Built between 1950 and ’51, the dramatic home at 3778 Washington Street is one of San Francisco’s most magnificent architectural treasures.
The Bauhaus-style home was designed by acclaimed architect Erich Mendelsohn for Madeleine Haas and Leon B. Russell. Although Mendelsohn lived in San Francisco from 1941 until his death in 1953, this was the only San Francisco residence he designed.
Mrs. Russell was said to have “scandalized” neighbors in 1949 when she razed the stately brick palazzo that had previously stood at the site. The old mansion had been built by her grandfather on her mother’s side, Jacob Stern, and was her family home as a child, until the early death of her father (leaving young Madeleine an orphan at age 12.)
Madeleine Haas Russell, as the great grandniece of Levi Strauss, was an heiress to the Haas family fortune, and became one of San Francisco’s most important philanthropists and cultural leaders.
Mrs. Russell became an official hostess for the U.S. State Department, and opened her home to many international leaders over the years, including Former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, Eleanor Roosevelt, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, and the king and queen of Afghanistan.
It was while entertaining visitors from India in November 1965 that the home made front page headlines as a crime scene. One evening while Mrs. Russell’s guests and daughter were sound asleep, two gunmen broke into the home and robbed her of $100,000 jewels at gunpoint, leaving her tied up in the bedroom. No one was harmed. (The theft was part of a minor crime spree in Pacific Heights at the time – just a week earlier, Albert Schlesinger and wife Irma, parents of socialite Nan Kempner, had been robbed of $126,000 in jewels.)
But had the thieves an eye for art, they could have left the house with much more. Hanging on the walls of this mid-century masterpiece were art works of worth 100 mansions.
Until her death in 1999, one of the great pieces of modern art, Pablo Picasso’s “Nu au fauteuil noir,” (which the artist painted in March, 9, 1932 of his mistress Marie-Therese Walter) hung in the Presidio Heights home. It was sold at auction in 1999 for $45,102,500. It was purchased by Les Wexner, founder of Limited Brands, who then donated it to the Wexner Center for the Arts at The Ohio State University.
Ten other major works of art, including “Nu couche I (Aurore)” by Henri Matisse, and “Le Gueridon Rogue” by Georges Braque, were sold at the same auction, bringing the total to $71.4 million.
The home remains in the Russell family.