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

"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.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Out and About: Alameda Point, Alameda

Of Note:
 Enrich your historical perspective with a visit to the Alameda Naval Air Museum, 2151 Ferry Point Road, Bldg. 77. Open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Sat.-Sun. Free-$5. (510) 522-4262,

Alameda Point, Alameda: Jets once roared down the runways of the Alameda Naval Air Station, located on the western side of this island city. Decommissioned in 1997 and renamed Alameda Point, its vast stretches of land contains an appealing mix of diversions. Remnants of its military past remain, especially aboard the imposing USS Hornet Museum and at the Alameda Naval Air Museum.

-Stephanie Wright Hession

All photographs by Stephanie Wright Hession copyright 2013.

1. USS Hornet Museum

707 W. Hornet Ave., Pier 3: The Hornet, now an aircraft carrier museum, contains fascinating artifacts from the Apollo moon missions. It was the recovery ship for Apollo 11, and the exhibits include a mobile quarantine facility used by the Apollo 14 astronauts. You can also take a five minute ride in a Flight Avionics’ flight simulator. Flight simulator schedule: 11-11:30 a.m.; 1-1:30 p.m. and 3-3:30 p.m., daily. Schedule may change due to special events. $6-$9. USS Hornet Museum: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily (gate closes at 4 p.m.). Free-$16. (510) 521-8448,

2. Ploughshares Nursery

2701 Main St.: A hummingbird darts about orange blossoms in this retail nursery, which specializes in organic, edible, drought-tolerant and native plants. A nonprofit business venture of the Alameda Point Collaborative, it also offers job training. 9 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Wed.-Sun. (510) 755-1102,

3. Cityview Skatepark

1177 W. Redline Ave.: Against a backdrop of shipping cranes, a teenage boy and his skateboard fly off a ramp at this popular skate park. Operated by the Alameda Recreation and Park Department, it's open from dawn to dusk daily. Helmet, elbow pads and knee pads required. (510) 747-7529.

4. Hangar One

2601 Monarch St.: In this cavernous space, Hangar One Vodka is hand-distilled. This includes fresh fruit-infused versions such as citron Buddha's Hand, mandarin blossom and kaffir lime. Tastings noon to 7 p.m. Wed.-Sat., noon to 5 p.m. Sun. ($10 fee). Distillery tours: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 p.m., Wed.-Sat. and 1, 2, 3 and 4 p.m., Sun. (510) 769-1601,

5. Alameda Point Antiques Faire

2900 Navy Way: In the early hours of the first Sunday of every month, thousands of people arrive, eager to peruse more than 800 booths of vintage and antique items. It's an exhilarating and overwhelming experience. 6 a.m.-3 p.m. first Sun. (510) 522-7500,