By Erin Sherbert
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Something about the narcissistic Bay Area compels affluent people to push the limits of eccentricity. They reinvent themselves, shun responsibility, and pursue a good time. The party started with the birth of the Barbary Coast, and continues on up to Willie Brown.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in stately Pacific Heights, where gargantuan homes are owned by scions of old-money California, people who park imported cars in the driveways and keep ketchup bottles on the table.
One especially creepy-looking mansion sits next to the Italian Consulate, at the top of Webster Street. It's something else altogether.
The only person living inside the 27-room Bourn Mansion is Arden Van Upp, along with her white Chinchilla Persian cats. She's lived there for 25 years, a small-town girl from Vallejo who came to San Francisco and reinvented herself as a wealthy landlord and society eccentric.
With its enormous second-floor ballroom, and two-story stained-glass windows, the Bourn Mansion was an ideal place for throwing wild parties in the '70s. Great meals, fine wines, good drugs, the promise of sex in the air. Celebrities showed up: the Rolling Stones, Stevie Wonder, Sly Stone, the Pointer Sisters. Porn films were shot there.
But that's all over now. The four-story Bourn Mansion stands in extreme disrepair. An estimated $2 million of work is needed to meet earthquake safety codes, more than the building is worth. The roof leaks and the wallpaper peels. Recent visitors say everything stinks of cat urine. The back yard is knee-deep in weeds, and garbage is heaped in a compost pile. Raccoons poke around in the filth. The party's over.
Arden Van Upp no longer answers the phone. She peeks out a window to see who's knocking on the door, but never answers. It could be process servers after her for more building code violations, or because tenants at her rental properties have filed more lawsuits. One Christmas Eve, it was her own family, accompanied by police and firetrucks. They were searching for Van Upp's 89-year-old mother, whom Van Upp had spirited away and hidden from her siblings.
In a city that encourages people to live without regard for the rules, occasionally the walls of self-invention crumble and fall inward. In the case of Arden Van Upp, the high-society patina has grown tarnished. Former friends avoid her. Many have sued her. Her family refuses to speak to her, except through attorneys.
And to Van Upp, apparently, none of this is her fault.
With its good weather and healthy economy, the community of Vallejo, northeast of San Francisco, was an ideal place to raise a family in the 1930s. Sabin Rich coached sports in local schools, his wife, Doris, raised their four children. By World War II, the Riches were dabbling in real estate. The nearby shipyards of Mare Island Naval Station drew a constant stream of new tenants to the area. The Rich family purchased homes and moved them onto vacant lots, eventually building up a nice collection of properties in Vallejo and Benicia. Doris formed the Solano-Napa Rental Housing Association.
Early on, oldest daughter Arden distinguished herself from her brother and two sisters, developing a strong resistance to authority and a deep love for animals. According to her siblings, the family's pet sheep once got out of hand and knocked down her younger sister, Myrna, who was a toddler at the time. Arden's parents had the sheep taken away and slaughtered. Arden cried and cried over the loss of the sheep, Myrna says, but seemed little concerned with the well-being of her sister.
While beat-generation youth wore berets and played bongo drums, Arden Rich attended San Francisco State, studying to be a nurse, then got a job at the Napa State Hospital. She married a sailor from Mare Island named Van Upp, moved to Los Angeles, and had a child. But the couple soon divorced, and Arden Van Upp returned to Vallejo. Doris and Sabin Rich raised Arden's daughter, Tammy, in their home.
In the late 1960s, Van Upp moved to San Francisco and struck out on her own. She bought two rental properties -- an apartment building at 1019 Ashbury, and another at 2807 Steiner -- and worked as a public health nurse in the projects.
One day Van Upp's real estate broker, George Rowan, took her to see a property he thought might interest her -- a 27-room mansion in Pacific Heights built in 1896 by architect Willis Polk for William B. Bourn II. Owner of the Mother Lode's most productive gold mine, Bourn launched the utility company that became Pacific Gas & Electric. The early San Francisco millionaire had commissioned the town house on Webster Street as a grand place to throw parties. When Van Upp first saw the house, it was a steal, available for $185,000.
"The murals, gorgeous floors, the woodwork -- this is a true mansion," says Rowan, who is still a Bay Area real estate broker. "It is a real treasure. It could end up a gift to the city."