We go inside one of San Francisco’s most treasured homes.
Photo by: Spencer Brown
One of the most intriguing houses on Nob Hill, possibly in all of San Francisco, is hiding in plain sight. Sandwiched in between the neighborhood’s luxury hotels—The Fairmont, The Stanford Court, The Scarlet Huntington and The InterContinental—1021 California Street, the only house on the block, seems almost demure. But within its walls, built after the 1906 earthquake that leveled the city, the ghosts of gossip’s past are dishing.
In 1911, real estate mogul Herbert Law purchased the 20-by-60-foot “tent lot” to design as a solo residence. The original design of the house was created by architect George A. Schastey, who designed the Fairmont’s interiors. It featured traceried grillwork, Italian marble floors, fireplaces in every room, gilded vaults, an onyx fountain, regal crown moldings and leaded glass ceilings. Like many famous buildings in the city, it was given a nickname: The Jewel Box.
The 5,500-square-foot mini-manse has six levels, a separate bar and dining area and only one bedroom. Connecting all of the levels is the oldest operating elevator in San Francisco. Law built it as a place to entertain, and it quickly became a gathering spot for San Francisco’s social elite. Law hosted countless parties there, which were often catered by the Fairmont, requiring waiters and busboys to rush back and forth across California Street with trays of silver and crystal. The house was also a bachelor pad. Legend has it that Law used the underground tunnels running beneath the streets to usher in mistresses he’d meet at the Pacific-Union Club across the street, allowing them an inconspicuous way to visit their paramour without being seen.
For the past 20 years, The Jewel Box has hosted a very different kind of occupant. Elisa Stephens, a San Francisco native and president of the Academy of Art University, which was founded in 1929 by her grandfather, Richard S. Stephens, bought the notorious bachelor pad in 1997. At the time, she was a single, working woman.
“My father introduced me to this house,” says Stephens, as we sit in her richly appointed living room on an unusually warm September morning. “He knew the house very well because one of his best friends grew up here. The family moved away during the Great Depression, but he always talked about this house as one of the loveliest places he’d ever lived.”
When Stephens first toured the house in the mid-1990s, she could feel the weight of its legacy.
“There were framed photos of Plácido Domingo and Pavarotti. It was filled with beautiful antiques, and had green walls and beautiful silk curtains. It was like something out of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations,” Stephens recalls. “There had also been some modernizing that I found quite odd. The downstairs powder room was all mirrors, almost like a discotheque, and they had taken out most of the original molding around the doors. I think it took an artist to see the bones of this house, and respect its architecture. I knew living here carried with it a responsibility to honor that.”
Stephens began renovations almost immediately, starting at the basement (“I needed to do laundry”), moving up level by level. She reestablished the molding throughout the house, and lightened the original wood floors in the living room to expose the herringbone pattern. The sixth-floor doghouse—an add-on that hadn’t been touched in decades—transformed from a simple pine and linoleum room into a family room and office, where Stephens and her 12-year-old son, Richard, enjoy relaxing or playing video games, respectively. The kitchen has been modernized with a black-and-white checkerboard floor and monogrammed cabinets. And that disco bathroom is now painted a dusty pink, with elegant gold accents that recall the home’s original grandeur.
The only room Stephens has left almost entirely alone is the bar, adjacent to the dining room and kitchen. It’s nicknamed “the red room” for good reason. The floors, walls, ceiling and L-shaped sectional are all appointed in a bright crimson, bleeding seamlessly into one another. The fully stocked bar is flanked by zebra-striped barstools. A hidden door reveals what was once a safe, but is now used for extra storage for wine and bottled water.
Maintaining the beauty and integrity of a centenarian house is a full-time job that sometimes leads to unexpected surprises. Stephens recalls that one day during renovations, a contractor called with an emergency.
“He had been up in the ceiling, ripping out Sheetrock, and he uncovered a perfectly preserved Tiffany glass dome,” she says.
As you walk from the foyer to the living room, the dome—just above the original onyx fountain—is unmissable. Soft yellow and green light filters through the leaded glass arranged in a pattern of tangled leaves, coming together at the center where a figure—perhaps a saint, or a goddess—sits with arms outstretched.
Stephens has taken her time filling the house with unique pieces, scouring Paris flea markets and frequenting local antique stores such as the former Thomas Hardy boutique, and Lang Antiques in Union Square, to curate what she calls its Neoclassical French style. “I let the pieces find me,” she says. “I took my time because I didn’t mind living with open space for a while.”
A pair of porcelain elephant stools greet visitors in the foyer. The living room features two cozy sofas and miniature chairs, which she hired Art Academy alum Antonio Martins to reupholster. A mini-grand piano acts as a partition. Stephens doesn’t play, but she frequently invites pianist Alan Choy to visit and tickle the keys. The downstairs pink powder room is decorated by a series of framed William Hogarth paintings. A glass trophy case that sits in the stairwell holds treasures befitting of a royal, including a polished silver chalice and a crown.
Stephens has created a home that is both museum-quality and homey. It’s the house of a working mom, and also one of a socialite. “I entertain a lot,” admits Stephens. “I think the house demands that. It wants to host people and it wants to be lived in. I feel like I am a steward of the house. It’s my job to keep her in excellent shape, and to preserve her original beauty. It’s going to pass on and I want the next person to love it, maintain it, and realize there is an obligation to living in a home like this. It’s a privilege.”