William H. Wharff’s San Francisco Years

Text & photos by William Kostura

10 April 2019

William Wharff, 1920s (BAHA archives)

William H. Wharff is one of the best-known architects in Berkeley’s history, in spite of the fact that he was not prolific while he lived in this city. He is well-known instead for the following reasons:

He fought in the Civil War, saw Abraham Lincoln during that conflict, and was at Appomattox at the time of Lee’s surrender to Grant.

Wharff was socially prominent in Berkeley, variously as a member of the Durant Lodge of Masons, as a member of the Grand Army of the Republic (Union army veterans), as an officer of the State of Maine Association (composed of natives of Maine), and with his wife Lydia as hosts of many gatherings at their own home on Delaware Street.

He lived to age 99, becoming the oldest person ever to have worked as an architect in San Francisco and, in all likelihood, Berkeley. He died on New Year’s Day, 1936.

In Berkeley, Wharff designed the Masonic Temple at 2105 Bancroft Way and Shattuck Avenue (1906). It is one of the best buildings in Berkeley’s downtown, and just so happens to have been the location of BAHA’s office for quite a few years. His Carlson’s Block and Chase Building are also notable commercial buildings in Berkeley.

Wharff led a colorful and productive life, was married to Lydia for well over sixty years, and was surrounded by numerous friends who shared his interests. His sounds like a happy and fulfilling life, and as such stories are not nearly as common as we would like them to be, they attract our attention, and their subjects, our admiration.

2723 Sacramento Street (1882). This is Wharff’s oldest surviving building in San Francisco. For this house, he was both the designer and the building contractor.

2723 Sacramento Street, band-sawn trim at the second floor level

In 2008, BAHA’s website editor, Daniella Thompson, wrote an article on Wharff’s life in Maine (through 1875), during the Civil War, and on his Berkeley years (1899–1935). This article is intended to fill in the gap, from 1875 to 1899, when Wharff lived and worked in San Francisco. It was his most productive period, and many of his houses in that city still stand today. Most of them are exceptional examples of their styles, Stick-Eastlake and Queen Anne, and were designed with the kind of flair that imparts happiness to those who view them.

As Daniella Thompson relates, Wharff was born in Maine in 1836 and began to work for his uncle, Hiram Hatch, a carpenter, at age 18. After several years he became his uncle’s partner; then his career was interrupted by the Civil War; and after the war he returned to working as a carpenter in Bangor, Maine. It would be nice to know if any of the buildings he built during this period still stand, and what they look like.

2500 Leavenworth Street (1884). This house is part of a cluster whose determined owners saved the block from burning in 1906. Later it was lived in by the sculptors Robert Boardman Howard and Adeline Kent, and the architect John Carl Warnecke.

2500 Leavenworth Street, porch

In 1875, Wharff and his family—Lydia, and their sons Frank and Frederick—crossed the continent to live in San Francisco. Over the next four years, in a pattern of chain migration, his brothers Joseph and John followed, and they all lived together in a house on Divisadero Street between O’Farrell and Geary. Joseph usually worked as a carpenter, at first for William; and John opened his own blacksmith shop, then worked as a carriagemaker. Over time, these brothers left William’s home to establish their own households.

Their reasons for moving west are unknown, but are not difficult to guess at.� San Francisco was growing rapidly, there was plenty of work, the climate was mild, and the state’s forests were far from exhausted. The environment here was a favorable one for members of the building trades.� Starting over again in a new place must have seemed like a favorable gamble; indeed, many other nineteenth-century carpenters and builders made the same choice.

2280–2284 Sutter Street (1884). This is a blend of Italianate and Stick-Eastlake styles, closer to the latter. It was one of a row of three sets of flats; the others have been altered and demolished.

