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Regional Interests

Rumrunning, Ghosts and Speakeasies: The Many Lives of Pacifica’s Castle

When Krisi Riccardi was a girl, her father used to take her on leisurely Sunday drives from their home in South San Francisco. They’d cruise down Highway 1, enjoying the beautiful scenery until they hit Pacifica, where something odd always caught young Krisi’s attention.

“We would look at this castle but we never knew what it was,” Krisi said.

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That’s right, a castle — in the laid-back beach town of Pacifica. It’s made of stone and has four turrets. It looks like something out of a British novel.

“And as I got older we would walk up to this castle and walk around it. I’ve never been inside, but I looked over the wall. I’m now 68 and I always wondered what the history was of this castle,” Krisi said.

She isn’t the only one curious about this castle. Her question won a Bay Curious voting round and over the years lots of inquisitive neighbors have wanted a glimpse inside this strange structure. Indeed, for many years it was shrouded in mystery — some even claim it’s haunted.

A fire proof fortress

The castle was built in 1908 by Henry Harrison McCloskey, a lawyer based in San Francisco. After the 1906 earthquake and fire, McCloskey was terrified by what he’d experienced, and wanted to move his family somewhere safe.

There was a new railway going in to carry passengers from San Francisco down the coast to what was then known as Salada Beach, now Pacifica. McCloskey saw it as a chance to not only move his family out of San Francisco, but also get in on the ground floor of the hottest new beachside community.

“He wanted something that was solid as a rock that was never going to burn or come tumbling down,” said Bridget Oates, a historian and author of a book about the castle’s history. When Oates moved to Pacifica she was as curious about the castle as Krisi. She started knocking on doors, asking to see people’s old photographs, and pieced together a timeline for the castle’s inhabitants. Her hard work earned her the nickname “Intrepid Castle Woman” from some locals.

Historian and author Bridget Oates stands next to a suit of armor that looks heavy, but is actually a stage prop. (Katrina Schwartz/KQED)

McCloskey spent $100,000 — a lot of money back then — on the best building materials and craftsmanship to ensure his new home could withstand earthquakes. There were only six other buildings in town at the time. His son, Paul McCloskey would take the train to Lowell High School in San Francisco. That train was plagued with problems, often unable to run due to the sand blowing up on the tracks, and Paul would sometimes have to take a horse and buggy home from school.

Henry McCloskey died in 1914 and his wife, Emily, found it difficult to pay the mortgage on the house alone. She soon sold it to a doctor, Galen R. Hickok, who said the castle would make the perfect place for his patients to convalesce by the sea. Local newspaper archives indicate the following years were mysterious ones. Hickok didn’t live at the castle, preferring to commute from his home in Berkeley. But there were many comings and goings at the castle nonetheless.

“They found out later [Hickok] was not a certified medical doctor,” Oates said, “which is very scandalous because when he moved in, the sheriff noticed car lights going up and down that horrible hill. They sent out some people to investigate and that’s when they discovered the abortion clinic that he was giving here. And he was subsequently arrested.”

Abortions were illegal then. Women often trusted their lives to untrained people claiming they could help. When police arrested Hickok at his home in Berkeley, it caused a big stir in the press. There were rumors, later disproved, that Hickok had buried the bodies of dead women on the castle’s grounds. During this period, local people warned their kids to stay away from the castle, Oates said. It was a place to be feared.

Prohibition brings more illicit activity

The next occupant of the castle was an industrialist from Montana named M.L Hewitt who bought the property just when Prohibition became the law of the land. Pacifica, with its foggy weather, was a rum runner’s paradise. Oates said a local man recently found tunnels leading from his house down to the beach that date back to this time. No such tunnels have been found at the castle, but Hewitt definitely stored liquor in the basement, and may have signaled smugglers from the castle walls using a flashing light.

The view from the castle’s balcony is expansive. This is where Hewitt most likely stood when signaling to smugglers off shore. (Katrina Schwartz/KQED)

He also took advantage of the lonely location to start a speakeasy. He called it Chateau Lafayette and it was a hit with elite San Franciscans looking to drink and party.

“This big old redwood door has been replaced many times,” Oates said. “And that is because Hewitt would bar it and the cops would scale the wall, bring battering rams and sledgehammers and break the door down because they knew that he was giving parties here. They would come in, confiscate the liquor, and all the San Francisco elite was here dressed to the nines. They would go running out into the night.”

The raids didn’t seem to bother Hewitt because the party raged at Chateau Lafayette until Hewitt died in 1924. Ironically, at that point the castle passed to Galen Hickok’s son, who also claimed to be a doctor. And, like his father, he was also arrested for performing illegal abortions at the castle. Both father and son went to San Quentin State Prison.

A period of relative calm

Jeanette Cool has worked with an interior designer to theme the four turret rooms on the Castle’s roof after moments in its history. This room uses Mazza’s collection, along with curated items to give the impression of a Coast Guard soldier’s lonely perch. (Katrina Schwartz/KQED)

The castle changed hands several times after these dramatic events, and had calm owners who didn’t raise a stir. The next big moment came during World War II when the Coast Guard rented the castle to house 17 enlisted men and their patrol dogs.

