Snooping Around Nicolas Cage’s San Francisco House

Could I learn more about my favorite actor by poking around his old Victorian mansion?

OK Whatever

I know a lot about Nicolas Cage.

I know, for example, that he has a fondness for flamboyant jackets. He’s worn zebra-striped blazers on dinner dates and gold leather coats to movie premieres. He strolls through airports swathed in eggshell-blue-suede motorcycle cuts and shiny, leopard-print bombers.

The 55-year-old actor also loves Italian food.

When he lived in Las Vegas, a reporter tried stalking his favorite Italian eateries in the hopes of getting an interview with the star who so frequently dined there. Even when Cage travels, he’ll seek out Italian rather than sampling the local faire.

Another thing Cage has a weakness for? Old architecture.

Since the 1980s, he has made a habit of purchasing historic — and, often, outright peculiar — properties, including not one, but two centuries-old fairytale castles and the probably-haunted-mansion of a 19th century serial killer in New Orleans.

I know all of this because Cage is my favorite actor. I collect facts and tidbits about him like a squirrel collects nuts. Years ago, I set up a weekly Google Alert for his name. You see, Cage is private. He shuns social media and never talks about his personal life to the press. Part of the reason why I cull details about him is to better understand who he truly is, as a person and not a celebrity.

So when I learned that one of Nicolas Cage’s former homes was up for sale in San Francisco, I knew I had to tour it. I’ve never met the man, and I probably never will, but at least I could snoop around his old digs and milk his neighbors for gossip.

Cage’s former abode is on the cusp of Pacific Heights, one of the priciest, most “exclusive” neighborhoods in San Francisco where you’ll find ritzy townhouses cordoned off with tall, box-cut hedges. Nancy Pelosi and a number of tech billionaires live in the area, along with romance novelist Danielle Steel, whose French Rococo mansion is only two blocks away.

But Cage’s house is different.

Located at the base of a hill on a busy main street that cuts straight through the north end of the city, the delicate sliver of a home is  dwarfed by the multi-family residential buildings around it and wedged between two hulking apartment complexes.

Behind it, one block away, there is a small, verdurous park with a winding, bench-lined path and trees full of wild parrots. And there are plenty of Italian restaurants within walking distance.

With so many neighbors and so little privacy, it’s not the kind of place you’d expect to find a celebrity. But back when Cage bought it in 1989, he was just a hirsute 25-year-old somewhat-known actor with a made-up last name.

The three-story, five-bedroom white Victorian house was likely one of the first properties Cage ever purchased. It was like a starter home for him — and a goal realized.

His uncle, Francis Ford Coppola, had also owned a grand Victorian in San Francisco. Growing up, Cage had visited it often and fell in love with its old design. He once told biographers, “I vowed then that I would go to Los Angeles, learn to act, and then one day buy my own Victorian mansion in San Francisco.”

Cage owned the Victorian for 16 years — until 2005 — occupying it during what was arguably the most climactic time of his career, winning his first and only Academy Award and starring in some of his most famous and beloved films: Face/Off, The Rock, Leaving Las Vegas, Con Air, Gone in 60 Seconds, Snake Eyes, 8 mm, Adaptation, and even bad ones like National Treasure. He also got married twice, went through two divorces, and entered fatherhood.

Throughout the years, Nicolas Cage snatched up more residences — a mid-century modern house in the Hollywood Hills; a mansion in Las Vegas big enough to have “staff quarters;” English and German castles; a manor and 26-acre estate in Rhode Island; and an island in the Bahamas.

In the mid-aughts, he owned as many as 15 properties. Cage was on a multi-year shopping spree around that time, purchasing everything from a Gulfstream jet, Rolls Royces, dinosaur bones, shrunken pygmy heads, and a 9-foot pyramid-shaped tomb.

That phase ended in 2009 when the I.R.S. fined him for owing more than $6.3 million in property and back taxes. He ended up having to sell or foreclose on a lot of what he owned, including the Bahamian island, the French quarter townhome, and his 1940s Bel Air mansion.  

Perhaps if he hadn’t been in financial straits, Cage would have held onto those homes longer, just like he did with the San Francisco house. Or maybe that was just a special singular exception.

On a Sunday afternoon in November, I visited the 121-year-old home — which is being sold by Coldwell Banker Global Luxury, listed by Joel Goodrich, and, on the weekend of my visit, shown by realtor Christopher J. Meza. Since the actor sold the property in 2005, the house had passed through two owners. Unfortunately, Meza didn’t know if any of them had been Cage fans prior to buying it.

Thanks to the many curious neighbors that have visited the open-houses, Meza has managed to glean more nuggets of insight into Cage’s connection to the abode. One woman who saw him said she remembered being surprised by how much he was balding. Another local who toured the house recalled how Cage “was frequently greeted by eager fans” outside his front door.

A tenant of the apartment next door told me that he moved in four years after Cage left — and thus never saw the actor — but that he remembered the person who bought it next very well.

“That guy was living here for a while and I saw him all the time driving a fancy, old car,” he told me. “He had, like, a long mane of hair and only wore black leather trench coats all the time. So when I found out it was Nic Cage’s old place, I was like, ‘Oh, this all makes sense now.’