William Wharff worked for himself from the start. At first, he called himself a “carpenter,” then, in 1877, a “carpenter and builder,” and beginning in 1884, a “contractor,” but during his first eight years in San Francisco, his line of work was always the same, namely, building houses for his clients. On two occasions, the houses he built had other architects (H. T. Bestor and Albert Schroepfer), but the available evidence indicates that Wharff almost always designed the houses he built. This was a practice that saved his clients money — it was cheaper than hiring both an architect and a contractor — and it gave Wharff experience in designing. Real architects didn’t like this, of course, for it undercut their business, and the city’s architectural journal, California Architect and Building News, archly warned that you get what you pay for; to get good value, you really should hire an architect to do the design work. Wharff, of course, was far from the only builder or contractor in San Francisco who drew his own plans.

1806–1810 Green Street (1885). When Wharff built this house for himself as owner, he re-used the plans for 2280–2284 Sutter (above). Unlike the Sutter Street flats, this house still has its original porch.

In 1878, Wharff moved from Divisadero Street to Green and Laguna streets, where Pacific Heights and Cow Hollow meet. Here he built houses for himself and his family to live in, and he remained at this intersection for the next 21 years, until he and his wife moved to Berkeley. The first house, at 1882 Green Street, was an Italianate, and the next two were Stick-Eastlakes, and all of them unfortunately have been heavily altered or demolished. Wharff got to know the property owners in the area, and some of them hired him to build their houses. He also built six houses on his own account, for speculative purposes, to sell for hopeful profits. About half of Wharff’s surviving San Francisco houses are in this vicinity, and on average, these are his most attractive houses.

289–291 Page Street (1885). Wharff was both designer
and contractor for this Stick-Eastlake house.

Wharff also began to get work further afield. In 1881, he built and designed two houses in San Rafael, and one of them, at 301 G Street, still stands. This fairly large, restrained free-standing house is Wharff’s oldest known work.

The next oldest is 2723 Sacramento Street (1882); again, he was both the designer and the contractor. It is a pleasing, if modest, two-story, flat-front house with band-sawn ornamentation in the Eastlake style.

1717 and 1719 Green Street (1888–1889). Wharff built this pair of identical Stick-Eastlake houses for himself as owner. #1719 still has original muntins in the upper window sash.

After several years of designing the buildings he built, Wharff developed an ambition to become an architect. He was able to do so for the first time that we know of in 1883, when he was hired to design houses in San Rafael and Martinez that were built by other contractors. He did so again in 1884, when he was the architect of a Stick-Eastlake cottage at 2500 Leavenworth Street on Russian Hill. It still stands, and features ornamental bargeboard in the gable, a shed roof over the rectangular bay window, and quarter-round sunbursts, courses of mini-pendants, and delicate brackets that decorate the body of the house.

1814 Vallejo Street (1890). A Queen Anne house with a corner tower.

1814 Vallejo Street, detail of gable, tower, sunburst, shingles, plaster rinceaux, and wooden brackets

For six years, from 1883 through early 1889, Wharff alternated between working as a contractor and as an architect. One month he might design and build a house for a client, and the next he might design a house that someone else would build. Occasionally, he would build speculative houses for himself. While it was not uncommon for builders and contractors to transition to becoming architects, it was uncommon for anyone to go back and forth in these roles for as long as Wharff did. Perhaps he enjoyed doing both kinds of work, or perhaps he simply did not get enough work as an architect to allow him to completely give up contracting. Ultimately, in the spring of 1889, he did make a decisive switch to working as an architect, and he gave up construction, except for a few instances where he built houses for himself or for a relative.

954 Florida Street (1892). For this house, Wharff was the architect and his uncle Hiram Hatch was the contractor. The half-round sunburst in the roof adds an exclamation-mark punctuation to the design.

All in all, during the last twenty of his San Francisco years, Wharff had ninety known projects.� (I am not counting 1875–1879, because documentation for his work is mostly lacking during this period.) These resulted in almost eighty buildings, nearly all of them single-family houses, plus about sixteen jobs for alterations and additions. He was moderately prolific, but not extremely so by the standards of the time. Many contractors, builders, and architects had more work than this; but then, he was reasonably busy during the depression years of 1894–1895, when most architects did poorly. He always had steady work, and I think he lived comfortably.

3091–3093 California Street (1894). The dormer at upper left is very elaborate.

3091–3093 California Street, porch. Except for the railing, every detail—columns, doors, transoms, paneling—appear to be original.

