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Crosscurrents is our award-winning radio news magazine, broadcasting Mondays through Thursdays at 11 a.m. on 91.7 FM. We make joyful, informative stories that engage people across the economic, social, and cultural divides in our community. Listen to full episodes at kalw.org/crosscurrents

The history of a hidden castle in Hunters Point

Holly J. McDede
Outside Albion Castle

 From a special edition of Crosscurrents, this is part of a series of stories from students from the San Francisco Unified School District:

When Bill Gilbert was a cop patrolling San Francisco’s Hunters Point neighborhood, he’d regularly pass by the Albion Castle. He’s a history buff, and that’s part of what drew him to it.

The castle was first designed as a brewery in the 1870s, and the original brewmaster built underground caverns to hold water from the natural spring it sits above that still seeps gallons of water today. A few years back, Gilbert, now retired and working in real estate, nabbed the Albion Castle for just $820,000 dollars.

If you wandered to Hunters Point to find the castle for yourself, it could take some time and sleuthing. The castle is by Innes Avenue and Griffith Street, behind behind steel cobwebbed gates and avocado trees. But if you spot Jennifer Gilbert, who manages the castle with her dad Bill Gilbert, you might be lucky enough to get a tour.

“When you do come here and you get past those gates, it’s really like being in another world,” Gilbert says. Inside the castle,  there are white stone walls, and the wooden accents stand out against them. “I love when you walk through the door, you smell all the wood,” Gilbert says. “I love the carvings in the staircase here. There's daisy, there's a tulip.”  

With nice leather furniture, a large fireplace, and bright sunny lighting, it’s welcoming and small for a castle, with only a few floors.

Haunted Spring Water, Haunted Beer
There was once a pond outside where the castle stands fed by natural springs. Gilbert says good spirits haunt the castle.

“I heard that there's Native American spirits here because they had the original rights to the water,” Gilbert says. “So they apparently they are here for the water, and those spirits still live on.”

In the late 1800s, a British teenager named John Hamlin Burnell built the castle as a brewery. He also built a cave-like structure over the springs to help make beer.  

Credit Holly J. McDede / KALW News
Albion Castle tunnels.

A Cop With A Fascination For History And Real Estate
Flash forward to the twentieth century when Gilbert’s father, Bill Gilbert, was a police lieutenant, patrolling Hunters Point. He passed by the Albion Castle almost everyday.

So as a young kid, one of the exciting parts of my childhood was I would drive around with my dad in the back of his police car and we would drive through Hunters Point,” Gilbert remembers. “He would tell my dad, ‘I’m going to buy that castle one day.”

Then in 2011, the castle went up for sale. Gilbert remembers her dad’s reaction. “And when it came up he said, ‘This is my time’. And he bought it,” Gilbert says. “We kind of thought he was crazy. We didn't know why he wanted to buy a castle in the middle of Bayview.

But when Jen stepped foot inside the Albion Castle, she saw how grand and beautiful it was. She realized her dad wasn’t crazy. The castle was special to him, like a piece of history.

“He was born and raised in this area. He was a police officer. He's not a real sentimental guy. He’s kind of a tough guy,” Gilbert says. “But when I saw that he really, really loved this property, that kind of drew me to it. Like, I have to support my dad.”

Harry Potter Birthdays And Google Dinner Parties
Now Jen rents out rooms in the castle for events, everything from Google dinner parties to violin concerts to Harry Potter-themed birthdays. Professional football players have stayed and fawned over the castle, too. An episode of Manzo'd with Children, a spinoff of the the Real Housewives of New Jersey, was filmed here.

Now and again, the castle is featured in real estate and style blogs. Forbes magazine includes the Albion Castle on its list of “eighteen homes with buried treasure.” In 2010, this castle made headlines for a toilet that plays music and costs roughly 10 thousand dollars. But a lot of people living in San Francisco have never heard of the Albion Castle.

Singing In The Castle
Paul De Jong, a karaoke jockey, lived in the Albion Castle 12 years ago. “It’s a fascinating San Francisco gem that’s very hidden,” De Jong says. “It was super exciting to live there.”

De Jong and three other artists rented the castle for $850 a piece. They painted, sculpted, swam in the cave’s waters, threw parties, and of course, hosted karaoke events.

“The biggest party I threw, in the garden area, we set up some bars, and there was art everywhere. Oh, there were some hula hoop dancers and stuff like that in the backyard,” De Jong remembers. He loved living in the castle, and he loved the neighborhood too, the community surrounding the castle’s gates.

“The other thing was there was a very strong artist community. There's the box shop and a lot of burning man art gets built there,” De Jong says. “There was this liquor store across the street and they had these barbecues on the weekend where people would just hang out on the sidewalk. It was a complicated mix of things going on in that neighborhood.”

At the peak of the housing market, the landlord offered all the artists $5,000 dollars each to move out. De Jong convinced the landlord to let him stay for a few more weeks.

“So basically my job that month was to throw as many parties as possible at the castle. And so, I threw 23 parties in one month that month,” De Jong says. “I actually really liked it there. It was an interesting and weird place to live.”

Now De Jong wishes the castle, his old home, could be open to the public, a place that everyone could enjoy. “You know it is it's a part of San Francisco's history. It's a beautiful place it's totally been neglected,” De Jong says. “Something should happen, it should be a public space.”

Credit Holly J. McDede / KALW News
Inside Albion Castle.

 Inside The Underground Cavern, Dreams Of Bottled Water Fester
Jen Gilbert and her family do have plans for this castle, and what to do with the water from the underground caverns. The man made caves, Gilbert says, were handhewn in the 1800s, and people lowered buckets down below to get the water to make the beer.

Gilbert doesn’t drink the water, but enjoys listening to the water droplets fall from the ceiling and looking at the light reflect off of it. “You can see clear almost aqua marine water on the bottom,” Gilbert says. “It's kind of mysterious looking but at the same time very beautiful and very peaceful.”

When Gilbert’s dad bought the castle, he thought of bringing it back to its glory days as a brewery. Gilbert wants to bottle the spring water and sell it. She says it would be nice to bring people in San Francisco the water to enjoy, a way to spread the castle’s history.

“It would be a good project for us, having water source from those natural spring and putting it to use,” Gilbert says. “I think having water from San Francisco from a historical property like this would be even better.”

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This story aired most recently in the August 9, 2023 episode of Crosscurrents. It orignally aired in August 22, 2018.