On the tour of Nob Hill (the word nob, you have to laugh! In Australia, a nob is a wanker, a snob, an elitist, a general prick – so maybe we got the Australian definition of nob from Nob Hill?) – what a beautiful area! – the infectiously charming Ken Becker told some fantastic stories. We were standing on Nob Hill next to a section of the pavement where the line of the bricks in the footpath still marked the old boundary of a former dwelling. The old dwelling here belonged to Nicolas Yung, an undertaker for the city who used to construct his coffins in the back yard of the small family home he had built here. It was late in the late 19th century and one of San Francisco’s ‘Big Four’ (the magnates who made their fortunes in the mines and railways and built the city’s first mansions on Nob Hill), Charles Crocker, was purchasing the land around the coffin maker’s home to build his new mansion. But the Yung’s home was a reasonably large section of the desired parcel and the coffin maker wasn’t very willing to sell. But finally the coffin maker agreed in principle to Crocker’s offer of $6000. But when the cheque came, Yung went back on his word and sent the cheque back saying he wanted 50% more. The magnate, a little miffed, upped his offer but to his surprise, Yung still wouldn’t accept and again, asked for more. The magnate was naturally fed up with this bargaining process and the astonishing greed of the coffin maker (perhaps even greater and more unscrupulous than his own) and proceeded to build what could be called a big forty-foot high fuck-off fence that quite literally enclosed the entire house of the coffin maker in a box. The idea was to make Yung feel like he was inside one of his own coffins. It’s known as the Spite Fence. Incredible! On an old photo of the time, the coffin maker’s home is invisible and all you can see is a wall of wood. The coffin maker moved out but he refused to sell. It’s thought he even built a coffin and placed it on top of his house with a skull and cross-bones and ‘RIP C.C.’ on it. Here is the full story on the ‘Guidelines’ website for the SF Guides, with a great photo of the Crocker palace enveloping this Spite Fence: http://www.sfcityguides.org/public_guidelines.htmlsrch_text=Spite+Fence&submitted2=TRUE
I feel like I was a little harsh at the beginning of this blog linking the Australian definition of nob to Nob Hill in San Francisco. But I am reminded of another impressive building on Nob Hill that for over a century has been the home of the Pacific Union Club. This club is so nobbish that Ken our amicable (and well dressed) tour guide was asked to wear a suit and tie just to come into the club for twenty seconds to meet a group of PUC members who wanted to go an a private version of the Nob Hill tour. As I understand it, Ken was simply meeting them inside the club as a courtesy to this group (he didn’t get to see anything much inside the club) and presumably told them a little bit about the building there, but then took them on the usual public tour. And he was asked to put on a suit! The club should really make Ken a honory member. P.S Ken told me this anecdote without any hint of surprise or resentment at how he was treated. He was responding to my question asking if he was a member of the club after he had told us the history of the building and briefly mentioned its current use without any mention of his tour with PUC members. Any offense caused to PUC affiliates or reverse snobbery evident in the telling of this SWAT (Snob Wear Action Tale) or XDC (Extreme Dress Code) story is entirely my doing and nothing to do with Ken who is clearly happy and delighted to take anyone on his tours, including PUC members…even it means bringing a change of clothes.