Another of his relatives moved west in 1887: his uncle Hiram E. Hatch, with whom Wharff had apprenticed and briefly partnered before the Civil War. Hatch settled in Oakland, joined a builders’ association in San Francisco, and worked as a contractor. Wharff was the architect for three of the buildings that Hatch built, one of which, a pretty Eastlake cottage (1892) at 954 Florida Street, still stands.

Twenty-two of his San Francisco buildings survive without major alterations. As mentioned above, eleven of these are located within a few blocks of where he lived at Green and Laguna streets. The others are in Pacific Heights, the Western Addition, the Mission district, Eureka Valley, and on Russian Hill.

1715 Green Street (1894). This house is similar to 3091–3093 California (above), except that here, the upper level of the bay window has curved sides. This is perhaps the best design of Wharff’s San Francisco period.

1715 Green Street, detail of second story

Wharff was stylistically somewhat advanced, perhaps because he had worked in the East, where styles debuted long before they came to the West Coast. He designed Eastlake style houses a few years before many other architects did. In the 1890s, he mixed with facility Colonial Revival elements into some of his Queen Anne houses. Certainly other architects were as “up to date” as he was or more so, but for someone who had to work his way up from being a contractor, and never had the advantage of apprenticing with a major architect, Wharff was adept. Many of his surviving houses are notable for their pleasing proportions and careful compositions. When Wharff added a dramatic feature to a house, such as a corner tower or an elaborate dormer, he usually fit it into the composition very skillfully.

2620 Laguna Street (1895). These apartments are Wharff’s
largest San Francisco building.

His one surviving apartment building, built in 1895, stands at 2620 Laguna Street. Here the composition is not so harmonious; in fact, it lacks balance. The end towers are of unequal height and bulk and are dominated by a central gable. Most of the decorative trim is shoved over to the right. Everything except the main gable seems off-center. Nevertheless, this building features a wealth of Victorian detail and is a collection of great parts, even if the parts don’t fit together very well.

2620 Laguna Street, entrance

2620 Laguna Street, second story windows

2620 Laguna Street, triangular pediment in attic story

The Romanesque entrance is particularly pleasing. Clustered columns support a monumental arch, which in turn supports a cornice, a frieze, and two diminutive arches. The recessed entrance is paneled, with an original door flanked by delicately detailed pilasters. Everywhere, the ornament and trim are as crisp as the day they were milled. The entire building (excepting the fire escape, which may be forgiven) is so intact that it is slightly jarring when a resident emerges wearing jeans or tights, a sweater that is longer than the jacket, and running shoes, instead of Victorian finery complete with hat. It is one of those flies in amber that have become rare, now that so many old buildings have been compromised with aluminum or vinyl window sash, plain doors, basement garages, and worse.

2503 and 2505 Gough Street (1895 and 1898, resp.). Both are blends of Queen Anne and Colonial Revival styles, perhaps closer to the latter in feeling. Wharff designed #2503 for a client, and he designed and built #2505 for a relative. A third house that Wharff built for himself at #2501 has been altered.

At about the same time, Wharff designed and built a cluster of three houses at the northwest corner of Vallejo and Gough streets. He built one of these for himself, one for a relative, and one for a client. The two that survive, 2503 Gough (1895) and 2505 Gough (1898), are pleasing blends of Queen Anne and Colonial Revival styles.

Soon afterward, in 1899, Wharff and his wife Lydia moved to Berkeley. Daniella Thompson notes that their son Fred had previously moved there and that may have been what drew them.� During their visits before moving they must have noticed how much warmer the climate was, and perhaps that settled the matter. Remarkably, once in Berkeley, Wharff now began to design larger buildings than he ever had before, most notably the Masonic Temple (1906–1907). He also continued to accept a few jobs in San Francisco after his move. He didn’t seem to slow down much in his sixties and worked as an architect until 1912, aged 76.

William H. Wharff is one of the very few architects who had careers on the East Coast and on both sides of San Francisco Bay. Since he began working before the Civil War and continued almost until World War I, perhaps it is not surprising that he covered so much ground.


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