The Campaign to Save Ralston Hall

About Ralston Hall

Few buildings stand like it on the San Francisco Peninsula.

Built in 1868, Ralston Hall evokes rich history and showcases enchanting architecture. For more than 90 years, the venerable, cream-colored mansion has served as the jewel-like centerpiece of the Notre Dame de Namur University campus in Belmont, California. It is also listed in the National Register of Historic Places and designated as a California Historical Landmark.

Ralston Hall originally was the impressive summer home of William Chapman Ralston (1826-1875), an Ohio native who moved to San Francisco in 1854, became a prominent entrepreneur and founded the Bank of California.

In 1864, Ralston bought a country estate owned by the Italian nobleman Count Leonetto Cipriani in a rugged expanse called Cañada del Diablo about 25 miles south of San Francisco.

Ralston expanded upon the modest, two-story villa already on the property to create a lavish, 55,000 square foot residence with extensive outbuildings plus innovative water and gas systems. The exterior is in the Italianate style while the interior incorporates many elements of 19th century Steamboat Gothic architecture, reminiscent of Ralston's early life on the riverboats of the Mississippi before he settled in California. He christened his estate “Belmont,” which became the name of the city that eventually grew around it.

Many of the notable features of the house were replicated in another Ralston project, the opulent Palace Hotel, which was completed in 1875 in San Francisco.

Ralston used his beautiful home and the luxurious hotel to draw people from afar to the potential of San Francisco and the rest of California. He entertained such prominent guests as Adm. David Farragut, Vice President Schyler Colfax and Leland Stanford, and brought over the first Japanese diplomatic delegation to the United States.

After Ralston’s death, his estate passed to a former bank partner, U.S. Sen. William Sharon. Visitors during those years included Ulysses S. Grant in 1879, two years after his presidency. After Sharon's death in 1885, the mansion served as a girls' school for three years and then became the Gardner Sanitarium in 1901. In 1922, the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur purchased Ralston’s estate. The sisters, who founded then College of Notre Dame in San Jose in 1851, wanted to move their growing school elsewhere and established roots in Belmont.

On June 23, 1972, Ralston Hall was added to the National Register of Historic Places and was designated a National Historic Landmark, with Plaque Number 856. It also became a State Landmark. The description in federal records is as follows:

“This redwood structure was completed in 1868 by William Chapman Ralston, San Francisco financier. Incorporating Count Cipriani's earlier villa, this enlarged mansion with its mirrored ballroom became the symbol of the extravagance of California's Silver Age. It anticipated features later incorporated into Ralston's Palace Hotel in San Francisco.”

As part of the university, Ralston Hall has housed classrooms and administrative offices until recently. It had also hosted community meetings, educational forums, chamber-music concerts, weddings and other special events. However, the mansion was closed for renovations in 2012 after engineering reports revealed seismic concerns. Learn about the plan to restore Ralston Hall.

Video Tour and History

Historical Timeline

1854 – William Chapman Ralston (1826-1875) of Plymouth, Ohio, settles in San Francisco. He becomes one of the most powerful entrepreneurs in the West and establishes the Bank of California.

1864 – Ralston buys a country estate owned by the Italian nobleman Count Leonetto Cipriani in what is now Belmont, California. Ralston begins work on the construction of a lavish summer home.

1868 – Ralston Hall is completed. It is a 55,360-square-foot mansion with 80 rooms on four floors. The architecture is Italianate villa on the outside while elements of the 19th century Steamboat Gothic style are used in the inside.

1875 – After Ralston’s death, his property passes to a former bank partner, U.S. Sen. William Sharon, whose family lives there for a decade.

1895-1898 – The mansion serves as a girls’ finishing school called Radcliffe Hall.

1901-1921 – The building operates as the Gardner Sanitarium.

1922 – The Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, a religious order that founded then College of Notre Dame in San Jose in 1851, buys Ralston’s estate and moves the school to Belmont. For the next 90 years, Ralston Hall houses classrooms and university administrative offices. It also serves as a venue for special public and private gatherings.

1963 – Ralston Hall is deemed a historical landmark by the Native Sons of the Golden West.

1968 – The building makes the National Register of Historic Places.

1972 – It becomes a California Historical Landmark.

2012 – Ralston Hall closes for renovations.


Ralston Hall Mansion

Ralston Hall Mansion as it stands today on the campus of Notre Dame de Namur University.

Ralston Hall Mansion Foyer

At the main entrance, a double foyer with large mirrors and an elegant chandelier welcomes the visitor. A skylight casts an additional warm radiance on the area, enhancing the white classical columns and patterned wooden floors.

Ralston Hall Mansion Gallery

The sweeping, red-carpeted grand staircase quickly catches the visitor’s eyes before leading them to the opera-box balcony on the second floor.

Ralston Hall Mansion Sun Parlors

The front part of Ralston Hall also features a double sun parlor, which resembles the promenade deck of riverboats. In that same riverboat style, many doors adorned with delicately etched glass slide sideways or up into the walls.

Ralston Hall Mansion Ballroom

The highlight of the first floor is the spectacular grand ballroom with its mirrors framed in laurelwood, sparkling crystal chandeliers and long, window-framed skylight. The ballroom, designed in the Versailles tradition, also has a charming bay, whose windows overlook a garden.

Ralston Hall Mansion Ballroom

The Ballroom today, set for an event.