Features

The Vanishing Mansion Consulates of San Francisco

By Gary Kamiya

Illustration by Olivia Wise.

Why diplomats ditched the City’s gated neighborhoods for grittier headquarters downtown — and one man who won’t budge.

If you went for a stroll through Pacific and Presidio Heights in, say, 1981, in an hour you could have walked past more than a dozen foreign consulates, many of them in showcase mansions. Le drapeau tricolore waved above the French consulate at 2570 Jackson on Alta Plaza, built in 1924 for chocolatier Domingo Ghirardelli in (naturally) the French revival style. Sweden occupied the magnificent brick mansion built by Swedish American shipping magnate William Matson at 1960 Jackson. Italy cut a bella figura at the imposing mansion at 2590 Webster. The red, white and black flag of Egypt waved above the superb home at 3001 Pacific, built in 1906 by architects Bliss and Faville, who designed the St. Francis Hotel.

Greece, Portugal, Nigeria, Korea, Tunisia, Monaco, Botswana and the USSR also occupied big houses in the area, with Spain in the equally patrician neighborhood near the Palace of Fine Arts. There were also a number of consular residences, most notably the house at 2516 Pacific, where the British consul general and his family lived and entertained visiting members of the royal family.

Today, if you took that same walk, you would find only five foreign consulates — Korea, Italy, Portugal, Germany and Greece — and three consular residences, those of Britain, Japan and Indonesia. All the other consulates have moved to downtown office buildings, left the city, or closed.

Why so many foreign consulates moved to San Francisco’s toniest neighborhoods and why most of them eventually left — not to mention the various misadventures, foreign intrigues and outright crimes associated with these institutions (see below) — is one of the more unexpected and entertaining real estate tales in a city that has no shortage of them.

From the 19th century until 1947, all of the foreign consulates in the City were located downtown, around Montgomery, Sansome and Kearny streets or on Market Street. There were just two odd exceptions: The first mansion consulate, ironically, was established by the Soviet Union, which hoisted the hammer and sickle above 2563 Divisadero in 1934 —perhaps celebrating Bloody Thursday and the great waterfront strike of that year with a display of capitalist opulence. The other was that of Czechoslovakia, which in 1933 moved from the de Young building to, of all places, 431 Belvedere in Ashbury Heights.

In 1947, Sweden and Turkey opened the first mansion consulates after the USSR, at 1918 Jackson and 2368 Vallejo, respectively. The floodgates really began to open in the 1950s: In 1953, Italy and Pakistan opened Pacific Heights consulates; in 1955, Korea opened its doors at 3500 Clay; in 1956, England moved its consular offices to the aforementioned house at 2516 Pacific; and in 1957, Portugal opened a consulate at 3298 Washington.

That was also the year that the imperial state of Iran significantly upgraded, moving from the St. Francis Hotel to 3400 Washington, the mansion consulate that was to have the weirdest history of them all (see below). Indonesia moved into 2800 Scott in 1958, followed by Greece at 2441 Gough in 1961.

That same year saw the opening of the consulate of the United Arab Republic, a nation that barely existed long enough for its consuls to find the good restaurants in town. This union between Egypt and Syria lasted only from 1958 to 1961, but Egypt remained in the building at 3001 Pacific and continued to be officially known as the United Arab Republic for several more years, thus saving a significant amount of money on stationery.

A Retreat to Mundanity

The first major consular downsizing — and a portent of things to come — took place in 1962, when Britain moved its consulate to 343 Sansome (although the consul general continued to live very large indeed at 2516 Pacific). But the trend still favored mansion consulates: In the next two decades, Yugoslavia, Spain, France, Turkey, Monaco, Cote d’Ivoire (whose short-lived consulate at 1055 Green on Russian Hill bucked the Pacific/Presidio Heights trend), Tunisia, Botswana and Liberia all opened stately outposts.

While most consulates were located in Pacific or Presidio Heights or the Marina, there were two odd outliers. For four years, the Panamanian consulate was located at 1880 Wawona, forcing unhappy visa applicants to figure out how to get to Pine Lake. Stranger still was the consulate of tiny Malta, which from 1968 until 2008 held forth in Thomas Pynchon-like obscurity at 2564 San Bruno Avenue.

