Fernando Nelson – “Father of the Richmond District”

By Michael Bilger

The old saying goes “you learn something new every day”. If you are in the Real Estate business in San Francisco and you have an inquisitive mind, you can learn about our city’s history on any given day!

Recently, Jennifer was searching through the MLS for the zillionth time and came across a property which had been marketed as being built by a famous architect, “Fredrick Nelson, Father of the Richmond District.” Her interest was immediately piqued because she had never heard of him. Because she always wants to learn more about how our fair city’s housing was developed over time, she assigned me a research project to discover who Fredrick Nelson was and why has he been attributed the title “Father of the Richmond District”.
Try as I might, I could not find any information on the famous architect “Fredrick Nelson”. I did, however, learn about a contractor turned builder/developer named Fernando Nelson, also know as the “Father of the Richmond District”. Aside from being an extremely prolific home builder (some have attributed over 4000 buildings in San Francisco to him!), Nelson seems to have been a fascinating character. He built his first home when he was only 16. He was an early automobile enthustiast, and as such, he set the record for the fatsest drive between San Francisco and LA in 1906; 18 hours and 13 minutes! He must have also been a bit of a showman, as there was apparently a short 10 minute film of his thrilling automotive adventure advertised at the Novelty Theatre.

Having first made a name for himself as a high-quality contractor in Noe Valley, the Castro and Duboce Park building Victorian and Edwardian homes, he set his sights on the “wilderness” north of Golden Gate Park to truly make his mark.

Though he did develop large tracts of land, Nelson didn’t make “tract homes”. He would build the home to his client’s budget and specifications, once he had a commitment from them. He generally used 2 floor plans, Plan A and Plan B, which he carried in his pocket, each plan on either side of an index card. Some variations of the plans were available by request, and exterior details could chosen from a pattern book or from embellishments Nelson bought in bulk. Many of his homes were designed to be later divided into two flats, with the plumbing all situated at the rear of the building. He also designed some homes with space at the rear to add an additional level, with a kitchen and porch.

Nelson himself lived in the neighborhood at 684 2nd at “C” street (now Cabrillo) while he developed the area, with his lumbermill and workshops nearby. He also built a home for his son, William here at 694 2nd. Nelson’s progress on his development was interrupted by the great quake on April 18, 1906, as the military confiscated his business’ lumber to build temporary housing. This didn’t slow his business down too much – by November of that year, Nelson had pre-sold a whole block of homes, from 4th-5th avenue between what is now Balboa and Cabrillo.

In researching Nelson, a property immediately came to mind that we had recently sold to a buyer on Arguello. It is a beautiful Edwardian, now serving as 2 TIC units. Though we can’t definitively confirm that it’s a Nelson , we have good reason to believe it is. First, the original parcel Nelson purchased for his development in the Richmond was said to be from “First” (Arguello) to Third Avenue and included “A, B, and C” streets (Anza, Balboa, Cabrillo). The home is in that parcel. However, the sweet giveaway is….donuts! The circular redwood embelishments! Nelson frequently used in a row above the entryway. We were very excited to be able to uncover what may be the history of our client’s new home!

I relied almost exclusively on outsidelands.org for research on this piece, an amazing resource that our team uses frequently. If you are not familiar with this organization, it is a non-profit dedicated to preserving and sharing the history of the city’s west side. You can show your support for this wonderful organization by making a Donation or by buying some interesting historical publications at their Online Store.

Below are the in depth articles from outsidelands.org that we used for reference. Take a moment to read them, they are chock full of fascinating details about Nelson and the development of the Richmond District!

Father of the Richmond District

Fernando Nelson – Beyond the Richmond