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The Wisnom family and San Mateo history
August 29, 2016, 05:00 AM By Sue Lempert

The story of the Wisnoms is intertwined with San Mateo history. Appropriately, current members and their ancestors will be honored by the San Mateo County Historical Association History Makers Dinner Sept. 21.

In 1868, Robert Wisnom, an Irish carpenter, came to San Mateo where he helped build John Parrott’s Baywood Estate. The mansion itself stood a half block west of the present San Mateo main library.

Then, the little village of San Mateo had no street lights nor paved streets. There was no sewer system. The newly launched San Francisco-San Jose Railroad, provided transportation north and south while stagecoaches moved people to the coast and back. The entire community was built around the railroad depot. But Wisnom liked what he saw. In 1869, he purchased his first piece of real estate between Third and Fourth avenues on B Street. He also started his own business. He lived in a large Victorian boarding house on 36-38 N. Claremont St., a portion of which still exists today.


In 1872, Wisnom traveled to Ireland to find a wife because women were in short supply in San Mateo. He married Sarah Whitehead on Dec. 31, 1872, and the next day they sailed to California. Soon after, the young couple bought property on the west side of Claremont St., just north of First Avenue, and constructed a house for $1,700. It was a two-story house with six rooms where their first baby was born.

The family then built a new house at 149 Second Ave. Robert had formed a contracting and lumber business with James R. Doyle. They set up their first yard on Second Avenue and B Street, now the site of the Vault 164 restaurant (formerly National Bank). Next door, Wisnom built a barn and stable on the site of the present day Hotel St. Matthew. By the end of the decade, the lumber yard was the only one of its kind on the mid-Peninsula.

By 1874, everyone in the village was calling Wisnom “Big Bob.” He and Sarah became members of the Congregational Church. Wisnom built a 34-foot-by-150-foot wine house on what is Brewer Avenue in Hillsborough today. With this, he became recognized as San Mateo’s best known builder. At about this time he built Union Hall near the railroad tracks which he later rebuilt into Wisnom Hall, the central gathering place for the San Mateo community until it was destroyed by fire in 1883. It also served as a court and public meetings were held there before there was a city hall. In 1875, he received his greatest job offer yet — to build the James Byrnes House, a mansion for $6,000. A portion of the house still stands at 703-717 First Ave. Byrnes would become a state senator.

Wisnom also built Victorian homes for blacksmiths William and Dennis Brown. The latter still stands at 5 Delaware St. Commercial buildings constructed by Robert and later by his family included the original Levy Brothers store on B Street and the Hotel St. Matthew on the site of Wisnom’s old barn and stable. The block bounded by Baldwin Avenue, B Street, First Avenue and Ellsworth Avenue was also developed by the family.

As a leading citizen, Wisnom helped start the Bank of San Mateo. He served as vice president until it was taken over by A.P. Giannini. Wisnom was then chosen as one of the five original councilmembers of the fledging city.


Robert’s and Sarah’s last home was a large white Victorian which encompassed an entire block on Second Avenue between San Mateo Drive and Ellsworth Avenue. When he retired in 1904, each of his seven children received equal shares in the Wisnom Company, which by decree had to remain in the family. No outsider could ever own any of its stock. Each son received an adequate amount of money to establish a business in San Mateo. John, the eldest, assumed charge of the family’s lumber company at South Delaware Street and First Avenue. Robert J., opened a hardware store with brother William at Second and Ellsworth avenues (Site of the Baywatch restaurant). Wisnoms also became a Dodge car dealership while Levy Brothers sold Buicks. The store provided dynamite for the new roads needed in the city. Robert J. was also a founding member of the San Mateo Rotary Club in 1924. Samuel became a home builder in San Mateo Park, Burlingame and Hillsborough. Two stand in Hillsborough today, 200 West Inez Ave. and 923 Hayne Road. David, the youngest, worked for the National Bank. His son, David Jr. later managed the bank which eventually merged with Crocker Bank.


Twenty-seven descendants of Robert Wisnom will attend the dinner Sept. 21 including great-grandchildren: Janet Wisnom Smith, Suzi Wisnom Nelson, David Wisnom III, Philip Irwin; John, William, Richard and Ronald Elfving.

Sue Lempert is the former mayor of San Mateo. Her column runs every Monday. She can be reached at



Tags: wisnom, mateo, avenue, house, first, robert,

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