Established 1978
Gold Coast

Billionaire’s Row: What’s Up, Besides Prices

by Merla Zellerbach

It used to be called Millionaire’s Row, those three elegant blocks of Broadway Street from Lyon to Divisadero Streets. Today, it’s known as Billionaire’s Row, the Gold Coast, or Upper Broadway, and it’s still the crème of San Francisco’s luxury properties.

Once a neighborhood unto itself, mainly limited to its old guard families, the Gold Coast is no longer considered an elite sanctuary. Many residents are ambitious, enterprising persons of all ages, deeply involved in technology, philanthropy, the local community, and beyond.

At the same time, most of these homeowners struggle to keep their personal lives private. Some of the newcomers, however, have been “outed” by the media, so we’re not revealing any secrets.

One can read online, for instance, that the recently-knighted Sir Jonathan Ive, Apple’s senior vice president, credited with designing the iPad, iPhone, and iPod, paid $17 million earlier this year for his historic Willis Polk-designed home “on San Francisco’s Gold Coast, one of the city’s most exclusive blocks.”

Another news source reports that last February, the “wedding cake house,” a large white Neoclassical Revival mansion on the corner of Broadway and Divisadero Streets, sold (for $27 million) to chef Roxanne Klein, queen of raw-food cuisine, and her entrepreneur/guitar-maker husband, Michael Klein.

Gossips had a field day some years prior when the couple divorced. Michael Klein then wed Diandra Douglas (former wife of Michael Douglas), but the marriage failed, and soon after, Michael (Klein) and Roxanne remarried.

More recent press reveals that Zynga chief executive officer Mark Pincus and his wife, Alison Pincus, founder of One King’s Lane, a luxury home décor website, have bought the $12 million Newhall property, and “officially joined Billionaire’s Row.” (Rumor has it that the games guru, once stalked by a Russian dancer, likes the mansion’s “fortress feel.”)

Designed by renowned architect Albert Farr, the Pincus home was built by the Newhall family in 1907. They were sole owners until philanthropist Jane Newhall died last year at age 97, and the shingled Colonial Revival mansion came on the market. The entrance is on Pacific Avenue, but the back sits on Broadway.

“A super-nice couple,” according to a neighbor, recently bought the “skateboard house” on Broadway near Broderick Street. The nickname comes from the home’s crooked downhill driveway, which used to attract skateboarders until “Private” signs scared them off.

The owners, Facebook executives Aaron Sittig and Jessica Bigarel, were married in October, 2011, in Palm Springs, with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg serving as Best Man. (Reports say he “boogied the night away.”) Sittig is known for having designed the Facebook “like” icon, but couldn’t be reached for comment.

And if you’re one of the many who has cast longing eyes on Gladyne Mitchell’s Italian Renaissance hilltop mansion, which features a private tennis court and spectacular views, you’d have had to pay $55 million for it in 1989. In 2007, even though the house was dressed up for the San Francisco Decorator Showcase, the price dropped to $45 million.

Since then, the market has changed, the house is in need of “fixing,” and today’s bargain price is $34 million. Rumors say it’s about to be sold, but no one will confirm.

Some homeowners are even more guarded.

It’s no secret that Peter V. Sperling is the son of John G. Sperling, who started the for-profit University of Phoenix in the 1970s. It became the Apollo Group in 1994.

Called the city’s top taxpayer (Forbes lists his net worth at $1.6 billion), Peter Sperling bought a neoclassical Gold Coast home some years ago for $32 million, spent untold dollars improving it, then put it on the market for $65 million. It didn’t sell, went off the market, and according to the Broadway buzz, it recently sold for slightly more than half that price. The parties involved will only say, “The seller and the buyer are very happy.”

Happy, too, we’re told, are the buyers of the landmark 1922 Tudor Revival mansion, where the “King of Torts,” Melvin Belli, once reportedly ran naked through the halls chasing wife Lia with a loaded pistol.