But the strangest “consulate” of all belonged to a country that did not exist. In 1998, the “Dominion of Melchizedek” appeared at the top of the listing of consular offices in the San Francisco telephone directory, with the stipulation that inquiries could be received only by fax. This instruction may have been intended to prevent unwelcome interactions with the FBI or Interpol, since the “Dominion of Melchizedek” was a totally fictitious entity and apparent fraud that claimed at one point that its physical territory was a piece of underwater land.

The consular pendulum began to swing away from 10-bedroom Pacific Heights buildings and toward utilitarian downtown offices in 1982, when France moved from 2570 Jackson to 540 Bush. Perhaps an even bigger symbolic blow to the 94115 ZIP code area came in 1984, when Sweden, which had occupied a Pacific Heights consulate longer than any other country except the Soviet Union, moved from 1960 Jackson to 120 Montgomery. Over the next several decades, one nation after another moved its operations downtown or elsewhere, or closed entirely, until today just the above-mentioned five remain in Pacific Heights.

How did Pacific Heights become San Francisco’s answer to Washington, D.C.’s “Embassy Row” in the first place?

According to Barbara Pivnicka, honorary consul for Slovakia and executive director of the San Francisco Consular Corps, which represents the more than 70 consulates in the City, the leading factors were tradition and the fact that the United Nations Charter was signed here in 1945. “First off, buying one of those big houses was what you did if you were an embassy — like you’d see in DuPont Circle in Washington, D.C.,” Pivnicka says. “I also think they took a cue from European national capitals, where consulates tend to be in upscale residential neighborhoods. That was the mindset.

“And then after the U.N. was signed here, I think that a lot of countries, particularly the European ones, thought that San Francisco would be a real international hub.”

Keeping up with the Joneses — in this case, the Swedes or the Russians — may also have played a role. “There was probably a little bit of one-upmanship involved,” says David Parry, an architectural historian and longtime real estate agent for McGuire who sold the former British consulate at 2516 Pacific in 2003 (see below). “It wouldn’t have taken more than one or two governments to acquire a significant building before all of them think, ‘Well, we should do that as well.’”

The reasons why a given country would sell its mansion consulate and relocate downtown, move to a different city, or simply close down its consulate, are unique.

“Each one is a different deal,” Pivnicka explains.

“Many times these are strategic decisions on the part of the country. In the case of the country that I represent, the Slovak Republic, we had a consulate in Los Angeles with two career diplomats, and they decided to close it based on a global review of where their embassies and consulates were, and where they wanted to concentrate. They chose to close Los Angeles and rushed me here because they wanted to open a couple of other consulates in Africa. Slovakia is an auto producer, so they’re looking for expansion and supply chain opportunities in Africa. That makes good economic sense and business sense. When you have x amount of dollars, you need to be smart about it.”

But the most common reason why countries move to downtown offices is practicality. “Your local representation of a foreign government is here for business purposes, for trade reasons, to make presentations,” says Parry. “So a business environment where you’ve got a big conference room and parking in the building or immediate access from BART, rather than a residential building in a neighborhood where it can be hard to find parking, I think that’s the reason why they move. And flexibility: If you find you need more space, it’s easier to rent it in a downtown business location.”

Illustration by Olivia Wise.

Decisions, Decisions

The cost of maintaining an elaborate building can also be a significant factor. Pivnicka cites the 2019 sale of the Egyptian consulate at 3001 Pacific (see sidebar). “They decided to sell the building and move the consulate. It needed earthquake retro-fitting,” she says. “They had decided their business would be better served through Los Angeles, so they spent some money on retrofitting to sell it, moved, and they now operate from Los Angeles. I think they were happy to move and I think the cost of maintaining the building was a big component of their decision. The expense is never ending.”

