The Castles of Telegraph Hill in San Francisco

Towering over San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood, on what is arguably one of the most recognizable hills in the world, is one of San Francisco’s most iconic landmarks. Coit Tower can be seen atop Telegraph Hill from miles away, reminding locals and tourist alike of the bequest by Lilly Hitchcock Coit that made odd, fire-nozzle-shaped structure possible. But before there was Coit Tower to help San Franciscans get their bearings, another landmark stood on practically the same spot. In what is now Coit Tower’s north parking lot stood a grand castle from 1883 until 1903. 

  Observatory and Signal Station, Telegraph Hill, c. 1890

  Observatory and Signal Station, Telegraph Hill, c. 1890

 

It was in 1849 that a signal station was first erected on the hill to advise the City of the approach of ships. In 1853, the first Marine Telegraph in California, which extended eight miles to Point Lobos, was stationed in its place, resulting the christening of what became known as “Telegraph Hill.”

 

As the hill provided a panoramic view of San Francisco and the entire bay, it seemed a good place to build a tourist attraction. Frederick O. Layman imagined an “observatory” where people could survey the surroundings for as far as the eye could see in any direction. To enhance the unique nature of his venture, he designed the building to look like a German baronial castle.

 

He opened his resort on the Fourth of July in 1882, and within two years, a new cable care line was created on Greenwich Street to make it easier for people to get up the steep hill. While broadsword contests on horseback were held in front of the crenelated wooden castle, Italians peddled the nineteenth-century version of street food to the crowds. It was, for all intents and purposes, California’s first amusement park, and drew curious customers from far and wide.

   “Layman’s Folly,” c. 1890 - Photo: San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library 

   “Layman’s Folly,” c. 1890 - Photo: San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library 

 

In a letter to her son, the actress E. J. Phillips gave a description of this Observatory: “I went to one new place this week called Telegraph Hill. It is a very high point and commands a splendid view of the bay and surrounding country. There is a large building that is called Telegraph Hill Observatory at the top of which you are supplied with field glasses. The lower parts of the building are devoted to restaurants, or rather Dutch beer saloons. At one end of the largest room is a stage devoted to concert and theatrical performances, and wrestling matches on Sunday nights.”

 

Frederick Layman was in his glory. He had created the ultimate tourist attraction. But San Franciscans thought less of the venture that Layman did himself. San Franciscans referred to the monstrosity as “Layman’s Folly” and patiently waited for its inevitable demise.

 

They didn’t have to wait long. After an accidental death on the Greenwich Street cable car line on its way up to the Observatory, business at the tourist attraction plummeted. It never fully recovered, and in 1903 a fire engulfed the wooden structure; Layman’s Folly was no more. The ruins were sold to Telegraph Hill’s scavenger, Louis Bacigalupi, and the castle on the hill became only a memory.

 

Among those watching the devastating fire that destroyed the castle on the hill were Julius Roz—who was born in Turino in 1869, and Louis Mastropasqua—who was born in Brescia in 1870. The two Italian immigrants had just arrived in San Francisco the year before. The memory of the castle on the hill stayed with these men, and twenty years later, those nostalgic memories became the basis for the Roz the restaurateur and Mastropasqua the architect to create a new restaurant on Telegraph Hill reminiscent of Layman’s Folly.

  Julius' Castle in the 1940s - Photo: San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library

  Julius' Castle in the 1940s - Photo: San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library

 

Construction began on “Julius’ Castle” in 1923. The restaurant opened soon thereafter. Though Julius Roz died in 1943, the restaurant stayed open, and became a popular celebrity hangout for celebrities and local politicians, musicians, and actors, including Robert Redford, Cary Grant, Sean Connery, Marlon Brando and Ginger Rogers. After a series of owners, the restaurant finally closed in 2008, eighty-five years after it had opened.

 

The building still stands today. Protected by its designation as a landmark that was granted in 1980, it is unlikely to be torn down any time soon, but is equally unlikely to ever return to its former glory. It serves as a reminder of the San Francisco’s glorious past, and the City’s castles on the hill.

 

Nickolas Marinelli serves as the Director of Community Relations at the Italian Cemetery in Colma.  Nickolas can be contacted by e-mail at:  Nickolas@ItaloAmericano.com

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