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.