“Each man had a dog and they had to patrol the length of town on the beach looking for enemy saboteurs,” Oates said.

The most experienced soldiers — known as old salts — got to stay in the four turret rooms at each corner of the castle. To get to the rooms, they had to climb a steep set of stairs to the roof and cross a windy expanse before entering the roughly 8-by-8 rooms. Still, privacy was a luxury most of the men didn’t get.

The post war years

After the war, several families lived in the castle, including Joe O’Brian, whose parents were both artists. Oates met Joe while working on her book. He had fond memories of the castle as a magical place to be a precocious boy. While we stood in a hallway, she told me this story:

“Joe O’Brien, he was eight, so he was very curious and left to his own devices because his siblings were older,” Oates said. “And so he got a stick and he ran around the castle poking, looking for secret compartments.” In the hallway where we stood, Joe poked up at a ceiling panel, which opened and then latched. It was a secret compartment. “And so he got a chair and he climbed up in there and there was a gun,” Oates said.

Oates doesn’t know which previous inhabitant left the gun, but she suspects it was from the Prohibition era. Joe O’Brian also had some spooky stories from living in the house.

One night after he turned off the light and got into bed, the light flipped back on. He got up and turned it off again, but as soon as he was back in bed it switched back on. Joe was sure his cousin was playing a trick on him, so he opened his bedroom door to tell him off. But his cousin was in his own room across the hall, oblivious to what was happening. Joe thought it was strange, but once more he switched the light off and got back in bed. Once again the light turned on.

“Then he’s scared,” Oates said. “And he’s like, ‘it was probably an electrical failure, but it scared the heck out of me. It felt like a ghost.'”

A photo of young Sam Mazza sits in the living room of the castle. (Katrina Schwartz/KQED)

Oates has had her own spooky experiences in the house: Floating white orbs in dark rooms, mysterious knocks when no one is there. She’s convinced the house is haunted in a friendly way. Ghost hunters have even visited to test the house. Let’s just say, they weren’t disappointed.

Sam Mazza buys the castle for parties

Sam Mazza, an Italian immigrant, commercial painter, real estate magnate and art collector bought the castle in 1959 for $29,000. He was a social person and thought the castle would be a fun place to host parties.

“His story was, ‘one day I went down to Pacifica with my girlfriend. We had a few gin fizzes and I signed on the dotted line,'” laughed Jeanette Cool, the executive director of the Sam Mazza Foundation and a close personal friend to Mazza in his later years. She said Mazza liked to throw lavish parties for the Pacifica police and fire departments, as well as beauty queens.

It was during Mazza’s lifetime that much of the history about the castle began to come to light. He met local people who remembered being afraid of the castle; he would often welcome them in for a tour. Pete McCloskey, the U.S. Congressman who represented San Mateo county for 15 years and co-authored the Endangered Species Act, was a frequent visitor.

Funny enough, Pete McCloskey did not know his grandfather built the castle until he was campaigning in Pacifica in 1967. His father, Paul McCloskey, pointed up at the castle and told his son he’d grown up there. When Sam Mazza found out about the connection, he offered to host McCloskey’s victory party at the castle. They remained friends afterwards.

Jeanette Cool is the Executive Director of the Sam Mazza Foundation. She was a close personal friend of Sam Mazza’s and has worked to redesign the castle to display his art collection. (Katrina Schwartz/KQED)

When Mazza died in 2002 at the age of 96 he left all his real estate holdings, including the castle, and his art to his foundation. Cool has been working with an interior designer named Scott Cunningham to refurbish the castle using Mazza’s art collection. The result is a sumptuous villa with pieces that blur the line between art and artifice.

“There’s definitely some eclecticism going on here,” Cool said.

Known by friends as the “White Elephant Collector,” Mazza had unique taste. He spent his career decorating the interiors of California movie palaces, painting the gold leafing on many of the beautiful old theaters from the 1930s and 40s. He loved artists and Hollywood. His art collection is a mix of heavy, ornate antique furniture, and kitschy stage props from the movies.

Walking around, it’s hard to tell what’s real and what’s a flimsy prop. There’s a suit of armor that looks like it should weigh a thousand pounds, but is actually light as a feather. And in what Cool calls the “Guns and Religion Room” there’s a glass case with old pistols. One of them was a real Nazi revolver, the others are stage props.

Sam Mazza wanted to buy this harmonium, a type of pump organ, but the woman selling it told him it went with the house. So, he bought the house, kept the harmonium and resold the house. (Katrina Schwartz/KQED)

“He liked what he liked,” Cool said.

The result is nothing if not unique.

The Sam Mazza Castle, as it’s now known, will be closed through the end of the year due to COVID-19. Check the foundation’s website for up to date information on reopening in 2022.

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