Monday, November 4, 2013

Ralston Hall Mansion, Belmont

San Francisco financier William Chapman Ralston, who established the Bank of California, crowned his 14-acre estate with Belmont, a sumptuous manor. His lavish fetes attracted society's elite, among them Leland Stanford, Mark Hopkins and James Flood. Renamed Ralston Hall Mansion and now part of Notre Dame de Namur University, it offers a glimpse into an opulent 19th century lifestyle. The hall is currently closed for a major renovation but you can take an  online tour:

All photographs by Stephanie Wright Hession copyright 2013.

1. Ralston Hall Mansion

Approaching the exterior of this 55,360-square-foot, 80-room Italianate Villa-style structure, it's easy to imagine being a guest at a Ralston soiree. Except for the furniture, the first-floor interior appears as it did when the family lived here, with the original chandeliers and mirrors.

2. Sun Parlor

This rectangular parlor mimics a riverboat's promenade deck, one of the "steamboat gothic" architectural elements of the guest areas. A nod to when Ralston plied the waters of the Mississippi as a riverboat captain, they include hand-etched glass doors that slide into the walls or open flat, creating unobstructed spaces for entertaining.

3. Formal Dining Room

For dramatic effect, dinner parties commenced with the pulling open of a large door to the formal dining room, revealing a large, extravagantly set table. Because of the home's popularity as a wedding and social venue, people continued to dine here or used it as a bar or hors d'oeuvres station.

4. Opera Box Gallery

At the top of the main staircase is a very unusual feature that may evoke Mary Cassatt's painting "In the Box" (1879) - especially as this gallery is fashioned after the Académie Nationale de Musique-Théâtre de l'Opéra, the former location of the Paris Opera. The mid-banister chandelier's hand-shaped glass.

5. Cipriani Room

Ralston built his grand 1868 summer residence around an existing villa he purchased from Count Leonetto Cipriani in 1864. Because of this room's Italian marble fireplace and exterior windows, it's believed to be from that villa - purportedly shipped piece by piece from Genoa, Italy. 

6. Grand Ballroom

You can almost hear the swish of ball gowns in this ballroom. Inspired by Versailles and embellished with exquisite architectural details, grand mirrors and antique French crystal chandeliers, it's stunning. Couples often exchanged vows under its arched window, and receptions and other festivities have taken place here.

Lamplighters Music Theatre, "Upside-Downton Abbey," Nov. 10 and Nov. 24

For its annual champagne gala and Auction fundraiser, the Lamplighters Music Theatre indulges in a bit of mirth with its full-length production of “Upside-Downton Abbey” or “The Lass that Loved a Chauffeur."

The playful parody of “Downton Abbey,” the highly praised drama made for British television, is set primarily to lyrics by Sir Arthur Sullivan, with stage direction by Phil Lowery and musical direction/conducting by Monroe Kanouse/Baker Peeples.

Sunday, Nov. 10: 3 p.m., silent auction and 4 p.m. performance at the Palace of Fine Arts Theatre, San Francisco. Tickets: $35-97 available through the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. (415) 978-2787,

Sunday, Nov. 24: Performance at 4 p.m. at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts. Tickets: $58-83. (650) 903-6000,

Photos by David Allen and Joanne Kay.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Out and About: Hayes Street, Hayes Valley, S.F.

Hayes Street, S.F.: On a recent Friday evening, after beginning their weekend with appetizers and drinks at restaurants in Hayes Valley, au courant men and women zig-zag in and out of boutiques in search of up-to-the-minute designs in a neighborhood known for its fashionable wares. Nearby, an ethereal mural, adorning a freshly revamped Beaux Arts theater, overlooks it all.
-Stephanie Wright Hession
All photographs by Stephanie Wright Hession. Copyright 2013 All rights reserved.

1. Dish

541 Hayes St.: A carefully edited collection of well-crafted pieces - from linen shirts to jeans to that little black dress, by new and established designers including Citizens ofHumanity, Frank & Eileen and Matta - a super-friendly staff and an understated space make shopping at Dish a pleasure. (415) 252-5997.

2. Alla Prima

539 Hayes St.: This fine lingerie shop features ultra-feminine bras and panties, ranging from sheer ebony fabric edged in white lace to solid, printed fabrics by Andres Sarda, Prima Donna and more from countries across Europe. Alla Prima also carries swimwear. (925) 864-8180.

