After discovering that so many old family homes have been knocked down, it’s refreshing to find one that has survived. That said, Julius Kruttschnitt’s magnificent summer villa at 2077 Forest View in Burlingame, Ca., came perilously close to suffering the pitiless blows of a wrecking ball.
Builder Otto J. Miller bought the Julius Kruttschnitt, Sr., home for $4.8 million in 2008, fully intending to replace it with a modern-day mansion. Fortunately, his intentions triggered an historic review by the city government, which found that the eclectic, 5,610-square foot villa was worth preserving, not so much because of its design but because it was the home of one of the most powerful railroad figures of the early 1900s.
Had the reviewer known the architect of the home, Frank S. Van Trees, the assessment may have been different. Van Trees drew some of the finest homes in San Francisco’s Palisades District, including the Baron Edward S. Rothchild house at 1901 Jackson Street and the Koshland House at 3800 Washington Street. Compared to his other work, the Kruttschnitt home is significantly more restrained, eclectic, and modern. It’s worthy of preservation for that reason.
Van Trees worked in the early 1890s for the classically trained Arthur Page Brown, who was the leading architect in San Francisco in the late 1880s and early 1890s. Brown designed San Francisco’s landmark Ferry Building, the flat-iron Crocker Building (demolished in the 1960s), and the Richard E. Queen House at 2212 Sacramento. Van Trees may have been working for Brown when he drew the Kruttschnitt home.
It’s not clear when design started for my great, great grandfather’s house. Brown, who actually lived in Burlingame, died in January 1896, three months after suffering broken bones and internal injuries in a runaway horse and buggy accident near his home. Kruttschnitt (1854-1925) began construction on his house in March 1897 from plans that were drawn before that date.
We know about the Van Trees connection because of the work of Kevin Smith, an attorney who rented the Kruttschnitt home from Miller for a year. Smith made several treks to the government records department in an attempt to trace the home’s genealogy. He couldn’t locate any Kruttschnitt building documents among the organized files. The house was built before Burlingame was even incorporated, and the house didn’t have an address for the first 40 years.
Government workers invited Smith to look through some older building documents that had never been sorted. He was digging through these random files when he struck pay dirt — a series of hand-written records showing that Robert Brown built the three-story home for Kruttschnitt during a roughly six-month span (from March through September) in 1897. They listed Van Trees as the architect.
Smith imagines that the construction project must have been quite an undertaking. The Burlingame area was undeveloped at the time and nearly inaccessible in the winter. Materials had to be hauled into the hills over dirt roads. On the other hand, the logistics couldn’t have been more difficult than what Kruttschnitt, general manager of the Southern Pacific Railroad at the time, encountered building railroad tracks through isolated, mountainous stretches of the United States.
The original homestead covered 5 acres; it has since between whittled down to 1.6. It was sited on two lots that Kruttschnitt bought from S. Newlands, who in 1895 began developing his father-in-law’s estate, the Sharon Estate. The Kruttschnitt parcels used to include a carriage house, which stands retrofitted on the lot next door. With some imagination you can still make out the configuration of the original driveway. Guests entered through gates that are still standing, passed the carriage house, and went up to the main house. A stone wall, along with dense foliage, separates the lots now.
There are two buildings left at 2077 Forest View–the main house and a pool house with related retaining walls and walkways that was probably built in the 1950s. Pictures from the turn of the century show a single house sitting at the top of a steeply sloped lot. At the bottom of the lot, you can still find a derelict pump house and koi pond where the Kruttschnitt children used to play, according to magazine articles.
Kruttschnitt was a founding member of the Burlingame Country Club, a group of influential San Franciscans who retreated to the country to enjoy the outdoors during the summer. Though wealthy, they decided that enjoyment of nature was more important than building monuments to their wealth — at least at first. The earliest homes built in Burlingame, Kruttschnitt’s included, were relatively modest for executive estates.
Newlands retained Arthur Page Brown to design five cottages on speculation. Brown drew them after English country houses with plaster and native rock. The Tudor-style cottages became a model for later homes. The Burlingame Country Club started after Newlands invited some members of San Francisco’s University Club, including William H. Crocker and William H. Howard, to a picnic under the trees near one of the cottages. At least two of the Brown cottages remain, including this gorgeous one at 1615 Floribunda, Ave.
