BELMONT -- Financier William Ralston helped build San Francisco into a major city, but his most enduring accomplishment remains the 19th-century Peninsula mansion that bears his name.
Built in the 1860s to proclaim the glory of California, Ralston Hall later became the ornate centerpiece of Notre Dame de Namur University until a 21st-century problem -- the need for earthquake retrofitting -- shut it down last year.
Now the 50-acre private Catholic school just off Highway 101 in Belmont is in the early stages of a campaign to raise at least $12 million to restore the structure, one of just two national historic landmarks in San Mateo County, and reinforce its masonry foundation. The university cannot use its relatively modest endowment on capital projects.
Losing the Italian villa-style mansion has been a serious blow to university staff and students. The school used the mostly bland upper floors for administrative space, including the office of President Judith Maxwell Greig, while the lavishly appointed ground floor saw numerous student performances and celebrations. Every year, the school also hosted about 50 weddings and other special events on the first floor.
But Ralston Hall's importance to the school goes beyond mere function. Students, administrators and faculty members have emotional attachments to the building, which the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur purchased in 1922.
"It's really the heart of the campus," Greig
William Chapman Ralston was one of the first financial titans from San Francisco to build an estate on the Peninsula. The founder of Bank of California completed the 55,000-square-foot mansion in 1868.
Ralston drew on a youth spent working on riverboats in designing the interior, the style of which is dubbed "Steamboat Gothic." He used the home as a showcase, hosting parties for Mark Twain and other prominent visitors from back East.
"He was one of the great promoters of California during his day," said Mitch Postel, president of the San Mateo County Historical Association. "He was somewhat visionary in really believing in what California could become."
Ralston financed many of his business enterprises with silver from the Comstock Lode in Nevada, but he overextended himself. He died while swimming in San Francisco Bay in 1875, the same day he lost control of the Bank of California. Though an autopsy showed he died of natural causes, the timing of his demise led to speculation about suicide.
Later that year, Ralston's most opulent creation, the original Palace Hotel in San Francisco, made a spectacular debut. It was destroyed by fire after the 1906 earthquake.
Unlike most of Ralston's empire, his Belmont estate survived. The task for Notre Dame de Namur is getting it up and running again.
The university -- with an enrollment of about 2,000 students -- is reaching out to its network of alumni and donors, trying to secure some large commitments before going public with a high-profile fundraising campaign. School officials are also looking to connect with groups that specialize in the restoration of historic structures.
Meanwhile, the university has had to find a temporary home for about 65 faculty and staff members who were displaced by the closure. Most are working out of office space leased from the Sobrato Center for Nonprofits, a few miles from campus in Redwood Shores.
"It's really tested our space on campus," said Hernan Bucheli, the school's vice president for external affairs. "There's really a sense of urgency that we deal with this building to confront these issues."
Contact Aaron Kinney at 650-348-4357. Follow him at Twitter.com/kinneytimes.