Famous architect Andy Skurman is redoing the Belli house, which is said to have sold (for $29.5 million) to a former rock star who lives in Pacific Heights. Time will tell his name, even if the architect can’t.

It’s common knowledge, however, that author Sloan and Shaklee chief executive officer Peter Barnett bought coffee heir Reuben and Ingrid Hills’s home several years ago. (It had long been vacant after a prominent woman committed suicide there. Before moving in, Ingrid Hills had all the rooms—“even the closets”—exorcised.)

The Barnetts still live there, though neighbors say they’ve sold the house, and they are renting it from the new buyers while they remodel the property they bought next door. The Barnetts declined to comment, but their purchase, a sister to the Willis Polk-designed Getty mansion, is a former archbishop’s residence owned by Dodie and John Rosekrans. The Barnetts will move in when it’s finished.

That brings us to the Gold Coast’s extremely popular and philanthropic couple, Ann and Gordon Getty. Perhaps more than any other local family, the Gettys continually open their home to a variety of causes, as well as graciously entertain politicians, diplomats, musicians, and friends. Until recently, composer Gordon celebrated his birthday every December with a guest list of 800, from all corners of the city.

Having launched “Ann Getty & Associates” in 1995, Ann has since become a hard working, highly respected, and successful designer. “I find it rather amusing when I’m described as a socialite,” she told Harper’s BAZAAR and Diane Dorrans Saeks, author of the stunning new book, Ann Getty: Interior Style.

“[Being a socialite] is no longer my focus,” she added, laughing. “I go out once a month, barely, just to maintain my so-called status.”

While Ann is understandably private, her niece, Beth Townsend, is a gregarious people-magnet, and serves as Ann’s connection to the outside world. Beth’s warmth and caring reflect her family’s generous values.

With the exception of the Gettys, entertaining on Billionaire’s Row seems to have diminished. On promise of anonymity, a local catering person spoke freely, saying: “The older generation is dying out on the Gold Coast. Today, when they entertain, they prefer to do it at their clubs—the P.U., Villa Taverna, etcetera, or at their country homes. So we’re seeing a lot fewer dinner parties.”

Pasha and Laney Thornton often open their Willis Polk home (and once closed off the entire street) for their benefits.

“The neighborhood has changed,” Pasha says. “I miss the old guard—Dodie Rosekrans, Ingrid Hills. Of course Lucy Jewett and Ann Getty are here, but they’re both so busy—almost no one’s doing neighborhood parties. Gold Coaster Larry Ellison’s ex-wife Melanie Craft said in an interview, during which she offered entertaining advice, that one of her tips is, ‘Don’t feel obligated to invite the neighbors.’

“The last time we had a street party,” Pasha explains, “I hosted it with Ann Getty and Nicola Miner, and some of the neighbors hired lawyers to stop the event—after they’d all signed papers approving of it! Too many ‘undesirables’ coming here, they said. We went ahead with it, but no one’s wanted to have a block party since then.”

Maryon Davies Lewis, daughter of Louise M. Davies, who gave the city Davies Symphony Hall, doesn’t miss the block parties. “I’ve lived here longer than anyone,” she says, “and what really matters are the trees. The view is the one thing we’re all trying to protect, and it’s a major source of problems. Larry Ellison bought a neighboring house just so he could chop down the trees. I wish some of the residents would be more considerate.”

Realtor Joel Goodrich affirms that, “In the super-luxury market, we’ve seen a record number of sales on our world-famous Gold Coast, including several tech titans from around the world. Should we now call it the ‘Silicon Coast’? And with all the national and international people buying there, sales have shattered price records. Sorry I can’t give you any details.” He laughs, “If I do—remember Truman Capote’s line?—‘I’ll never eat lunch in this town again!’ ”

     Merla Zellerbach has been involved with many charitable causes, currently Compassion & Choices, which deals with end-of-life options. A columnist for the SF Chronicle for 23 years, and Nob Hill Gazette editor for 12 years, she’s also written 16 books. Early editions of her latest mystery, Dying to Dance, will soon be available at Books Inc. in Laurel Village.

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