The Haas-Lilienthal House

Tea: ☕️ ☕ ☕ 
Food: 🍰 🍰 
Ambience: 🌸 🌸 🌸 🌸 
Overall rating: 💖 💖 💖 
Tags: holiday, historical, english

San Francisco’s only Victorian-era house museum, the Haas-Lilienthal House in Pacific Heights, is open to the public thrice weekly year-round, but hosts afternoon tea only for a few days during the holiday season. Period attire is expressly permitted, but with the H.A.T.S. Member Most Likely to Own a Bustle (Ilana) unable to attend this tea, the remaining members went for more modern clothing. Our fellow guests included some ladies in hoopskirts and some mustachioed steampunks, though!

Victorian-era decor and holiday cheer

Tea took place in the three front rooms of this excellently preserved Queen Anne mansion — two parlors and a dining room. We were assigned to a table in the front parlor, near a piano, a 12-foot Christmas tree, and a sound system playing Christmas music of the sedate and classical variety. (Well, maybe variety isn’t the right word: we heard the same version of “In the Bleak Midwinter” twice during a 90-minute tea.) The tables were laden with antique linens, silverware, and china, plus a free sample of “Sugar Plum Fairy” tea blend for us to take home. It was more crowded and a little more overwhelming than our previous house-museum tea (the Pardee Home in Oakland, where the 6 of us had a private tea at the enormous dining room table) but it was also less musty.

Vintage teacups and linens

Women in Victorian maids’ costumes circulated around the tables with cafetières, offering to pour three varieties of tea: Earl Grey, jasmine green, and peppermint. Although this meant we couldn’t always get immediate refills of our favorite teas, we otherwise liked this arrangement: the tea was always brewed to perfection and we did not have to spend our mental energy calculating brewing times, remembering which tea was in which pot, etc. There was also plenty of cream, sugar, and lemon on the table for us to use to adjust the tea to our taste.

In the dining room, a buffet contained five varieties of tea sandwiches: open-faced smoked salmon; curried chicken salad; egg salad; open-faced cucumber; and ham and cheese finger sandwiches. We liked this set-up for the way it allowed us to take multiples of our favorite sandwiches and even go back for seconds! However, it meant that our vegetarian members did not have a lot of options. Even worse, the cucumber sandwiches were pretty bland — a tangier cream cheese would have suited them better. The meat-eating H.A.T.S. members liked the chicken salad, thick with slivered almonds; the egg salad was very heavy on the chopped celery and received mixed reviews.

Five kinds of tea sandwiches

After the savory course, the servers presented the tables with two-tiered étagères containing mini-scones (cherry-cranberry and blueberry-lemon) and sweets (macarons, butter cookies, cream puffs, pecan tartelettes, and Opéra cake). As is our custom, we requested and promptly received additional clotted cream — and, as is our typical experience, it was more like whipped butter. We had fun guessing at what flavor the macarons would prove to be based on their color, but did not finish all of the butter cookies and other desserts.

A Christmas tree in the bay window: so San Francisco.

After the tea, docents led tours of the house, explaining the features of its Queen Anne architecture and the history of the Haas-Lilienthal family. The reason it’s so well preserved is that it stayed in the same family for nearly a century (1886–1972), whereupon granddaughter Alice deeded it to the organization San Francisco Heritage. The upstairs bathroom still contains all of the original fixtures, and the basement contains an amazing electric train set that the family chauffeur rigged up for two children in the 1920s (it still runs!).

As the names Haas and Lilienthal may suggest, this family was of German-Jewish origin. In light of that, we started to wonder what it means for the house to host these Christmas teas: were they putting up decorations and playing music that the original owners never would have made part of their holiday celebrations? (There is a side table in one of the parlors with a few menorahs on it, but nothing else to indicate that the house belonged to a Jewish family.) We would have liked to learn more about the Jewish community in Gilded Age San Francisco — the tour left us with a lot of questions.

Then, coincidentally, journalist and San Francisco historian Gary Kamiya wrote his 12/22/18 Chronicle column about the Haas-Lilienthal House and the family’s tradition of hosting elaborate Christmas parties! Indeed, his descriptions suggest that San Francisco Heritage could go even farther with decorating the house for Christmas, and still be in line with how the original owners celebrated the holidays. We highly recommend Kamiya’s article and hope that some of this information can be incorporated into the Christmastime house tours. It may not have seemed like this at first, but San Francisco Heritage is indeed preserving the original owners’ cultural identity, as well as the physical environment of their house and the tradition of afternoon tea.

Date attended: December 7, 2018
Attendees: Marissa, Erica, Jasmine, & Tom

Price/seat: $60
Location: 2007 Franklin St, San Francisco
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