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.

Do these Light Fixtures Look Familiar?

A few weeks back I wrote about the North End Police Station at 2475 Greenwich. It was the police station built for the Panama Pacific International Exposition that was eventually turned into a private residence. The building is considered to be an exceptional example of  Spanish Colonial Revival Architecture. One of the most notable items (to me, at least) on that building are the spiky lanterns that adorn the building on either side of the main entrance doors.

Spiky Lantern at 2150 Washington in Pacific Heights

 A few weeks after taking those pictures, I was taking some pictues of the AppleGarth designed Speckels mansion in the 2100 block of Washington when I happened upon some more… spiky lanterns!

2475 Greenwich was designed by Frederick H. Meyer and John Reid, Jr., while 2150 Washington was designed by Charles Peter Weeks, a San Francisco architect that designed numerous buildings of note, including this Pacific Heights home. Weeks designed the home for Mary Phelan, the sister of legendary San Francisco Mayor James Phelan.

Spiky Lantern at 2150 Washington

According to current tax records, the spiky lanterns at 2150 Washington are currently owned by the Dharma Realm Buddhist Assn Inc. The tax records also report that the home has eight bedrooms, and 10 full bathrooms with a total square footage of 16,506 square feet. There is no mention of 2150 Washington on the association’s website, although the organization is headquartered in nearby Burlingame, CA.

Hmmmm…. a religious organization with a quirky name and a mansion. Nothing could ever go wrong with a setup like that, right?

Anyway, hope you enjoy the two pics. If you’ve got other great pictures of spiky lanterns, spanish colonial revival architecture, or scoop about the Dharma Realm Buddhist Association, be sure to leave a comment below.

George Adrian Applegarth

George Applegarth was one of the most influential architects in post-earthquake San Franicsco. He was born to English parents in Oakland, CA in 1875 and trained in Paris at the École des Beaux-Arts. Upon graduation, he went to work in the workshop of Victor Laloux, and arrived back in San Francisco in 1907. Upon his return to San Francisco, he partnered with fellow school-mate Kenneth MacDonald, Jr. to design numerous commercial and residential properties in San Francisco, including the Presidio Terrace home of prolific San Francisco builder Fernando Nelson. He lived a long and hearty life, dying at the age of 96 in January of 1972.

His work in San Francisco was often of the Beaux-Arts style known for elegant proportions, grand columned entries, coffered ceilings, and symmetry.

2080 Washington

He collaborated with Alma de Bretteville Spreckels for several of his most famous projects, including the design of the California Palace of the Legion of Honor. He also designed the Spreckels mansion, which is located at 2080 Washington (pictured above). While the mansion was famous in its own day, it continues to receive plenty of press as the desperately-in-need-of-a-facelift home of Danielle Steele (the home, folks, not her face. I’m pretty sure that work has been done already).

2775 Vallejo

2775 Vallejo in Pacific Heights was his personal residence, which he designed as a wedding gift for his wife, Gwendolyn Powers. 2775 Vallejo was built in the Italian Renaissance style, and is much more subtle than some of his other Beaux Arts buildings. Developed on a wide lot (almost 50 feet, about double the normal lot width), the home features views of the Golden Gate bridge and San Francisco bay and has a lovely garden on the south side of the home. 2775 Vallejo only recently left the Applegarth family, being sold in an off-market transaction to a private individual in March of 2011. According to tax records, 2775 Vallejo has over 4,000 square feet of living space. He also designed the neighboring residence at 2875 Vallejo St.

He also designed numerous homes in the Presidio Heights neighborhood, a few of which are pictured below:

201 Locust

201 Locust is a private residence on a corner lot at Locust & Washington. According to public tax records, the home has over 6,200 feet of living space and last traded hands in 1997.

3730 Washington

3730 Washington is about a block and half to the west of 201 Locust, also in the Presidio Heights neighborhood. 3730 Washington is an enormous home, with over 9,000 square feet of living space. It was last sold in 2007 and underwent extensive renovations after being acquired by a private individual.

Gallery of George Adrian Applegarth properties (click on any image for a larger version and slideshow):

Other George Applegarth properties in San Francisco include:

  • 2206-12 Vallejo (Schilling Place)
  • 1900 Broadway
  • 2160 Pacific
  • 1-11 3rd Avenue
  • 3 Presidio Terrace
  • 4 Presidio Terrace
  • 5 Presidio Terrace
  • 27 Presidio Terrace
  • 30 Presidio Terrace
  • 34 Presidio Terrace

Applegarth is also famous for his work on Clyde, California. Clyde, California was a company town built by the Pacific Coast Shipbuilding Company with a government loan from the US Shipping Board in 1917. Bernard Maybeck was hired as the Supervising Architect, and he designed the hotel and about 200 of the initial homes. George Applegarth was an Acting Architect for the project, drawing many of the town plans.

I’m sure I’ve failed to mention all the Applegarth homes in San Francisco, and I know I’ve left out the parking garages he designed. Feel free to leave other comments!