Council of Independent Colleges Historic Campus Architecture Project


Ralston Hall

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Institution Name: Notre Dame de Namur University
Original/Historic Place Name: William Chapman Ralston Estate
Location on Campus: 1500 Ralston Ave.
Date(s) of Construction:
1864-1868original construction Gaynor, John Painter
Designer: John Painter Gaynor
Type of Place: Individual building
Style: Italianate, Victorian (Glossary)
Significance: architecture, education, history
Narrative: see below
References: see below
Foundation: concrete
Walls: exterior: stucco; interior: plaster
Roof: shingles
1868-1875private residence (of William Ralston)
1875-1895private residence (of William Sharon)
1895-1898other (Radcliffe Hall, a finishing school for girls)
1901-1921other (Gardner Sanitarium, a home for the mentally disturbed)
1923-1952residence hall (for students and the Sisters)
1923-1983private residence (home for the Sisters)
1952-present (2006)administration
1963-present (2006)auditorium (also ballroom)

From its earliest days, the site for Ralston Hall was appreciated for its proximity to San Francisco, its benign climate, and its nearness to the bay. For William Ralston, the house and grounds provided the ideal location for entertaining visitors--both business associates and foreign guests. His rapid expansion of the original Cipriani property (from 1864-1868) not only met his needs, but also those of the owners who followed: William Sharon, Althea Bull, Dr. Alden Monroe Gardner, and then the Sisters of Notre Dame.

The well-constructed, spacious house, with its many innovative features, and the carefully landscaped surroundings as well as accessibility to roads and railways has made the property attractive for subsequent use: as a girls' private academy, then as a sanitarium, and finally as a private high school, elementary school, and university. All of its owners have valued the high quality of its construction, its unique interior features, and perhaps most importantly the deeply-rooted sense of hospitality which Ralston Hall exudes. Subsequent owners have been able to adapt this remarkable house to their specific needs without defacing its original character. Therefore, much of its first floor and the unique gallery on the second floor continue to represent a short-lived but highly significant piece of American, and particularly Californian, history. To stand in the foyer of Ralston Hall in 2005 is to be surrounded by the still-evident signs of life in a young and vibrant part of western history. Ralston Hall, featured on the "American Castles" series of A&E television, is considered one of the finest examples of Victorian architecture west of the Mississippi.

When the College of Notre Dame was established on the Ralston Estate, it became the "heart" of the campus. Beginning with the house, the College (now University) now has many buildings and has a student body of approximately 1800 students. Ralston Hall is considered the birth place of the College and enjoys the affection and respect of the entire campus.


Baird, Joseph A. Ralston Hall [Notre Dame de Namur University]. Historic American Buildings Survey report and photographs. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of the Interior/ National Park Service, 1966.

Carey and Company. Ballroom Floor Evaluation: Ralston Hall. 1998. [San Francisco, CA], 1998.

Carey and Company. Historic Structure Report: Ralston Hall. [San Francisco, CA: Carey and Company], 2001.

Field, W. S., and Rosa Lowinger. General Conservation Assessment. [Belmont, CA: Notre Dame de Namur University, Belmont, CA], 1995.


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Last update: November 2006