Specialties of the Mansion: C.P. & Arabella Huntington’s Nob Hill Mansion – (1898) Annual SP Railroad Banquet

By Nancy Armitage

This is the elegant ballroom at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco. The Palace Hotel is on Montgomery Street directly across the street from the Southern Pacific Co.

Before 1892, the Palace Hotel in San Francisco hosted the Southern Pacific Company & Central Pacific Railroad fancy annual dinner banquet. What did the Southern Pacific Co. build across America? trains, large ships, & ferries.

After 1892, this elaborate dinner banquet venue changed. The over the top dinner was held in Mr. & Mrs. Collis P. Huntington’s (Arabella) Nob Hill Mansion (Collis was the president of Southern Pacific Co.)  

This is the Collis P. & Arabella Huntington’s Nob Hill Mansion in San Francisco, CA. Their address was on 1020 California Street (& Taylor). This photograph shows the “Billards Room” & behind that the large “Music & Picture Room”. Original photo: San Francisco Library (Southern Pacific Historical Collection)

At that time, the Huntington Mansion had just been renovated. A large new “Music & Picture Room” (1890’s Architectural Blueprint) had been added to their grand mansion at 1020 California Street in San Francisco, California. The Huntingtons called their original master paintings “pictures”. The enormously large room would be the perfect location for the festive dinner banquets for 110 dinner guests.

The house & property sat on an entire city block; previous owned by the widowed, Mrs. Colton. The Huntingtons prominent Nob Hill neighbors, (the “Big Four”) were Mark Hopkins, Leland Stanford, Charles Crocker, & of course, Mr. Collis Huntington were partners that owned the Central Pacific Railroad (CP). They created the Transatlantic railroad that connected the US from coast to coast. The 2 railroads met at Promontory Summit on May 10, 1869. The Central Pacific became the Southern Pacific Co. in 1869.

Collis P. Huntington, President of the Southern Pacific Co. (based in NYC & SF they built trains, ships & ferries for America) Photo Credit: connecticuthistory.org

The San Francisco Huntington palatial residence was a white, imposing Beaux Arts architecture. It was two-story mansion had long windows typical of San Francisco & marble floors. On the night of the annual SPRR & CPRR banquet, Huntington’s top employees were welcomed at the front entrance by two life-sized carved lions, made in Italy. 

A man (Mr. Astor) wearing an elegant Gilded Age outfit, including top hat, tails, with gloves.

In 1890’s San Francisco High Society, a guest’s entrance to this grand residence would have been something to experience. The gentlemen invited to this Huntington affaire would have worn elegant attire, tuxedo with tails, white gloves, with top hat. At the time, guests were driven up to Nob Hill mansion in a horse-drawn carriage. The Huntington’s livery-colored coachmen would elegantly open the door of the coach. The guests to walk up the Huntington’s mansion lion-guarded staircase to the double front doors. 

On these annual festive nights in April or May, for the elaborate Southern Pacific Co. & Central Pacific RR Co. banquet dinner. They would serve a full-course dinner meals, it could be up to 12 -16 courses with wine or champagne to match every course. The fancy banquet menu was printed & placed at every “cover”: place setting for each guest invited.

They had multi-course dishes served at these banquet dinners. Soup dish on top of other fancy plates. The way they served some of the courses was to bring the hot food to the guests. The guest would take the fork or spoon & serve himself from large tray served by the butler or footmen.

The gentlemen guests would enter the home into the large, carved wooden double doors thru a grand colonnaded portico. After being greeted by the C. P. Huntington’s butler, who would have offered to take their top hats, gloves, & topcoats. Once inside, the guests would be in awe at the height of the ceiling at 15 ft. & 8”. Then escorted through the vestibule, they would walk through a square hall with the large “Parlor” to left & the smaller “Reception” Room to the right. Once approaching a Grand Staircase, turning left at the Main Hall, into the large “Billards Room”. Through the “Billards Room” there were 2 entrances into the “Music & Picture Room”, the room was a enormous art salon housing the C. P. & Arabella Huntington Art Collection. 

Moving the economy along in 1890’s with Southern Pacific Co. (based in SF & NYC). The Golden Gate bridge was not built until 1933; but the view of the San Francisco Bay from Nob Hill in San Francisco was breathtaking.