The optics of having a mansion consulate also plays a role — one that can cut both ways. A country might decide to sell its property because it is perceived as an unjustifiable extravagance, but might also decide to keep it because it is a beloved landmark that raises the country’s prestige. As an example of the former, Parry cites the former British consulate, then the consul general’s residence at 2516 Pacific. “It stuck out like a sore thumb to the government in London as being a large residence for a consul general given the relative importance of San Francisco in the world,” he says. “So they decided that residence should be less of a public property and they downsized.”

As an example of the latter, Pivnicka cites the German decision to stay at their magnificent building at 1960 Jackson. “This was a good example of the decisions countries have to make about these large buildings,” she says. “Germany had a review of all their properties around the world, and this one was under consideration for selling. They had so much renovation work to do to it, and when you add the safety factors which were also an issue, that probably was a good driver to make them move downtown. In the end, though, after this global re-view, they decided to stay and renovate the building. It was smart of them to do. It’s a big asset. Everyone knows the building.” Pivnicka notes that the annual “Germany day” beer-and-brat celebration held at the consulate is so huge that police have to close several surrounding blocks.

The neighbors tolerate the German bash, but some residents complain about the disruption consulates bring to their neighborhood. “Sure, if you have people coming for visas, you don’t want them lining up on Jackson Street,” says Pivnicka. But she doubts that residential pressure has a decisive effect on the high-level decision to move a consulate.

“The decisions are made back home,” she explains. “That would be like saying the State Department in D.C. is going to be highly attuned to what I think about some neighborhood issue [in San Francisco].”

Education is a final, less expected factor in a nation’s decision of where to locate its consulate. “A lot of these countries have diplomats coming with kids of various ages,” Pivnicka says. “It gives the parents more school choices if they rent a house and have the office downtown.”

There are many practical reasons why the golden age of the mansion consulate is a thing of the past. But it’s somehow reassuring that a few foreign flags still wave proudly over grand houses in Pacific Heights as reminders of a cosmopolitan era when San Francisco punched above its diplomatic weight.

International Intrigue

The true stories behind the City’s controversial consulates, from the infamous Russia purge to rogue squatters living large.

The former British consulate and residence at 2516 Pacific: In 2003, when real estate agent David Parry was selling the British consul general’s house at 2516 Pacific, he had also been tasked with finding Her Majesty’s representative in San Francisco a more modest residence. Of course, “modest” is a relative term. Parry found a house on Presidio Terrace, one of the most exclusive streets in the City, that cost $4,760,000. This isn’t exactly chump change, but it was a bargain compared with the former consulate on Pacific, an 11,000-square-foot Tudor revival mansion built by renowned architect Lewis Hobart, which Parry sold for a cool $10,250,000. “At the time it was a smart business decision, although it wasn’t well received by local organizations like the British American Business Council, which were used to having functions at 2516 Pacific,” Parry says. “And they’ve probably doubled their money on Presidio Terrace since 2003.” The Pacific Avenue mansion was purchased by venture capitalist George Hecksher. “He has an art gallery in the Palace of the Legion of Honor named after him. He had been renting four apartments in an apartment building on Laguna,” Parry says. “He always walked past the building. He had admired the house forever and told his agent, ‘If it comes up let me know.’ It took him a couple of years even to move into it.”

The former Egyptian consulate at 3001 Pacific: The ambiguous legal status of foreign consulates can have unexpected and — for real estate agents — unpleasant consequences. This was the case at the former Egyptian consulate. According to David Parry, “My colleague, Mary Lou Castellanos, sold the building last year for $15,850,000. Our standard real estate contract says in small print that the seller will pay the transfer tax. Now, the transfer tax is a graduated tax, and when you get above $5 million it really jumps. The deal’s about to close when the Egyptians turnaround and say, ‘We’re a foreign government, we’re exempt, we don’t have to pay U.S. taxes.’ And of course the buyer says, ‘Hey, the contract you just signed says you will pay the transfer tax.’ They made various appeals to the San Francisco assessor’s office, and the assessor’s office says, ‘We don’t care who pays, but this is a San Francisco transaction and someone’s gotta pay it.’ It took months to come up with a resolution and I’m not even sure who ended up paying. It delayed her escrow for months and months. It was a nightmare.”

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