looking back

Looking Back: Portals of the Past

By Kinen Carvala

When San Franciscans faced a crisis that transformed the City more than a century ago, they held onto a remnant of the City’s gilded age from Nob Hill: a mansion’s marble entranceway, now known as the “Portals of the Past.”

Alban Nelson Towne was second vice president and general manager of the Southern Pacific Railroad Company. He joined other wealthy men in San Francisco by having his mansion built on Nob Hill at the southwest corner of California and Taylor streets in 1891. 

Portals of the Past photo mjsd

In the summer 1997 issue of Old House Interiors magazine, Alexander Brammer wrote that the two-story mansion was mostly built in the Colonial Revival style and cost $125,000. That was a modest sum when compared to the neighborhood mansions owned by others higher up in the railroad business hierarchy. 

The Towne mansion’s entrance was not quite Colonial Revival, being framed with six white marble Greek Ionic columns. Brammer quotes an unnamed writer: “Perhaps the particular reason for the use of this portico is that it is the only one of its kind in San Francisco.” A photo of the Towne mansion and its entrance is viewable online in the San Francisco Historical Photograph Collection under Photo Id# AAC-6196. (The mansion’s architect, Arthur Page Brown, would also work on the original boathouse and bridges for Golden Gate Park’s Stow Lake.)

Towne did not enjoy his mansion for very long. He died in 1895 at the age of 64. His widow, Caroline Mansfield Towne, stayed in the mansion until the great earthquake and fire of 1906. Photographer Arnold Genthe later wrote in his 1936 book “As I Remember” that after the earthquake “the ruins of Nob Hill became a rich field for my camera.” 

The sole surviving part of the Towne mansion – the entrance – struck him in the moonlight. The Genthe photograph inspired  San Francisco artist Charles Rollo to create a painting which was later displayed in the Bohemian Club. For the 50th anniversary of the 1906 earthquake and fire, the Legion of Honor museum in San Francisco commissioned local photographer Ansel Adams (who was raised in San Francisco’s Richmond District) to create new prints from Genthe’s negatives. (Genthe’s photo is viewable online at https://deyoung.famsf.org/framework-untitled-genthe).

The phrase “Portals of the Past” for the surviving Towne mansion entrance is attributed to contemporary writer Charles K. Field. In 1906, Field contributed articles to Sunset magazine, a Southern Pacific Railroad promotional tool. Field later became an editor and owner of Sunset.

The Towne entrance became a symbol of San Francisco’s glorious past as the City strove to rebuild for a brighter future after the City’s disaster.

The Portals of the Past was moved and reconstructed at Lloyd Lake in Golden Gate Park as a monument “without ceremony” on Aug. 12, 1909, according to the SF Examiner. The monument by Lloyd Lake was iconic enough to be featured in several postcards, some of which are available for viewing online in the San Francisco Historical Photograph Collection. A postcard postmarked 1964 is in the San Diego College for Women Postcard Collection online.

One column in the monument collapsed in a 1957 earthquake, wrote Christopher Pollock in his 2001 book on Golden Gate Park. A San Francisco Arts Commission restoration project later replaced the column and also helped protect the Portals from earthquakes and rainwater. 

The inscription on the plaque at the monument reads:

Portal of Residence, 

California and Taylor Streets, of A.N. Towne, for  

many years Vice President and  General Manager of the

Southern  Pacific Railroad Company. 

This relic of the conflagration of  April 19, 1906,

was obtained through the kindness of 

Mrs. A.N. Towne.

The Portals of the Past at Lloyd Lake is located on JFK Drive, about 700 feet west of Transverse Drive. It is across the street from the eastern edge of Hellman Hollow/Speedway Meadow. You can walk to the doorway on a path that wraps around Lloyd Lake.

Photos by Michael Durand.

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