For their railroad & ship dinner banquet, a enormous horseshoe-shaped table dominated the center of the “Music & Picture Room”. From archival records, the Huntington seating chart shows seating along both inside & outside of the large horseshoe. Mr. Collis P. Huntington sat at the head of the table with the guests of honor flanking his left & right.  

The Huntington’s salon elegantly decorated in the Louis XVI French style, proved the perfect setting for the Huntington’s “entertainments”. The Huntingtons elegant salon “Picture Gallery” was large enough to easily fit 110 or more guests. The Salon room had high ceilings held glistening chandeliers, a grand entrance, & a large fireplace. Collis & Arabella hung their extensive art collection along the massive salon walls, called the French “salon” style. “Salon style” was filling the wall with paintings hung very close together on the wall. Arabella Huntington’s love of all things French was evident here, as the furnishings were of the Louis XV & Louis XVI style. 

I found a possible dinnerware the Huntingtons might have used for this event.  This plate could have been from Huntington Mansion on Nob Hill: a dinner plate designed by Alexandre Cabanel made for the Huntingtons. There is no date for this plate but we do know that Mrs. Huntington got her portrait painted by this same artist, Mr. Cabanel in 1882.  It was a Roman or Grecian plate, the image illustrates 2 figures in robes, a man is seated receiving a plate of food from a woman. The plate was gold & white plate with a mauve colored band inside the gold rim. The plate was donated by Archer M. Huntington to the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco/DeYoung, CA.  

Dinner plate designed by Alexandre Cabanel; scene Grecian or Roman of 2 robed figures: a man seated receiving a plate of food from a woman. Color” Gold & white with a mauve band. Found: Fine Arts Museums of SF/DeYoung & donated by Archer Huntington. Photo Credit: Nancy Armitage’s Huntington Journals
A large set of Minton dinnerware (Tiffany & Co.) Mrs. Collis Huntington had especially made for her in San Francisco. A Black & White illustration I found in the San Francisco Call Newspaper Jan. 4, 1903. It Illustrates Mrs. Huntington entertainment style. I think turquoise was very bold in the Gilded Age. Photo Credit: Nancy Armitage’s Huntington journals

The SPRR & CPRR with President Huntington, spared no expense on the elaborate 4 full-course dinner on May 7, 1898. Also, giving a nod to California foods like California artichokes & Pacific Coast crab legs in their soup. The dinner menu was fabulous as followed: 

The dinner guests dined first on Blue Point Oysters (the Best oysters) served on the half shell on crushed ice. The fresh oysters served on special oyster plates (probably French Limoges with room for 5 raw oysters). That special night Rudesheinier, a sweet German wine or sherry was served with oysters. 

Huntington Oysters on the Half Shell

500 or more Oysters   

white & gold Limoges Oyster plates (5)

French Mignonette Sauce

This is a lovely dipping sauce for fresh shucked oysters. Serve with fresh lemon wedges. 

½ c. champagne vinegar   

½ c.white chardonnay wine

½ c. shallots, minced          

dash white wine or sherry vinegar

 Freshly cracked mixed peppercorns 

In a bowl, add ingredients & refrigerate until ready to serve. Spoon into the middle of the oyster plate or place in a small ramekin. Recipe: Nancy Armitage

The 2nd course was a choice of two soups: Bisque of Ecrevisses (crab soup, a traditional San Francisco favorite) or Consommé a la Printanier (julienne cut of vegetables in a savory beef broth). The 3rd course, or fish course,”Poisson” was Filet of Sole a la Normandie served with Duchess Potatoes. In addition, Terrapin a la Maryland (turtle stew) was usually served with Mont & Chandon Champagne served in elegant champagne glasses.  The entrée – or the “Releve” course was Filet de Boeuf, sauce Béarnaise. This entree was presented with Artichokes, sauce Perigueux (a rich Madeira truffle sauce with foie gras). A poultry entrée was Supreme of Chicken served with Asparagus Hollandaise Sauce was also offered to the diners. 

