A BRIEF HISTORY OF SAN FRANCISCO SUITES ON NOB HILL
In 1981, Carl Berry and Paul Gray, then co-owners of a business called California Leisure International, discussed the idea of urban timesharing. Friends and colleagues since 1968, the two visionaries began a business partnership and personal friendship through the development of their company, Creative Leisure International. CLI provided rental programs for Caribbean, Hawaiian, and Mexican condominiums. Both gentlemen knew that success in vacation property ownership until that time was centered around an exotic holiday destination or toward sporting activities like golf, tennis, fishing or water sports. In fact, Berry and Gray already ran popular properties in Lake Tahoe, Sun Valley, Oregon, and other “typical” destinations. The gentlemen changed their focus to the viability of a “Big City” destination, hoping this novel concept would bring success.
Mr. and Mrs. Carl and Linden Berry, 1983
Before the Suites became a reality, the two men took a chance on a project on Jackson Street in San Francisco’s posh Pacific Heights, already established as one of the city’s most desirable neighborhoods. Berry and Gray acquires a seven-room, seven-bath mansion in the area that they soon developed as Jackson Court City Share. More akin to a seven-suite bed and breakfast, the property had one living room and one kitchen, and a general manager and a housekeeper oversaw the day-to-day operations of the property. Jackson Court was the first urban timeshare in the world and the predecessor to San Francisco Suites on Nob Hill. The property was eventually sold; it still serves its current owners to this day in the same way.
The success of the Jackson Square venture propelled the two businessmen to develop their brainchild on a much grander scale with a “full-steam ahead” approach. Enter James Spencer Malott. Malott was already a nationally respected architect when he came into the world of San Francisco Suites. The Tiburon architect, a long-time opponent of what he calls “visual clutter”, held a bachelor's degree from Stanford University, a master's degree in architecture from the Harvard Graduate School of Design, and had studied the properties of steel-reinforced concrete at the University of Delaware.
The corner of Pine and Powell Streets, April 1906; This view looks at Pine to the left, Powell downhill to the right, as seen from what is now the Stanford Court Hotel. 710 Powell would eventually be built on the left corner. E & E Market is now located on the corner in the center foreground.
He had already designed a number of high-rise buildings in San Francisco. His varied coast-to-coast renown included being an authority on the World Trade Center in New York City from the mid-1960's, to local connections as the son-in-law of Benjamin Franklin Biaggini of San Francisco, the retired Chairman of the Southern Pacific railroad. In 1982, Malott met Berry and Gray, and told them that he and an investment group had purchased three apartment buildings for future conversion into corporate apartments. All were located on Pine Street on prestigious Nob Hill; one property was above a grocery store near the corner of Pine and Stockton Streets, one was on the south side of Pine between Powell and Mason Streets, and the third was at 796 Pine Street at Powell, the future home of San Francisco Suites. 796 Pine Street was an established apartment building managed by Malott’s sister.
In late 1982, Berry and Gray, now under the auspices of California Resorts, reached an agreement with Malott to establish 796 Pine Street as an urban timeshare, similar in concept to Jackson Court. The difference between the properties was that here, each unit would have its own living and dining area, kitchen and bedroom, not a traditional bed and breakfast! The trio really preferred the prestige, cachet and distinction of a Powell Street address, so it was fortuitous that city code requirements made the address change to 710 Powell Street possible.
The renovation; note the address, 796 Pine Street
The building was built in 1910, four years after the 1906 earthquake and fire, which had destroyed virtually all the buildings on Nob Hill.
The gentlemen agreed to an Edwardian theme with regard to design, decoration and furnishings for the property. The Edwardian period spanned 1901 to 1910, although some historians extend the era to the sinking of the RMS Titanic in 1912, or to the beginning (1914) or end (1918) of World War One. The era, also known as La Belle Epoch, immediately followed the Victorian period and was the popular style during the reign of England’s King Edward VII.
The three men decided to purchase genuine Edwardian antiques at a cost similar to what one would pay for quality reproductions. Malott traveled to the United Kingdom and brought back an enormous container of treasures from La Belle Epoch: Now-priceless paintings, lithographs, chairs, tables and furnishings. Even the Grandfather clock in the lower lobby found a new life at the Suites. After twenty-five years, this comparatively reasonable investment still increases in value! The beautiful leaded stained glass panels throughout the property were commissioned to a glassmaker in Marin County and were given a modern theme and design in order to offset the period style of the interior. The Suites’ crown jewel, the elevator, was repaired and the “cage” style kept in respect to the era.
