Spirits of the City

Spirits of the City: The Haas Lilienthal House

By Gary Kamiya and Paul Madonna

The Haas-Lilienthal house on Franklin Street is not only one of the City’s most magnificent Victorians, but also a reminder of a unique San Francisco subculture: the Bavarian Jewish merchant princes who established their mercantile empires during the City’s early years.

The most remarkable thing about these men is how many of them came from the same tiny town, Reckendorf, in Upper Franconia, Bavaria — a hamlet where geese and chickens ran about the unpaved streets. William Haas, who built the Haas-Lilienthal house with money he made from his dry goods empire, came from Reckendorf. So did Isaias Hellman, who became the state’s leading banker. Isaac Walter, who made a fortune in home furnishings, was also from Reckendorf. In fact, no fewer than nine future Jewish millionaires grew up in Reckendorf. And the most famous Jewish entrepreneur of the time, Levi Strauss, grew up in a town just 20 miles away.

These young men joined thousands of other Bavarian Jews who began emigrating to the United States in the 1840s, seeking opportunities denied to them in their homeland by bigotry and restrictive laws. Many came to San Francisco. By the 1880s, it had a larger Jewish population than any other city in the country except New York.

Most of these Bavarian Jewish immigrants had little money when they arrived. But they were well educated, had worked as tradesmen at home, and often had family connections in their new country. Gold Rush San Francisco was the perfect place for these hard-working newcomers: a wide-open town that rewarded ambition and initiative and was largely unhindered by anti-Semitism. They succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.

William Haas’ story was typical. He arrived in San Francisco in 1868 at the age of 20 and went to work in a wholesale grocery company started by his brother Kalman, who had arrived in 1851 and realized, like many Jews during the Gold Rush, that “mining the miners” was far more profitable than mining for gold.

Haas started as a clerk, sometimes sleeping on a shelf in the store, then worked his way up to partner. By 1886, he had become a wealthy man and could afford the princely sum of $18,000, not including the land and furnishings, to build a magnificent three-story Queen Anne Victorian at 2007 Franklin Street.

Haas and his wife, Bertha, had three children. He was a benevolent patriarch who managed to be both a successful businessman and a family man. Like many of his German Jewish compatriots, he spoke to his children in German and venerated German culture, which he regarded as superior to American.

Haas’ boyhood friends from Reckendorf, Isaias Hellman and Isaac Walter, had also enjoyed tremendous business success and had bought mansions within a few blocks of each other in the same exclusive part of the City, on Franklin Street. The Reckendorfers, as they half-jokingly called each other, usually walked to work down town together.

In 1911, William and Bertha Haas paid a visit to their old hometown. As they wandered around its still-unpaved streets, they were surprised to run into Isaac Walter and Isaias Hell-man. As the Reckendorfers passed a pleasant afternoon in their home-town, one can only imagine that they marveled at the unexpected hand that fate had dealt them.

San Francisco’s Bavarian Jewish aristocrats gave generously back to the city that had made it possible for them to succeed, endowing many enduring San Francisco charities and institutions. In 1972, the descendants of the Haas and Lilienthal families continued this outstanding civic tradition when they donated the family mansion to San Francisco Heritage, ensuring that this majestic piece of the City’s history would survive and be open to all.

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