To give the guests a bit of break between this 2-hour formal dinner; midway through they served a fancy Roman Punch. It was served “to clear the palate” for the courses to come. Mrs. Huntington was a collector of Gorham silver, the Roman Punch was probably served in a large Gorham Silver Punch bowl with punch cups & seated on a large Gorham oval shaped tray. Roman Punch is basically a champagne punch with a mixture of rum, champagne, & fruit juices. Roman Punch was often on the Huntington family menus.  

Huntington Roman Punch (Champagne Punch)

2 c. water                        

1 t. sugar

 juice of 4 Navel oranges

1 ½ c. Darjeeling Afternoon tea 

½ c. rum                           

½ c. or bottle of French Champagne

 ¼ c. maraschino cherry juice  

juice of 1 lemon

Mix water & sugar together then add fruit juices & tea. Strain the pulp from the juice. can be frozen to a mush at this point. Just before the party, add all ingredients to a large ornate punch bowl. Add rum & cold French champagne. Serve in champagne glasses or frappe glasses. Recipe by Nancy Armitage

Before the next course of Squab on Toast & Fresh Mushroom Sauté served with Chiffonade Salade. Usually during the game course, the Grand Vin Chateau Lafitte, (a French red Bordeaux) wine was served. Entremets ended the delectable meal. “Entremets”, a French word, translated means dessert. Entremets were often elaborate presentations, elegant edible sculptures of art but made of sweet cakes, mousses, or puddings. The entremets for this banquet was a choice of two ice creams, “Glaces” – Vanilla or Plombiere. A plombiere is a handmade confection with ice cream on the bottom & crushed marron glaze & pistachio sprinkled on top. These decedent Gilded Age, actually French glaces desserts were decorated, molded, & frozen into imaginative shapes & presented artistically with fresh Spring Strawberries. These cakes were probably presented very showy on tall cake stands with royal icing or Chantilly cream with candied fruits & nuts (like California almonds or green pistachios). Assorted Cakes & Petit Fours (a petit square of cake with royal icing) ended the meal with Almonds & Pecans. Coffee & traditional Brandy completed the sumptuous feast.  


HEH Coll. MS Eph E39-60 uncat (Huntington Menu Ephemera; Central Pacific Railroad Co. &  Southern Pacific Railroad Co., 1898 Banquet multi-course menu) Huntington Library, San Marino, CA

Book: Lehner, Leonard World’s Fair Menu & Recipe Book, San Francisco, 1915 (Huntington SPRR Dinner May of 1897 Menu with photo of Collis Huntington) 

Dinner Plate: gold & white with mauve band, 2 figures-a man & women (Roman or Grecian) designed by Alexandre Cabanel found at Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco/DeYoung, donated by Archer M. Huntington 

C. P. Huntington’s San Francisco residence with ballroom www.sphts.org/pmcclosky/spwebresources.html

Nancy Note:  [architectural blueprint for Residence of Mr. C. P. Huntington California & Taylor San Francisco, CA states that the largest room in the house is not a ballroom but a “Music & Picture Room”

Photo of Colton Mansion/ Huntington Mansion (view of Billiard room & Picture Gallery. I found the Photo: http://www.pcad.lib.washington.edu (original is at San Francisco Library (Southern Pacific Historical Collection)

Book: Art of Wealth by Bennett Ground plan of Collis Huntington, San Francisco; original document is at Hispanic Society of America, NYC.  

Putnam Magazine, April – September 1908, (photo of C.P. Huntington mansion & the ballroom)

Historical Note: Records from four of the grand Huntington banquets are still in existence. The Southern Pacific & Central Pacific Railroad (1892) annual banquet was published in the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper. The elaborate 16-full course dinner matched with special wines menus held at the Huntingtons’ 1020 California Street residence in May of 1897, May of 1898, & 1899 are still in existence. Two menus were located in the H.E. Huntington Library ephemera menus & the other one (1897) in the 1915 book, World’s Fair Menu & Recipe Book, in San Francisco by Leonard Lehner.

Sadly, the C. P. Huntington Art Collection & this San Francisco Mansion was completely lost to the Great SF EQ/Fire of 1906. Through the brilliance of some of the Huntington household staff 4 pictures (3 paintings & 1 photograph of Collis P. Huntington were saved & recovered). The painting, “Milking Time” by by French artist, is now hanging at the Huntington Library in San Marino, CA  They also saved a beautiful full length portrait of Arabella Worsham Huntington in a red dress.

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