3. Nida

544 Hayes St.: Nida specializes in women's basics by European designers such as Alberto Aspesi and Les Prairies de Paris. Family owned, Nida opened its first shop in Caserta, Italy, five decades ago, its second in San Francisco in 1995 and its third in New York in 2010. (415) 552-4670.

4. Fiddlesticks

540 Hayes St.: Endearing clothes, shoes, accessories and toys dot the inside of this children's shop. They include a Joules white dress adorned with a border of merry-go-rounds, Ferris wheels and the names of English coastal towns; Mary Janes by Livie & Luca; and Appaman plaid shirts and solid trouser shorts. (415)

5. Nomads

556 Hayes St.: Established in 1990, Nomads keeps the men's fashions crisp here by mixing classics - button-down shirts, pullover sweaters and leather belts - with paisley printed vests. Brands include Aiaiai, Field Notes, Grown & Sewn, Sutro and Universal Works. (415) 864-5692.

6. The Learning Wall

275 Hayes St.: For his mural "The Learning Wall," Keith Sklar painted totemic faces, a single pale blue eye and other mystical imagery, which covers an entire side of the Nourse Theatre. The theater is the new venue for City Arts & Lectures, which raised funds to restore the Beaux Arts treasure.

Of Note:

Since 1980, City Arts & Lectures has presented lectures, onstage conversations and performances with prominent members of the arts community. The Nourse Theatre, 275 Hayes St. (415) 392-4400. www.cityarts

Out and About: Octavia and Hayes streets, Hayes Valley, S.F.

With projects such as the Proxy, Hayes Valley continues to evolve as a place where enterprising dreamers - including inventors, chefs, fashion designers, artists and gardeners - with crisp ideas see their aspirations realized, not despite the economic climate but because of it.
-Stephanie Wright Hession
Photographs by Stephanie Wright Hession. Copyright 2013 All rights reserved.

1. Ritual Coffee Roasters

432 Octavia St.: Ritual sources its own coffee beans, freshly harvested within the past 12 months, by traveling to Costa Rica and Guatemala to meet with growers on their farms. Roasting in small batches, it creates single-origin espressos for a macchiato or a

2. Smitten Ice Cream

432 Octavia St.: From an ethereal mist - created by a liquid nitrogen ice cream maker developed by proprietor Robyn Sue Goldman - emerges made-to-order ice cream utilizing fresh, seasonal, local ingredients. Flavors include Tcho dark chocolate, creamy vanilla and two seasonal choices, which currently include a sublime hibiscus. (415)

3. Patricia's Green in Hayes Valley

Hayes and Octavia streets: The next time your dog or child frolics in this park, with its patch of lawn, domed play structure, public art, benches, tables and trees, think of Patricia Walkup, the park's namesake. A tireless neighborhood advocate who died in 2006, she played a pivotal role in revitalizing Hayes Valley.

4. Patxi's Chicago Pizza

511 Hayes St.: Although Patxi's serves up thin-crust pizza, the reason to eat here is for the Chicago-style stuffed pizza. Bring your appetite, but don't arrive in a rush: These pies are hearty, and you'll want to savor each bite - and they take 35 to 40 minutes to prepare and cook. (415) 558-9991.

5. La Boulange

500 Hayes St.: Order from the large menu board, find a seat and settle in or opt for a bistro table and chair outside. Select soup du jour, salad Nicoise or a croque monsieur. Be sure to save room for a sweet treat and a bag of mini palmiers to go. (415)

Of note

Ritual and Smitten are part of Proxy, a temporary, two-block project with providers of food, art and culture housed in repurposed shipping containers. Plans include constructing a permanent structure on the site in about four years.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Out and About: Coit Tower and Stockton Street, Telegraph Hill and North Beach, S.F.

In North Beach and nearby Telegraph Hill, learn about two women: a pioneering cattle rancher named Juana Briones de Miranda and Lillie Hitchcock Coit, a rebellious socialite who smoked cigars, wore men's clothing and gambled - and whose love of her adopted city spurred the creation of one of its most iconic landmarks.
-Stephanie Wright Hession
All photographs by Stephanie Wright Hession copyright 2013. 

