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San Francisco’s Le Petit Trianon

by Susan Saperstein

San Francisco has several representations of European landmarks, including Marie Antoinette's Le Petit Trianon.

The original building at Versailles Palace in France was built between 1763 and 1768 for Louis XV’s favorite mistress, Madame de Pompadour (Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson). Unfortunately for her, she died before the estate was completed.

Louis then gave it to his next favorite mistress, Madame du Barry (Jeanne Bécu). When Louis XVI became monarch, he gave the estate to his wife, Marie Antoinette, who used it as a retreat from palace life. The architecture was called the Greek style, a transition between the Rococo of the early 18th century and the Neoclassical of the later part of the century.

The Presidio Heights copy is located at 3800 Washington Street and is designated a San Francisco and national historic landmark. It was built from 1902 to 1904 for Marcus and Corinne (Cora) Koshland. Marcus Koshland was the son of Simon Koshland, who founded Koshland Brothers - a firm importing and exporting wool, hides, and fur.

Simon came to the United States from Bavaria, first moving to Philadelphia, then Sacramento in 1850, before settling in San Francisco. Marcus and Cora were the parents of Daniel Koshland, a president of Levi Strauss & Co. and the namesake of the Daniel E. Koshland San Francisco History Center at the San Francisco Public Library. This house was his boyhood home.

The Koshlands decided to build this house after visiting Versailles. The Washington Street side of the house is a faithful representation of the original Le Petit Trianon. The building, almost 18,000 square feet, has a grand marble staircase leading to a front terrace, and a three-story atrium with marble columns. The first floor features conservatories on either side of a marble rotunda. The house originally had eight marble fireplaces and more than 20 rooms. Daniel Koshland said, “It was always a home,” even with its huge size. It is still a single family house.

The Koshland’s housewarming party was a Marie Antoinette costume ball. Invitations were purchased in Paris and hand delivered to the invitees. Two years after it was built, the home withstood the 1906 Earthquake and Fire, but the columns and steps were damaged, as seen in the following photo. The Koshlands opened their home to 60 people after the earthquake. One person recalled going to Fort Mason daily to get water because the water mains were broken.

Cora Koshland, a founder of the San Francisco Symphony Association and one of the first directors of the San Francisco Opera Company, used her home to present concerts. She invited music critics to review the performances, which were hosted in the rotunda rather than the ballroom because it had better acoustics. She could accommodate almost 100 guests sitting on the stairs and the floor.

Yehudi Menuhin and Isaac Stern both had their musical debuts at the house as children. Cora Koshland was among several people who paid for Stern’s music education, and she convinced one composer who did not like child protégés to listen to Menuhin, with the result that the composer agreed to compose for the young man. Many other artists played or visited the home, including Igor Stravinsky, Jascha Heifitz, and Leonard Bernstein.

The house stayed in the Koshland family until Cora Koshland’s death in 1953, and has been owned by several people since that time. In 1982 it was the site of the annual San Francisco Decorator Showcase. At one point in the 1980’s, the owner wanted to open an art gallery, but the Presidio Heights neighbors protested and the plan was abandoned.

SOURCES:

Our City: The Jews of San Francisco, Irena Narell

Landmark Preservation Advisory Report, chateauversailles.fr/en/122_The_Petit_Trianon.php

San Francisco History Center files

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Le Petit Trianon after the 1906 Earthquake, courtesy of SF History Center, SF Public Library

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3800 Washington Street, courtesy of Eric Bennion.

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