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Important Pre-Earthquake San Francisco Album: Vanderbilt Real Estate Holdings

SAN FRANCISCO, pre-earthquake. Buildings of Fair [-Vanderbilt] Heirs in San Francisco

San Francisco, 1904-1905

41 gelatin silver prints (6 1⁄4 x 8 3/8 in., with two panoramic views, 3 3⁄4 x 15 in.), mounted on card with maps and price annotations. Contemporary oblong album (13 3/4 x 16 in.) of soft black leather, gilt-lettered Buildings of Fair Heirs in San Francisco. Binding worn with covers nearly detached, interior with some stains, offsetting, and soiling, the photographs and maps generally in good condition.

The Vanderbilt real estate portfolio in pre-earthquake San Francisco. This album documents approximately forty downtown San Francisco real estate holdings of the heirs of real estate, silver, and railroad magnate James Graham Fair. This album belonged to Fair’s daughter Virginia Graham Fair Vanderbilt, first wife of William K. Vanderbilt II.

Most of the 41 original photographs are mounted with colored street maps locating the properties. The tipped-in typed index of the buildings is heavily annotated with sale prices, some with dates showing that Mrs. Vanderbilt sold in 1904-05, just before the earthquake of 1906. The properties are mainly on San Francisco’s major downtown streets including Market, Mission, Pacific, Post, Sutter, and Kearny. The prices recorded for these properties range between $50,000 to $350,000, with total sales listed at nearly $3,000,000.

This album provides a stunning visual record of San Francisco just before the earthquake and fires destroyed eighty percent of the city. The properties range from single-story wooden commercial structures to massive stone buildings occupying entire city blocks. Buildings include hotels, saloons, residences, burlesque halls, a shooting gallery, cigar shops, groceries, and a billiard factory, often with poster-covered and paint-decorated facades. The scenes are typically filled with business signs, pedestrians, carriages, and wagons.

Original photographs depicting San Francisco just before the 1906 earthquake are rare in the market. This album provides an irreplaceable visual record of the city. Although presumably copies were made for the several Fair heirs, we can trace no other examples, apart from an unannotated duplicate also owned by Mrs. Vanderbilt. Searches of WorldCat and Google turn up no other examples of Buildings of Fair Heirs in San Francisco, the title given on the binding.


Provenance: Virginia “Birdie” Fair Vanderbilt (1875-1935). The properties documented in the album were presumably originally purchased by James Graham Fair (1831-1894). Fair made his first fortune in the Comstock Lode and then became a major figure in California real estate and railroads. His daughter Virginia Graham Fair married William K. Vanderbilt II in 1899, and this album remained in the family for more than a century. Laid in are two letters from San Francisco real estate agent Thomas Magee to Mrs. Vanderbilt concerning the sales of various properties.