***Coit Tower is closing mid-November through at least April 2014 for extensive renovations.

1. Coit Tower

1 Telegraph Hill Blvd.: Lillie Hitchcock Coit's admiration for firefighters stemmed from her youth. An honorary member of Knickerbocker Engine Co. No. 5, she bequeathed $118,000 with instructions to add beauty to the city. Arthur Brown Jr. and Henry Howard designed this 210-foot Art Deco tower, which was dedicated in 1933.
2. Coit Tower murals
In the rotunda, view some of the 27 murals created by a group of prominent local artists in 1934, part of the Public Works of Art Project. They illustrate people living and working in urban and agricultural settings.

3. Coit Tower views

Take the small elevator and a short flight of stairs to Coit Tower's 180-foot-high observation deck. Even if you're not a tourist, after taking in the magnificent 360-degree panorama of the city skyline, the San Francisco Bay and more, you'll wonder what took you so long to get up here.

4. Mama's

1701 Stockton St.: For three generations, the Sanchez family has run its popular breakfast spot overlooking Washington Square. Amid sunflower yellow walls, indulge in billowy omelets, Dungeness crab Benedict and country-style potatoes. 8 a.m.-3 p.m. Tues.-Sun. (415) 362-6421,

5. Washington Square

Filbert, Stockton, Union and Powell streets: With its benches, lawn area, children's playground and views of the facade of SS Peter and Paul's Church (currently obscured by scaffolding), this North Beach park exists on land once belonging to Juana Briones de Miranda, who established a farm here in the former Yerba Buena.

6. Washington Square Inn

1660 Stockton St.: Not ready to go home yet? Partake in some Italian fare at one of the North Beach restaurants and then make it an overnight escape with a stay at this cozy, 15-room bed and breakfast. Perks include complimentary hors d'oeuvres, wine and Wi-Fi. (415) 981-4220.

"Picturesoteric" mural by San Francisco artist Sirron Norris

While walking in the Mission District in S.F. one day, I happened across "Picturesoteric," a wonderful mural painted by San Francisco artist Sirron Norris.

-Stephanie Wright Hession
All photographs by Stephanie Wright Hession copyright 2013. 

To learn more about Norris go to:

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Artist Jenny Hynes

Out and About: California Academy of Sciences, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco

At the California Academy of Sciences, spend the day observing creatures that inhabit four of the world's rain forests, admire the wonders of the sea and take a trip through space inside the academy's light-filled, glass-walled building housing the Kimball Natural History Museum, Steinhart Aquarium and the Morrison Planetarium. Renowned for its research and educational programs, the academy focuses upon 11 scientific fields, including anthropology and aquatic biology.

-Stephanie Wright Hession

All photos by Stephanie Wright Hession and may not be reproduced.

1. The Swamp

People look down into this tank from the sea-horse-patterned railing, a fond remnant of the old Steinhart Aquarium, to watch an albino alligator lazing on a rock, while alligator snapping turtles paddle in the surrounding fresh water. Downstairs, an underwater window offers another perspective, and a separate tank nearby contains alligator gars.

2. Rainforests of the World

A bird's call resonates through the humid air of this four-story, glass-sphere tropical rain forest. Its circular path winds past elements of rain forests in the Amazon River Basin, Borneo, Madagascar and Costa Rica, where birds and butterflies fly among visitors. 

3. West Garden

One of two gardens, it offers an inviting space to relax. Sit on one of the benches on its oblong lawn or eat lunch alfresco at the outdoor dining areas of the Academy Cafe, while surrounded by the beauty of Golden Gate Park.

4. Amazon Flooded Forest

A glass elevator descends to the ground floor and the entrance to the Amazon Flooded Forest portion of the "Rainforests of the World." Here, mesmerized observers inside an acrylic tunnel view the underside of the sphere's Amazon River Basin, where massive catfish, arapaimas, other fish and turtles swim overhead.

5. Steinhart Aquarium

Brilliantly colored reef fish dart through the waters of the Philippine Coral Reef tank. Nearby, rock fish and other marine life native to the Gulf of the Farallon Islands navigate through seaweed in the Northern California Coast tank. Don't miss Water Planet, Discovery Tidepool and an African penguin colony, upstairs in the African Hall.

6. Living Roof

The benefits of this 2 1/2-acre undulating, living roof, planted with sea pinks and other native California plants, include a natural ventilation system utilizing the outside environment to cool the building's indoor spaces, an ability to absorb up to 3.6 million gallons of water and insulation that keeps it 40 degrees cooler than a traditional roof.