“It kind of fits that he lived there, especially with the gargoyles.”

Yes, there are gargoyles in front of Nicolas Cage’s old house, as well as two stone lions flanking the front door that may or may not have been there when he owned it. But the gargoyles definitely were.

It turns out Cage wasn’t the only wacky celebrity to have lived in the house. Werner Erhard, a massively popular self-help guru, also owned it, living there from 1973 to the mid-80s.

The creator of Erhard Seminars Training, an organization that promised to “transform one’s ability to experience living,” he used the house as both his personal residence, classrooms, and offices. He hosted conferences, VIP dinners, and parties at the house, attracting the likes of Yoko Ono, Stephen Hawking, and Diana Ross.

Erhard painted the master bedroom black and the exterior dark green when he lived there. When Cage bought the house in ‘89, it still had the moody shade on the outside, a detail that appealed to him. It represented “the Edgar Allen Poe in me,” he reportedly said.

Cage was also a fan of the jungle-themed stained glass windows Erhard had installed in the living room. Ornate and brightly-colored, the panels are filled with vines, palm fronds, white tigers, monkeys, butterflies, and parrots.

Cage himself is a big animal fan, especially the creepy kind. At various points in his life, he’s owned a 5-foot-long Asian water monitor, a two-headed gopher snake, at least one baby octopus, and two cobras. I even heard a rumor from one visitor that he’d kept a water monitor while living at the house on Franklin Street.

Cage’s love for octopi and sharks was memorialized in six stained glass windows added on the first level. The blue-hued underwater scenes are vivid, and, like Erhard’s panels, packed with imagery: stingrays, sharks, flounder, eel, coral, all seaweed all clamor for space in the narrow windows.  

Cage is also a big dragon guy. Some of the windows on the first floor are filled with red-and-green stained glass artwork of the fire-breathing creatures that he had custom-made for the house.

A few years later, when Cage bought his next San Francisco house — a Gothic Tudor mansion on a corner lot in another neighborhood — he incorporated dragon motifs into the interior design again. That time, he splurged on a black limestone fireplace carved into the shape of one.

Looking at the changes he decided not to make while living there also tells you something about him.

Remarkably, neither Cage nor any of the owners since him have made a single tweak to one room in the house. Dubbed “the Brainstorming Room,” it’s a small cozy space with wood panels and dark carpeting that Erhard built in the ‘70s. A huge, black leather armchair installed in the middle of the room has a built-in console, replete with a retro computer screen and a landline telephone. The chair faces a wall where an extensive, albeit sorely outdated, entertainment center had been built with a record player, a boxy television, a recording deck, a CD player, a cassette tape player.

Meza, for one, is glad the “funky space has remained” despite multiple renovations to the interior. He thinks it has survived because “it maintains some element of historic nature” that adds value to Cage’s house.

After so many renovations, there’s not a ton of “historic nature” left to the house. Most of what remains of the original 1898 interior includes the wainscoting on the walls, the box-beam and coved ceilings, and the front staircase that is engraved with wreath and ribbons designs. The rest is all new.

In recent years, walls were knocked down to create open-floor plans, blond hardwood flooring was installed throughout, skylights were chiseled into the ceiling, and all the walls and surfaces were painted white. The custom kitchen now has two center islands, there’s a quirky spiral staircase leading to the office, and all of the bathrooms are sleek and remodeled. More recently, a spa with a jacuzzi and walk-in shower was installed in the bottom level, next door to the 11-seat home movie theater and 2,000-bottle glass-enclosed wine cellar. When I visited, the house smelled of fresh paint and new beginnings.  

Gay Ducharme, a San Francisco millionairess who owns a Victorian house on a quarter-acre lot in the upscale Presidio neighborhood, couldn’t believe the amount of changes that had been made to the Franklin Street house. Since retiring from her job as a radiologist 24 years ago, she’s led walking tours in the area and had last been inside a decade earlier.

“When we went in before, the front parlor was painted red, red, red. It was odd. I thought to myself, ‘Is this hell or what?’ And then the kitchen was a wreck. There was nothing done to it for years. Now it looks wide-open and terrific.”

She was also impressed that they’d finally connected the elevator — with black fleur-de-lis carpeting and blond-wood walls — to the six-car garage.

“It just needed a whole revamping. It sure got it.”

Ducharme knew a lot about the house; she knew less about Cage. She’d never seen him when he lived here and couldn’t name a single movie.

“What’s he doing now?” she asked me. “Is he still doing films?”

Despite its quirks and upgrades, Nic Cages’s house has been on the market for almost a year. Originally listed for $12 million, it’s now priced at $6 million.  

Of course plenty of people have shown interest, Meza said, considering it for a bed-and-breakfast, housing for tech employees, or as a large family compound. Still, no one has yet to commit.

Meza was unworried. Major properties often spend long periods of time on the market. And he’s fine waiting for that special someone to walk through the door.

“You know, it’s a very specific house. We just have to find that specific person.”

Whoever that ends up being, I just hope they’re a Nic Cage fan.

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