Salvatore “Sam” Mazza was born on December 3, 1905. He was the eldest child of Antonio and Rosaria Mazza of Piedimonte Etneo in Catania, Sicily.
His parents met when his father was working as a laborer in a local vineyard, and his mother was tasked with bringing lunch to the workers in the fields. Over time a romance blossomed, but Antonio had booked passage to the United States to visit his brother in West Virginia. Anxious not to lose a chance with Rosaria, he promised that if she waited for him, he would return in a year to marry her.
True to his word, Antonio married Rosaria shortly after returning. Within a year, Rosaria gave birth to the couple’s first son, Salvatore, on December 3, 1905. Two years later, they welcomed another son, Giovanni (John), to the family. Despite being born in Sicily, neither boy would ever know it as home; Antonio knew his aspirations for his family could only be realized across the Atlantic. Before Sam’s third birthday, the family traveled to Naples, more than 350 miles away, to meet the steamer Duca di Genova, bound for the United States. After 12 days at sea, the ship arrived at Ellis Island in New York on April 25, 1910.
A new country
After clearing immigration at Ellis Island, the family went to West Virginia to be with Antonio’s brother. Antonio spoke very little English, so it was difficult for him to find work, but one day he came across a group of men laying down tracks for a railroad. Not knowing how to ask for a job, he just picked up a wheelbarrow and proceeded to do what the others were doing. At the end of the day, Antonio stood in line to receive some pay for his work, and even though he wasn’t on the payroll, the foreman had observed his hard work and was impressed. He paid him and asked him to return the next day.
After saving enough money, Antonio moved the family to California to seek out opportunities with friends from Sicily who were ranchers in Cupertino. Without enough money to purchase a ranch of his own, Antonio settled the family in San Francisco, where he was certain he could find work. For $3,200 and $10 down, he and Rosaria purchased a home on Hearst Avenue amid the vegetable fields in the sparsely developed Sunnyside District. All the Mazza children would grow up in this home – over the years, five more siblings joined Sam and John: Guido, Harry, Joe, Mary and Angelo. Sam would eventually come to own the house. He lived there for the rest of his life.
Antonio had difficulty raising seven children during the Great Depression, often only able to make one dollar for a 14-hour workday. During this time, Sam and some of his brothers caddied at local golf courses for 50 cents a bag to help the family make ends meet. Sam was only formally educated up to fourth grade and while he did not attend high school, he did attend trade school, learning about woodworking, automotive repair and house painting. Out of these trades, he gravitated most to painting.
Sam began to paint professionally, eventually opening up his own painting contractor business. He became well known within San Francisco for the quality and creativity of his work, attracting many prospective customers. His reputation eventually led to his involvement in the painting of the opulent interior of San Francisco’s Fox Theatre. The Fox Theatre was wildly popular at its peak, and Sam’s participation in the project helped land him a number of commercial projects, including buildings in the Presidio, the Coca Cola building at 13th and Mission, the George Mann Theatres, and numerous area supermarket chains.
Real estate investments
Sam’s hard work and business savvy helped make his painting company a success, but his experience as a contractor also helped him learn a lot about the local housing market. He developed a keen eye for spotting an opportunity where others might not, so when he was given the chance to buy a run-down building in need of repair, he jumped at it. Bartering his painting skills with other tradesmen for their services, he was able to inexpensively remodel his purchase and offer it for rent. He went on to replicate this process several times over the years in neighborhoods across San Francisco.
Sam never forgot the struggles his family endured during the Great Depression, and he saw real estate as his retirement plan and safety net. He wasn’t an aggressive speculator looking for a quick fortune. In fact, he took tremendous pride in selling only one of his holdings in more than 50 years as a real estate investor. His investments blossomed as San Francisco grew and prospered, providing Sam with the financial security that had eluded his family in the years of the Great Depression.
Sam remained a sensible and practical man even after achieving success through his contracting and real estate ventures. But after many years of hard work, he broke out of his mold when in 1958 he was charmed by a curious structure atop a hill in the coastal community of Pacifica.
As Sam would tell it, he had a few gin fizzes at with some friends in San Francisco and was on his way to Nick’s Restaurant at Rockaway Beach when he spotted the structure that piqued his interest. Upon closer inspection, he realized it was a stone castle surrounded by tall weeds. It had been on the market for more three years and was in serious disrepair. Sam was undeterred.
More than a few friends and associates told him he was crazy for thinking about buying such a run-down relic, but he had built a career around seeing diamonds where others saw lumps of coal. He had little doubt he had a diamond in his sights. He inspected the building, took note of what needed fixing and negotiated its purchase for about $29,000. In a lighthearted gesture to his detractors, he proudly flew a flag from the castle roof that read “Sam’s White Elephant.”
Although he didn’t buy the castle with any commercial ventures in mind, Sam soon developed an elaborate plan for turning it into a fine restaurant. He envisioned doubling the size of the lower level and installing a tram to ferry patrons back and forth from the base of the hill. But after being unable to secure the appropriate permits, he was forced to admit a rare defeat.
After Sam worked to repair and restore the castle, he and his wife, Mary, would visit often, and Sam took great pleasure decorating and furnishing the interior. He carefully selected antiques and interesting regional collectibles for each room. He was especially proud of the pieces he had rescued from the Fox Theatre before its 1963 demolition.
Sam maintained a very active lifestyle throughout his retirement years, taking care of the castle and nurturing his deep appreciation of the arts. He would invite organizations to hold fundraisers at the castle as long as they pledged to donate the proceeds to a charitable cause.
Sam often spoke about how proud he was to have been a poor boy from Sicily who was able to succeed in America. Like his father before him, Sam’s unyielding tenacity, work ethic and courage enabled him to make his dreams a reality. At the end of his life, he hoped his success would inspire others.
Sam passed away peacefully on June 14, 2002, at age 95. Before his death, he took steps to ensure his estate would be used to establish a charitable foundation to support organizations in need. The board of directors elected to retain his castle, Sam’s pride and joy, as the headquarters of the Sam Mazza Foundation.
To learn more about the castle and its rich history, click here.