated with the Nelson name but built after about 1915 were the product of his sons.

While researching this article, I’d like to give a tip of the hat to the Outside Lands website, which has several articles about Nelson that I’ve drawn on in writing this particular article. It’s a great website, and I highly encourage you to stop by and give them a read. And finally, I should note that I’ve tagged Fernando Nelson as a “SF Architect of Note” even though he wasn’t an architect because of the significant influence he had on so many San Francisco homes.


  1. says

    I am selling a condo in a possible Nelson Victorian. Do you know anything about this property? It’s on the famous Waller block in the Haight 1303Waller.com



    • Matt Fuller, GRI says

      I love that block! But no, sadly, I don’t know anything about 1303 Waller. Can’t wait to see it on tour, though!

      – M

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