The Emperor's Bridge Campaign



Joshua Norton at the Rassette House

At The Emperor's Bridge Campaign's recent Field Talk, we offered a detailed look at the history of the site where Emperor Norton lived from 1863 until his death in 1880. The address at the time was 624 Commercial Street; today, it's number 648. It was here that, for 17 years, the Emperor occupied a sparsely furnished 9-by-6-foot room on the top floor of a 50-cent-per-night three-story boarding house known as the Eureka Lodgings.

"Flophouse" is the less-generous term that some accounts have used to describe the place.

An eternal decade earlier, the ascendant, pre-Imperial Joshua Norton enjoyed accommodation that was decidedly more elegant. Norton's biographer, William Drury, notes that, shorty after arriving in San Francisco in 1849, Norton took up residence at

the Jones Hotel, a four story ‘portable’ on Sansome Street, built in Boston or Baltimore and shipped in sections around the Horn, as were many of San Francisco’s wooden buildings. From a balcony that skirted the top floor, it was possible to see, across the roofs slanting up the hill on which the town was built, the frame hotels and gambling halls around the plaza, Portsmouth Square....

But by sometime in 1852, Drury writes,

[t]he Jones Hotel was no longer socially acceptable, so Norton moved to the newer, more prestigious Rassette House. A good address was important these days, for he was walking with gods.

The Rassette House, at the southwest corner of Sansome and Bush Streets, was just a couple of blocks away from Norton's three commercial properties at Sansome and Jackson. In late 1852, James M. Parker published his 1852-53 directory of San Francisco, which included the following listings for Norton's residence at the Rassette House and two of his commercial buildings. 

Screenshot of Parker's San Francisco Directory for 1852-53, p. 81.  Source:  Internet Archive .

Screenshot of Parker's San Francisco Directory for 1852-53, p. 81. Source: Internet Archive.

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As it happens, the brief period between late 1852 and mid 1853 was a turning point both for Joshua Norton and for the Rassette House. It was on 22 December 1852 that Norton signed the fateful rice contract that set him on a one-way roller-coaster ride away from the privileged life — including his room at the Rassette — to which he only recently had become accustomed. 

And on 2 May 1853, adding insult to injury, Norton's home, the Rassette House, burned to the ground. It's not clear whether Norton still was living at the Rassette at the time. But descriptions of the hotel in contemporaneous accounts of the fire confirm that, in 1852 and 1853, Joshua Norton was living in some of the best digs in San Francisco.

From the Daily Alta California newspaper's 3 May 1853 account of the fire: 

The happy May-day was succeeded by a fearful conflagration. At 11 o’clock last night the alarm of fire was sounded — the Rassette House was on fire. The Rassette House was a first class hotel, five stories high, built of wood, in the shape of an L....The greatest loser, pecuniarily, is Mr. Rassette, the owner and keeper of the Rassette House. The house was finely finished and fitted, and furnished in the highest style, and his loss is probably $50,000.

Two years later, in their indispensable history, The Annals of San Francisco (1855), the journalists Frank Soulé, John Gihon and James Nisbet described the original Rassette as "a first-class hotel, well-known in the city."

By October 1853, the Rassette already had rebuilt, on the same site — at Sansome and Bush — a hotel that Messrs. Soulé et al. called "one of the most magnificent, as it the largest private edifice, devoted to a single business" in San Francisco. Here's the engraving of the new Rassette that appeared in Annals:

Engraving of the "second" Rassette House, in  The Annals of San Francisco  (1855). The original hotel was destroyed by fire in May 1853.  Source:  Making of America Digital Library .

Engraving of the "second" Rassette House, in The Annals of San Francisco (1855). The original hotel was destroyed by fire in May 1853. Source: Making of America Digital Library.

Recently, an 1855 letter on Rassette House stationery appeared on the collector's market, providing a further sense of the hotel's status.   

Images   via  .

Images via.

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It seems unlikely that Joshua Norton ever returned to the rebuilt Rassette House, after the fire that destroyed the original hotel in May 1853. In the 1854 directory, there was no residential listing for Norton; and the only business listing for him showed him as a real estate broker at 120 Montgomery — leaving unspoken the fact that, in the wake of the late 1852 rice debacle, he already had lost his three commercial properties at Jackson and Sansome.

Subsequent to 1854, residential directory listings for Joshua Norton gave further proof of his reduced circumstances: a Montgomery Street boarding house; a brief stint at the Tehama House (which William Drury describes as "merely the old Jones Hotel under new ownership and possibly a new coat of paint"); and a cheap rooming house at 255 Kearny, possibly the last stop before the Eureka Lodgings.

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Worth noting, though, is what a small difference in the daily fare seems to have separated the "flophouse" Eureka from the "magnificent" new Rassette House. Remember that Emperor Norton paid 50 cents a night for the Eureka, starting in 1863.

The following ad for the Rassette House shows that, in May 1857, the Rassette was charging only 50 cents more — a buck a night — for either a single or a double of one of the "two hundred commodious and well ventilated rooms," with full board in the "dining room capable of seating three hundred persons" available for another 8 dollars per week. The fact that the board is advertised as a "reduced" rate suggests that the rate for the room was similar to what Joshua Norton was paying to live there in 1853.

Advertisement for the Rassette House in  The Wide West , v4 n12, 31 May 1857.   Source:  California Digital Newspaper Collection .

Advertisement for the Rassette House in The Wide West, v4 n12, 31 May 1857.  Source: California Digital Newspaper Collection.

William Drury suggested that it was the quest for a more "socially acceptable" and "prestigious" address that led Joshua Norton to move from the Jones Hotel to the Rassette House in 1852. But social acceptability was a two-way street, something that could be both gained and lost. From 1853 to 1863, the year that he moved in to the Eureka Lodgings, Emperor Norton had moved in the wrong direction. The residential listings for the Rassette and the Eureka put a fine point on this.

In the 1858 Langley's, the last directory with listings for the Rassette House — soon after that, the hotel was torn down and replaced by the Cosmopolitan  the hotel counted amongst its residents the U.S. District Attorney; law clerks; state officials; newspaper editors; and various business owners, managers and agents. The same "class" of folk — white-collar people with standing and steady incomes to match — with whom the Joshua Norton of 1852 and 1853 was rubbing shoulders in the original Rassette House.

A little more than a decade later, according to the Langley's for 1865 — the first year for which there was a listing for "Norton Joshua (Emperor)" at the Eureka Lodgings — Emperor Norton was sharing hallways and staircases mainly with tradesmen, including a couple of tinsmiths, a roofer, a printer, a doorman and a cook. People whose collars were much bluer.  

The wide gap between the "tenant mixes" of the Rassette and the Eureka, together with the relatively narrow gap between the room rates of the two hotels, illustrates an important reality: Emperor Norton's residence at the Eureka Lodgings was less an index solely of his financial decline than of the loss of social respectability that just a little more liquidity could have bought. 

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