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Old Letters Tell of First S.F. Building
Documents, Hoary With Age, Reveal Founding of
Original St. Francis Hotel 75 Years Ago

Old letters, hoary with age, telling of the building of the first frame home in San Francisco and the founding of the original St. Francis hotel three-quarters of a century ago, have come to light in an old collection of documents and have been purchased for one of our local collectors through the agency of John Howell, dealer in rare books and documents on Post St. They were in the archives of the late William Heath Davis and were found among papers of lesser interest left with Davis by the original writer, Jacob Leese.

Leese figures in old accounts of San Francisco as the city’s earliest pioneer. His coming to this city dates back to the 1830s, years before the end of Mexican rule. He was a prominent figure here from that time up and through the days of the gold rush and the early years of American California. His “general store” was the first mercantile establishment in Yerba Buena.

“I have concluded to stop in this place for good,” he wrote in one of the newly found letters, under date of August 3, 1836, “in consequence of the great prospect ahead, which is plainly foreseen. I have made a contract with a couple of Men to Build a house for 4 hundred and 40 dollars paid in Goods. I think it is a good Traid.”

This letter is superscribed in Leese’s unique spelling, Yerba Buena,” and is addressed to Nathan Spear, Pioneer, and Leese’s partner in the general store, after whom Spear Street is named. Leese, though certainly the first “booster” San Francisco ever had, somehow failed to have his name perpetuated by a street though Spear, Halleck, Leidesorff and Thomas O. Larkin, his close associates, live today on local crossing signs.

Wed Vallejo’s Sister

Leese married a sister of General Vallejo after a courtship that was brisk for those days. According to “the annals” he proposed on
April 1 and was married April 7, 1837. Rosalie Leese, born a year later, was the first American child born in Yerba Buena.

The house in question stood at what later became the corner of Clay and Dupont streets, now in the heart of Chinatown. Before that, except for the group of buildings around Mission Dolores, there was nothing in the “downtown” section, or Yerba Buena, except sandhills, an adobe hut occupied by William A. Richardson, and an Indian “temescal” or bath house at the foot of Sacramento Street.

The completion of Leese’s house was a gala event, guests coming from leagues around. It was dedicated July 4, 1836, and the American flag was raised for the first time in this county.

In the Leese letter he gives the plans for the combined dwelling and store. It was a frame house 60 feet long, 24 broad and 1-1/2 “stories” high, with a “shead” in front. It stood until 1849, when it was torn down and the St. Francis hotel erected on the site.

Spicy Tales Overheard

“This,” says “The Annals,” “was the fashionable house of the day. Here the elite of the city boarded, or were accustomed to congregate and it became the theater of many rare and amusing scenes. The chambers were separated by the thinnest sort of board partitions, without lath or plaster, and consequently but little privacy could be enjoyed by the lodgers. These by whispering too loudly or talking too plain frequently and unconsciously gave their neighbors intimation of facts which it was not intended, and, indeed which it was quite improper should be known abroad. Hence the house soon became as remarkable for stories of laughable incidents, and even tales of scandal, as for its aristocratic pretensions.”

The first St. Francis was burned in 1853. It was a “big story” for
the newspapers of the time, as the firemen, under Chief Charles P. Duane, performed great deeds of valor. The name has descended by direct chain down to the St. Francis hotel today.

Other interesting documents of Leese’s also found in the Davis collection bear on the fight for supremacy between San Francisco or Yerba Buena, and Benicia, then highly touted as the prospective metropolis.

San Francisco Examiner
June 12, 1921