San Francisco. Fog City. Baghdad by the Bay. Frisco to outsiders and simply The City to locals. Improbably built on a landscape of steep hills, next to an active earthquake fault line, the fog-soaked seven-square-mile peninsula prides itself on its enduring history of free-spirited eccentricity and fine architecture.
Along a wide, busy thoroughfare in the historic and historically hoity-toity Pacific Heights neighborhood, on a block once lined with gargantuan mansions but nowadays mostly by more modest residences and lackluster apartment blocks, stands one of the city’s many architectural treasures.
One of the nearly 300 structures designated by the city as a landmark and newly listed at $13.85 million, the elegantly austere, taupe-colored stone edifice is known among neighborhood locals and architecture aficionados across the city for the half-arch that vexatiously dead ends against the perfectly ordinary 1940s red-brick apartment building next door. It looks almost as if someone sliced the building right in half.
Well, what happened was, after the 1906 earthquake, newspaperman Michael Henry de Young, who co-founded the San Francisco Chronicle, was living in an opulent Victorian mansion on California Street. Around 1911, long in the tooth and in poor health, he purchased two parcels of land directly adjacent to his estate. He gave the deeds to two of his daughters, Constance and Helen, and offered to build them houses.
Influential, École des Beaux-Arts-trained architect Willis Jefferson Polk was commissioned to design a mirrored pair of Tudor Gothic Revival mansions that butted up against other. Each of the homes was to have half of an arch that would be completed by the other home’s half and serve as a vaulted passageway to the rear of the properties.
The Tobin House, so named after Constance’s husband, Joseph Tobin, a bank executive and member of one of San Francisco’s oldest and wealthiest families, was completed in 1915, while Helen balked at the offer and hence, the companion home was never realized. (Helen and her husband, George Cameron, presided over Rosecourt, a sumptuous estate in Hillsborough, Calif., that was featured in the 1971 cult-favorite film “Harold and Maude.”)