Nobby Clarke’s Folly

This amazing house had an equally remarkable and unique owner/builder. Designated in December 1975 as City Landmark Number 80, it was obviously worthy of that honorable appointment.

Alfred “Nobby” Clarke came to San Francisco from Ireland in 1850. He had tried his luck in the Gold Rush but then found a more lucrative career working as a stevedore. He introduced innovative techniques for the efficient utilization of steam power and was handsomely rewarded for his efforts. Clark joined the police force in 1856 and later rose in the ranks from the job of clerk to become the city’s Chief of Police. By the time he left this well paid position in 1887, he had saved what was then considered to be a real fortune, amounting to $200,000.

Ever re-inventing himself, “Nobby” became a lawyer and reputedly had the most pending lawsuits of any attorney of his era. During travels in France he had spotted a chateau on a lake and promptly bought a copy of the plans with which to build his “dream house” in San Francisco.

Clarke purchased seventeen acres of land on a steep slope in the city’s Eureka Valley section. He spent $100,000 to build his impressive mansion—a huge expenditure for any home of that period—completing it in 1892. The style is primarily Queen Anne but with other eclectic features such as turrets, gables and quirky protuberances that make the house more flamboyantly noticeable from all sides. Even the shingled roof alternates scalloped and plain shapes in an interesting pattern.

There is a gracious portico that welcomes visitors at the top of the exterior entry steps; the spacious foyer within and the grand staircase were meant to induce wonder and are a particularly fine statement of what the eccentric owner wanted to achieve. The interior details include fine paneled woodwork, elegant fireplaces and mantels, as well as high quality stained glass windows throughout.

Sadly, Mr. Clarke could not convince his wife to leave her fashionable residence on Nob Hill, so she and their son never even lived in the house that he had clearly created as a labor of love and imagination for his family. By 1904, the house had become the California General Hospital. It was later converted to housing for the Standard Oil Company’s employees. In recent times, “Nobby Clarke’s Folly” has been divided into fourteen apartments. Each unit has a unique character, ranging from grand salons to more humble and intimate Parisian style garrets or charming, cozy garden studios.

House history research and text by Jim Warshell. Printed program writing and editing by Tamara Hill. Edited for the web by Jason Allen-Rouman.