February 20, 2013

Downton Abbey in America: San Francisco's Haas-Lilienthal House

Alice and Samuel Lilienthal’s wedding. Courtesy San Francisco Architectural Heritage
Alice and Samuel Lilienthal’s wedding, 1909

It makes perfect sense that I would first hear about Downton Abbey from a 20-something visitor to the Haas-Lilienthal House last fall. (Forgive me for being out of the loop so long). PBS’s now top-rated show of all time has predictably created a national fascination with Victoriana.

Now, the National Trust’s work to secure a bright future for the National Treasure-listed House -- along with partner San Francisco Architectural Heritage -- has benefited from the hype, offering tangible proof that the era’s customs, extravagance, and strict social hierarchy extended all the way from the British Isles to the Pacific coast.

So for all of you who have caught the Downton bug, and with sincere apologies to those of you who have not, below is an introduction to the players in Haas-Lilienthal House’s real-life historic drama as compared to the characters in the show that has caught the country by storm.

Bertha and William Haas in Venice in 1911. Courtesy San Francisco Architectural Heritage
Bertha and William Haas in Venice in 1911

Lord Grantham = William Haas

Son of a Jewish weaver in Bavaria, William first tried his hand at mining in Idaho before making his fortune in San Francisco as a wholesale grocer. In 1886, he commissioned the tall, grey Victorian at 2007 Franklin Street with turrets, bay windows, intricate carvings and a Queen Anne tower where he raised a family and lived until his death.

Lady Grantham = Bertha Haas

In 1880, William married Bertha Greenebaum, the daughter of a prominent German-Jewish family in San Francisco. At the time of William and Bertha’s marriage, the Greenebaum family resided at 1917 Franklin Street, one block from the future residence at 2007 Franklin. Along with her husband, Bertha led an active social and philanthropic life, particularly within the Jewish community.

Charles, Florine, and Alice Haas as children. Courtesy San Francisco Architectural Heritage
Charles, Florine, and Alice Haas as children

Ladies Mary, Edith, and Sybil Crawley = Florine, Charles, and Alice

William and Bertha had three children who grew up and lived in the House until they were married. They maintained Jewish customs and traditions, but also celebrated Christmas and Easter as social holidays.

Florine married the son of a famous tea importer in 1903 and would live out her life with her husband in a neighboring residence.

Alice married Samuel Lilienthal (more on him next), the son of a prominent wholesale liquor firm, and had a formal wedding in the Haas-Lilienthal House house in 1909. The wedding had over 300 guests and employed San Francisco’s most stylish decorators.

Charles married the daughter of the second president of the Levi Strauss Company in 1913. She passed away in 1920; he just 7 years later.

Samuel Lilienthal and Alice Haas’ engagement photo. Courtesy San Francisco Architectural Heritage
Samuel Lilienthal and Alice Haas’ engagement photo

Mr. Matthew Crawley = Samuel Lilienthal

Samuel married Alice, William’s youngest, and moved into the Haas residence upon his passing in 1916. He became president of his father-in-law’s firm, the Haas Brothers, in 1927 after the death of his brother-in-law Charles.

Alice and Samuel's three children donated the House to San Francisco Heritage upon their mother's passing in 1973, and the organization remains the owner today.

The Help

The details of the lives of those who kept the Haas-Lilienthal House in operation are not well documented. Perhaps one can imagine that the same dramas of Downton also unfolded here -- love affairs, rivalries, scandal -- albeit probably in a less dramatic fashion. Hired hands included a laundryman, cook, two maids, a waitress, and a nursemaid.

Census data reveals that the servants had a variety of ethnic backgrounds including Chinese, Japanese, German, Canadian, English, Irish, French, and Swedish. The rich diversity of its citizen’s origins continues to make San Francisco the vibrant City that it is today.

The National Trust's African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund has awarded $3 million in grants to 33 places preserving Black history.

See the List