He made his fortune in the sugar industry, earning the house a nickname: The Sugar Palace. The property fronted 180 feet along Van Ness Avenue, and the lot was 160 feet deep.
Sadly, the spectacular original home on Van Ness Avenue, between Clay and Sacramento Streets, was among the many structures gutted by the city’s 1906 fire and earthquake, as you can see in one of the photos below.
The house had been “rehabilitated” by 1910, for an estimated $120,000, although Claus died in 1908.
The Oakland Tribune reported on July 2, 1922, that the home was sold for around $400,000. “Just who or what is to occupy the great mansion is not stated, but it is not believed it was purchased with an idea to private residence.”
They were correct: in 1927, it was scheduled to be demolished to make way for apartments.
We have included excerpts of text and images from old newspaper articles about the home. The first adulatory story was printed in the San Francisco Call newspaper in 1897 — a publication that, not coincidentally, was owned by Mr Spreckels himself.
Spreckels Mansion: The home of Claus Spreckels on Van Ness Avenue in San Francisco (1897)
The San Francisco Call (San Francisco, Calif.) December 19, 1897
The newly completed mansion of Mr Claus Spreckels, on the corner of Van Ness Avenue and Clay Street, is the supreme representative of the tendency toward a higher and more substantial domestic architecture in the city.
The principal front faces the east on Van Ness Avenue, and is characterized by the rich and highly artistic treatment of the central portion throughout the whole height of the structure, from foundation to roof.
Directly opposite the street entrance double doors open from the vestibule to the great hall which constitutes the central and most imposing feature of the mansion. The two salient characteristics of the hall are its vast size and its splendid adornment. It is twenty-eight feet wide and forty-eight feet long.
The size of the hall, however, is even less impressive than its glowing beauty and magnificent splendor.
Floored with mosaic, wainscoted with Algerian marble, whose decorated panels show the luxury of the art of the Renaissance; the walls covered with priceless tapestries from the looms of France, and divided by columns of polished marble; surrounded at the second floor by a balcony railed by red marble and paved with mosaic, curving on each side into projecting alcoves overlooking the floor below.
The noble hall rises through two floors to the height of thirty-four feet, and is roofed with art glass, through which the light streams soft and mellow as the beams of a summer moon when all the sky is cloudless.
While the general decoration, as well as the strictly architectural features of the mansion, was designed by Reid Brothers, the architects, there are two points of the ornamentation where the skill and genius of other artists are notably manifest.
One of these is the modeling of the chandeliers, which form conspicuous ornaments of the grand apartments, all of them being treated with a profuse luxuriance of ornament and so heavily gilded they gleam like pure gold.
The molding of these chandeliers was done by Frank Harpersberger of this city, and the fact may be noted with satisfaction, as evidence of the rapidity and success with which California artisans are rivaling the best performances of the most skillful workers in similar lines in Europe.
The remaining point of interior decorative work meriting special notice is that of Vladimir P. Bush in the adornment of the ceilings. Gracefulness of form and delicacy of color are the characteristics most noticeable in all the work of Mr. Bush in the building.
With the exception of the library, where he has blazoned the ceiling with portraits of great poets, his ceilings are brightened with pictures of a meaning purely fanciful and spiritual.
Beautiful maidens in diaphanous robes, cupids trailing wreaths of flowers, nymphs and graces floating amid roseate clouds, constitute the figures that in colors of exquisite daintiness and almost transparent clearness look from the high ceilings down upon the silken luster of the furnishings below, and animate the scene with suggestions of joy and beauty and love.
It is not for its magnitude and its architectural magnificence only, however, that the great mansion is noticeable. If these were all, it might as well have been built a century ago.
The modern dwelling differs from the palace in its appliances for comfort and convenience more than in anything else. An old-time residence, whether for a king or an ordinary citizen, was a very simple structure in details, however vast it may have been in size, whereas the house of today, even for the use of persons of moderate means, has become one of the most complex structures that tax the ingenuity of our generation.
Appliances for ventilation, warmth, water, gas, call bells, dumb waiters and other necessities of housekeeping multiply from year to year, and the Spreckels mansion contains them all up to date of the most approved patterns, the most finished form, and the most substantial character.
Claus Spreckels (c1890)
The old Spreckels Mansion, as gutted by fire in 1906
Quick look: The doorway to the jewel chamber in the rebuilt Spreckels mansion
The San Francisco Examiner (California) March 11, 1927
Behind these granite panels in the old Spreckels’ mansion on Van Ness Avenue, Armine von Tempski (in inset), author of “Hula”, was locked by accident.
Miss Evelyn Smith of the Seven Arts Club, one of her rescuers, is shown opening this door to the Spreckels’ jewel chamber.
Spreckels mansion on Van Ness Avenue torn down to make way for apartments (1927)
The Napa Valley Register (Napa, California) April 4, 1927
The Spreckels mansion on Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco, is to be torn down to make room for a modern apartment house.
What was to be done with this splendid structure is a question that has been often asked since the death of Claus Spreckels, former sugar king, and the great earthquake and fire which transformed Van Ness Avenue from a fashionable residence street to a busy business thoroughfare.
The Claus Spreckels mansion is without doubt one of the most pretentious private homes ever built in San Francisco.
Several efforts have been made to preserve it as a museum, but business considerations outweighed the arguments of the altruist, and the big structure will go the way of the Vanderbilt, Astor, Clark and other historic residences in New York, and give way to that modern parody on American home life, the city apartment house.
Not much of the sentiment that is usually attached to a home surrounded the Spreckels mansion. It was built by the sugar king in his later years, after his children were grown and had houses and families of their own.
Building it was merely a magnificent gesture, and one that Spreckels was in no way called upon to make except that it suited his fancy to do.
The real lesson to be learned from the passing of these and other splendid structures of like character, is that the modern city is no place to try to establish a permanent home The only place that it can be done is in the country.
Another San Francisco Spreckels Mansion
This mansion on 2080 Washington Street in San Francisco was built by Claus Spreckels’ son in 1913
Text & photo below from the US Library of Congress
Large and handsome Francophile mansions, built by Adolph B. Spreckels ca. 1912-1913 on a dramatic viewpoint in San Francisco’s exclusive Pacific Heights area, has long occupied a prominent visual and social role in the city.
It is one of the few truly grand residences in a town which has always prided itself on social elegance, but has signally failed to match the destroyed wooden palaces of the 19th century with more substantial mansions in the 20th century.
Placed at the corner of an unusually large city lot (virtually half a block of choice real estate), it looks above its neighbors in chaste classicizing French Baroque beauty — symbolic of the cultural and social prominence of its chatelaine, Alma de Bretteville Spreckels.