A Tale of Two Houses
The house has a rich history which is described below by historian William Kostura.
Address: 828 Francisco
Years Built: 1863, 1929
Alpheus Bull (1863 Italianate House)
Bertram Alanson (1929 Tudor House, Architects Samuel Hyman and Abraham Appleton)
Two of the finest residences ever built on Russian Hill occupied the same location at the northwest corner of Francisco and Leavenworth Streets, one house replacing the other in 1929. The first, built in 1863, was a white Italianate with a wraparound porch, widow’s walk, and bracketed eaves; it was otherwise unornamented. This was the largest house of a type once common on the north slope of Russian Hill. Admired for their simplicity, of them the artist Ernest Peixotto wrote in 1893: “This simple type made an eminently habitable home, with its wide veranda and heavy shutters, and was devoid of all ostentation.” Its successor, 828 Francisco, is a Tudor home of superb detailing and composition. Each house had remarkable owners and events associated with its history.
The older house had the more colorful builder. This was Alpheus Bull, who as a youth had traveled through the Midwest as a fervent, itinerant preacher of the Universalist religion. The Universalists believed that there was no Hell, and that God would ultimately save all people. In the Gold Rush, Bull came to California and prospered as a merchant in Red Bluff and in Shasta, where his small brick store still stands. He also built a flour mill, engaged in banking, skirmished with Indians, and was involved in the vigilante hanging of a mule thief. Moving to San Francisco in 1858, he made an astonishing occupational leap, becoming president of several major Nevada silver mines and Vice President of the Fireman’s Fund Insurance Company.
The attainment of great wealth and construction of a mansion with a view did not bring tranquillity to Bull’s personal life. In 1871, his wife Sarah hung herself in the attic of their Russian Hill home. The Alta California newspaper attributed the suicide to insanity. Two years later Bull became the leader of a new Universalist Church in San Francisco, but its pastor was accused of “amorous irregularities,” causing a split in the congregation. A letter from 1884 reveals that in addition to the headaches and respiratory problems he had experienced for many years, Bull suffered from severe mental depression. His death in 1890 occurred during a family outing to Fort Point. As his second wife Jennie and their daughters walked ahead, Alpheus lingered behind to enjoy the sea spray. He apparently became faint and pitched over the sea wall. At age 74, he left a fortune of over a million dollars.
Mrs. Bull lived in the house only another three of four years before moving to Pacific Heights. Men of means occupied the house during its last three decades, but at last the day came when a new owner chose to demolish it and erect a modern building on the bluff.
Stockbroker Bertram E. Alanson began construction of an immense Tudor house in September, 1929. The architects Samuel Hyman and Abraham Appleton (along with Arthur Brown, Jr.) also designed the Jewish Community Center in 1932. Alanson was locally prominent, becoming President of the San Francisco Stock Exchange and joining with Timothy Pfleuger to hire Diego Rivera to paint the mural in the Stock Exchange Club. By 1929, he had already been a close friend of W. Somerset Maugham for thirteen years and had made Maugham a millionaire by investing $15,000 of his money in the stock market. Maugham made many trips to San Francisco, where he stayed at 828 Francisco for weeks at a time. In his biography of Maugham, Willie, The Life of W. Somerset Maugham, Robert Calder portrays the two as close friends until Alanson’s death in 1958.
About the author:
William Kostura is an architectural historian who has conducted extensive research on Russian Hill since 1981. In 1997, he published the first of a series of histories on Russian Hill, Russian Hill: The Summit, 1853-1906, Volume I of a Neighborhood History. Mr. Kostura has researched over 600 houses on Russian Hill.