Many of the early homes in Burlingame were built by country club members on Forest Ave. It wasn’t long, however, before newcomers started building over-the-top mansions. Some of the better known are the immense Kohl Mansion, designed for Bessie and Frederick Kohl by the firm of Howard and White; La Dolphine, designed by Lewis Hobart; and The Carolands Chateau, built in 1914 for Harriet Pullman Carolan from plans drawn by Parisian architect Ernest Sanson.
When Julius Kruttschnitt built his relatively humble three-story home in 1897, he was general manager of the Southern Pacific railroad. His family lived in a house in downtown San Francisco, after moving from an apartment. The Forest View home was a summer residence for the family between 1897 and at least 1905, when Kruttschnitt moved the family to Chicago. He sold home a year later to James and Inez Smith, who owned it until 1940.
The architectural review concluded that if Kruttschnitt were to drive by the unpretentious home today, he would still recognize it. The rectangular, stucco building with its distinctive oval windows and balconies, looks much like it did at the turn of the century, judging by photographs Smith found in the San Francisco Chronicle, Sunset magazine, and a few books. Only subtle changes have been made to the front elevation. Two substantive renovations — the addition of a modern kitchen and a garage — haven’t really changed the home’s basic appearance.
Some sources describe the home as Italian Renaissance in character due to its projecting eaves, rectangular massing, and low-pitched, hipped roof. But its exposed rafters, arched openings, and ornamental balconies are more commonly associated with the Mission Style. The frieze might be inspired by Moorish architecture in Spain. Mixing old world elements to create a new world look was a popular architectural approach at the time.
The defining aspect of the home may be its clean, almost modern appearance. Van Trees applied a few special design elements — oval windows and the unusual three-level frieze under the eaves — to a clean stucco canvass. Deep-set windows and large overhangs contribute to the restrained elegance of the house. Despite its mix of design influences, the home evokes the style and scale of a villa in southern Europe.
Some changes made to the house over the years are regrettable. A photograph from 1899 shows a distinctive recessed entry framed by an exotic ogee arch, suspended by two squat columns on rectangular piers. It seems to mesh stylistically with the frieze. The entry frame has since been carved into a less interesting rectangular shape. Also, a balcony with brackets may have originally supported the central window on the second floor above the entry.
Other changes to the front elevation were largely cosmetic. The lower level picture windows used to be covered by awnings. And the shape and length of the entry stairs was changed at some point.
The other big change to the house is in back. In Kruttschnitt’s time, the sunporch was open to the air with a series of arches. This must have been a magnificent setting during the summer months. It was eventually enclosed with Palladium windows, probably once it became a year-round residence.
The interior finishes are probably also little changed since Kruttschnitt’s time. The dining and living rooms feature restrained baseboard and crown molding. A simple marble floor greats visitors in the entry foyer. The fabulous, half-round music room/library includes built-in storage and seating. A series of columns creates a wide-open feeling. Ceiling beams mark rooms. The highlight of the living room is a stone fireplace surround came from a Southern Pacific train tunnel.
There are four ample bedrooms upstairs, each with its own bathroom and fireplace. The Kruttschnitts had four children. The master bedroom, which has a large walk-in closet with a sitting area, opens to a terrace that looks over the deep backyard and to the hills beyond.
The family had servants who probably lived on the first level, below the terrace. There’s quite a bit of space down there, including a large living area, two bedrooms, two and a half baths, the original kitchen, and several utility rooms. The entry from the three-car garage is on this level, too.
The architectural review concluded that the upstairs kitchens and expanded rear terrace were probably added in the late 1990s. The terrace was extended over an attached three-car garage that was added at an unspecified date. You can still see the original outside wall inside the garage. Seismic strengthening was done to the chimneys in the 1990s.
Kruttschnitt was transferred to San Francisco in 1895 to serve as vice president of the Southern Pacific Railroad. He was hand-picked by owner, Collis P. Huntington to manage the railroad as the owners left the scene. Kruttschnitt was given more power and responsibility under the new owner, Edward H. Harriman. According to reports in the San Francisco Sun, Kruttschnitt entertained Harriman at the home while he was campaigning to become president of the railroad.
Much has been made of the king palm that Kruttschnitt planted at the Burlingame train station when it opened in 1895. It still stands to this day. Well, there’s at least one of these king palms at 2077 Forest View, along with some other ancient specimen trees. The landscaping is spectacular.
Kruttschnitt, of course, managed the railroad until his death in 1925, merging it into the Union Pacific. An engineer by training, he was renown for improving the railroad’s infrastructure and safety. He was responsible for raising the quality of service during the Golden Age of railroad travel. On the day he died, the railroad stopped for an hour in his honor.
Click on the photos to enlarge them.