Outpost Of A Legendary Family

Posted on January 8, 2017 by  
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101 Main St Los AltosOne could be forgiven for thinking the Sassoon Building at 101 Main St. got its name because it is seemingly always occupied by salons – and now Brownhome Designs.

But the ranch-style office building can lay claim to a far more auspicious history than one named after shampoo entrepreneur Vidal Sassoon. It was built by Edward Sassoon, who took out a full-page advertisement when he opened the doors in 1954. Los Altos’ new office building was the latest node in a three-continent family empire that began in 19th-century Baghdad and spanned from London to Shanghai.

Sassoon came to San Francisco Nov. 15, 1932, on the SS President Hoover. The 36-year-old immigrant was accompanied by his wife, Flora, and three children: Meyer, Celia (“Sally”) and Janet.

In some ways, it was a typical migration story: Sassoon listed his profession as “fruit merchant” and found opportunity south of San Francisco in the famed “Valley of Heart’s Delight.”

In other ways, the Sassoons were racing against time. They were a Jewish family in Indonesia and part of Surabaya’s tiny Jewish community. The Japanese empire was expanding at the time of their exodus – their armies had just occupied Manchuria – and the Sassoons must have been nervous about the future. A decade later, Japanese troops entered Indonesia.

The Sassoons were also not a typical Jewish Californian family. Edward was born in Calcutta, India. His great-grandfather was born in what is now Iraq and treasurer to the pasha of Baghdad before decamping to Bombay.

The Sassoon family quickly became fabulously wealthy by triangulating among British bankers and Asian merchants (Vidal Sassoon, raised in a London tenement, is of no relation). They were philanthropists and builders. The Sassoon Docks host Mumbai’s raucous fish market. The Sassoon House in Shanghai, now the Peace Hotel, is an art deco masterpiece on the Bund.

Compared to such monuments, Los Altos’ one-story Sassoon Building may not seem like much. By the time it was built, national independence movements in India, Indonesia and China had pushed multinational families like the Sassoons out of their family homes. Even before the war began, the Sassoons may have seen where it was headed. In 1940, Edward filed a petition for naturalization for his family.

While the Sassoons lived in the West Portal neighborhood in San Francisco, Edward’s fruit business kept him in the orchards of the South Bay. Before it was discontinued in 1962, the Vasona Branch of the Southern Pacific Railroad transported apricots and other fruits to the busy San Francisco piers. An office on Main Street helped Edward keep tabs on the annual crop back in the day when the city was full of orchards and not multi-million-dollar homes.

Edward Sassoon passed away in 1969. His wife, Flora, lived until 2003, succumbing to an illness at the age of 101. The Sassoon children were raised in San Francisco. Janet, the youngest, became a prima ballerina for the San Francisco Ballet and a world-renowned ballet teacher. Judging by the naturalization paperwork, Janet has her father’s high cheekbones.

“I’m from a different part of the world, and as a ballerina I looked different from everyone,” she said in a 2014 interview. “As I grew older, I realized that was to my great advantage.”

The one-story Sassoon Building may not be the most remarkable-looking building in downtown Los Altos, but it reminds passersby that a global story stretching from the Ottoman Empire to the docks of Shanghai is stitched together on Main Street.

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