Master Suite 21 - or at least it will be one day!
The Suites’ main lobby, the location of the Concierge desk, had to be invented: The area was comprised of solid Nob Hill rock that had to be excavated. This new area became the main lobby, the manager’s office and the public restroom. For over seventy years, the lower lobby had a life as the property’s boiler room; the boardroom had been the Manager’s apartment.
Next, the existing apartments had to be completely renovated, although the size of each future suite was kept the same because of the existing and inflexible load-bearing walls between the kitchens and living rooms. In order to provide an airier atmosphere, these walls were opened with pass bar windows over eat-in counters. The developers envisioned that large kitchens would not be important, as owners and their guests would likely avail themselves of San Francisco’s finest culinary adventures. However, all the comforts of home were installed in every kitchen in order to give guests the option of “cooking in.”
Similarly, the walls between existing bedrooms and living rooms in a few of the Master Suites were opened slightly to allow more light and then filled with stained glass for privacy. Closets throughout the property were kept comparatively small, as the developers envisioned stays at the property would be short.
The existing Parlor Suites introduced the Sico bed, an extremely novel concept at the time. The Sico bed was a tremendous improvement over the traditional Murphy bed system. Although in common use worldwide today, this was “hot stuff” in 1983. Double paned windows were installed in every Suite in order to control energy usage and street noise. Again, this was a relatively new concept at the time the Suites were developed. Although the developers had wanted to highlight the Edwardian theme throughout the building, they soon realized that incoming guests would not receive claw-footed bathtubs that eagerly. Therefore, contemporary shower and bathtub combinations were installed with Jacuzzi bathtubs wherever the building would allow.
Insurance and liability concerns dissuaded the trio from installing a rooftop deck or hot tub. Instead, they opted for a rooftop gazebo, still a favorite destination for guests.
Master Suite 21 - still a showroom
Having completed their inspired designs, Berry, Gray and Malott knew it was time to offer ownership to the public. Master Suite 21 was used as the stunning showroom to introduce potential owners to the property.
The ownership of one week (seven days) per “share” was now up for grabs! California Resorts figured 52 weeks of ownership shares would be available in sixteen suites and the total number of available shares for sale figured out to be 816. So, out of hundreds of prospective buyers, a maximum of 816 lucky people would own a pied à Terre in San Francisco, a piece of real deeded property in fabled and beloved Baghdad by the Bay. California Resorts hoped for a buying frenzy, possibly a Nob Hill timeshare version of the 1849 California Gold Rush.
Opening day at the Suites, December 1983
San Francisco Suites on Nob Hill, then touted as the world’s first urban timeshare, was an immediate hit. In addition to the beauty and impossibly terrific location, even the concept of the ownership itself was novel: The industry standard of ownership at the time dictated an owner use the same week in the same suite every year, thereby directly affecting the cost of the share. At the Suites, owners purchased one fully flexible week – they could actually book one day at a time if so desired, a practice in use to this day. 95% of the owners resided in Northern California, the majority of whom lived as far south as Redwood City, Sacramento to the northeast, Santa Rosa, Sonoma and Napa to the north, and Danville to the east. When the property opened the dream of success had come true.
It has been nearly twenty-five years since 796 Pine Street became 710 Powell Street and San Francisco Suites on Nob Hill. While composing this history, I discovered what made you decide to invest in this marvelous property so many years ago…
This is more than just home away from home. This is a building filled with magic and laughter, happiness and heartbreak, fond memories and a few regrets. In essence, this place IS a family, and really, how can one ever leave a family? At this writing, over fifty percent of our current owners bought shares in the initial offering.
Final quote from Mr. Berry: “Just today, with Nancy [with whom Mr. Berry had the boardroom meeting in November 2005, the day he and I met], I said, ‘guess how long we’ve been here?’ The common answer is a few years, and when I say 20 the jaw drops! So, the asset has been well managed. Most important is the personnel, for they keep the building alive. Good job.”