Baroness von Schroeder, Rambling Bits of History
by Susan Saperstein
This article began as a search to learn more about Baroness von Schroeder, the developer of a Mission district residential area. Her trail proved to intersect with many of the movers and shakers of San Francisco at the turn of the last century.
Between 1889 and 1894, Baroness Mary Ellen von Schroeder developed 27 houses on South Van Ness (then called Howard Street) between 22nd and 23rd Streets and the backing lots with houses facing Capp Street. Designed by architect Thomas J. Welsh (1845-1918), the Eastlake or American Stick style houses sold for around $5,000. Many of the existing houses have the original flash glass—small colored glass squares surrounding the main window pane. Welsh designed many houses in the city, but is best remembered for his work as the primary architect for the Archdiocese of San Francisco: the original buildings for Sts. Peter and Paul in North Beach, St. Dominic's and Sacred Heart Parish in the Western Addition, and St. Mary's Cathedral on Van Ness. Only the latter two survived the 1906 Earthquake and Fire, although fire destroyed St. Mary’s in 1962.
And what of the Baroness? Mary Ellen Donahue, called Mamie, was the daughter of Peter Donahue, who had arrived in San Francisco from Ireland in 1849 and with his brothers opened a small blacksmith shop at the corner of Mission and First Streets. This shop grew into Union Iron Works, the first foundry in San Francisco. Peter Donahue also manufactured the first printing press in the West and built the first city railway on the Pacific. And with his brother James, Peter founded the first gas works in San Francisco, the forerunner of Pacific Gas and Electric Company.
The Baroness’s brother James Mervyn Donahue funded the Mechanics Monument in memory of their father and dedicated to the workers of Union Iron Works. Located at the intersection of Bush, Battery, and Market Streets, it was originally known as the Donahue Memorial Fountain.
Mamie Donahue married German-born Baron John Henry von Schroeder and had three children. In 1895 the Schroeders hired Arnold Genthe, a classical scholar from Germany, to tutor their son. Genthe became a part of San Francisco's artistic community and created photographs of life in Chinatown. When his teaching job ended after a few years, he opened a studio photographing the elite and wealthy. Although his studio was destroyed in the 1906 Earthquake and Fire, the early Chinatown negatives were stored in a friend's vault and survived. In 1910 Genthe moved to New York City, where he became an established photographer.
It is unclear why Baroness von Schroeder became a developer—she also developed housing in other parts of the Mission and South of Market area. The trend at the time in San Francisco was suburbanization—fleeing the crowded core of the city to outer neighborhoods. The 1880s was the peak era of construction of privately owned cable car lines which, together with street extensions from downtown, opened areas for development. This expansion created a huge market in real estate speculation. I asked Randolph Delehanty, author of In the Victorian Style, why the Baroness would develop this tract. He suggested that in times of speculation, “Rich people want to make more money too.”
The Baroness’s father Peter Donahue, with his brothers Michael and James, was also in the shipping and rail business. They brought the railroad, including ferry service, from San Francisco to Tiburon. In 1886, two of Donahue’s ferries collided near the San Francisco Ferry building. This collision was recounted in Jack London’s The Sea Wolf.
Bringing the railroad to Marin in the 1860s and 1870s created opportunities for developing the area for tourism, which began with a seaside resort on Bodega Bay. Peter Donahue’s son James was one of the developers of another resort, the Hotel Rafael in San Rafael. The huge wooden gingerbread structure built in 1887 on 21 acres became a favorite weekend destination for wealthy San Franciscans.
Baron von Schroeder owned the Hotel Rafael at the time of his marriage to Mamie Donahue. Although the hotel once ranked with resorts such as the Hotel Del Monte in Monterey and Hotel del Coronado in San Diego, it began having financial problems around 1900. Some thought it was due to the poor management of the high living von Schroeder—one newspaper said that his constant partying drove away the conservative high society guests. The hotel closed in 1910 due to problems with the San Rafael city officials. In 1918, the University of California Regents, who held the first mortgage, foreclosed and sold the property. After being closed for 10 years, the Hotel Rafael was renovated and remained open until 1928, when it was destroyed by fire. In 1939 the land was sold at auction, and the area is now occupied by houses.
At the time of the foreclosure, the Baron and Baroness had been in Europe for several years. John von Schroeder never became a US citizen although he had lived in California for 30 years. When World War I began, he smuggled himself into Germany and enlisted in the German military. The Baron and Baroness stayed abroad for the rest of their lives. Baroness Mary Ellen Donohue von Schroeder died in December 1925 at her home on the Baltic Sea.
Sources: SF Chronicle, 1/5/66; 7/29 & 7/30/28
San Francisco Examiner, 12/11/25
Victoria’s Legacy, Judith Lynch and Sally Woodbridge
In the Victorian Style, Randolph Delehanty and Richard Sexton
Historic photo reprinted with permission, SF History Center, SF Public Library.
Photo of Capp Street courtesy of Eric Bennion.
Many of the houses on Capp Street developed by the Baroness are still intact
Union Iron Works at First and Mission Streets, 1880
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