The Musto family is one of that small handful of illustrious multi-generational pioneer Italian clans, who—along with the Ghirardellis, the Sbarboros, the Rossis, the Cuneos, the Donderos—have contributed greatly to the economic, social and cultural development of California. The Mustos, moreover, have the distinction of being the only one of these to have maintained, through a highly successful policy of enlightened nepotism, a continuous family-owned and family-run enterprise for over a century and a quarter. In fact, there are only two other surviving family-controlled companies in the Bay Area that can boast such a distinguished pioneer pedigree: Levi Strauss & Co., established in 1850, and the Guittard Chocolate Company, founded in 1868.
In 1866, master marble craftsman Giuseppe or Joseph Musto, a native of Chiavari near Genoa and veteran of the Italian Wars of Independence, started a marble importing business in San Francisco in partnership with his brother, Giovanni, who returned to their home town to act as buying agent for the firm. An R. G. Dun & Co. credit report of 1874, conserved at the Harvard Business School, describes Joseph as being “of good character and habits, steady, industrious and attentive, and, although not possessed of much ability, naturally shrewd. A couple of years later, the credit appraiser noted that he was “of exceedingly economical habits,” which would have been sweet music to Joseph’s Genoese ears. In January 1878, it was reported that Joseph, in spite of his supposed lack of ability, had managed to accumulate local real estate worth over $100,000, pure equity value. In an ominous foreshadowing of the company’s future evolution, the credit report goes on to state that the marble trade “has been so depressed of late that the only material increase in their means the past year has been on their real estate.”
The Musto Brothers, also known as the San Francisco Steam Marble Saw Mills located at 709-715 Battery St., were importers, fabricators and wholesale dealers of Italian marble. Joseph eventually bought out his Italian-based brother, and the company name was subsequently changed to reflect the addition of his first-born son, Clarence Enrico (Joseph Musto & Son) and later of his only other son, Guido Joseph (Joseph Musto & Sons). After the death of the patriarch in 1904, the enterprise once again changed its name to Joseph Musto Sons-Keenan Co. (Joseph B. Keenan was a son-in-law), and a separate entity, the Joseph Musto Estate Co., was established to administer the substantial property holdings of the deceased. After the earthquake and fire, a new plant was built at 535 North Point St. (the future site of Cost Plus), and in 1912 a second finishing mill was established in Los Angeles.
The firm was thus well-positioned for the reconstruction of the city and the economic expansion of the state. It broadened its sources of supply to native American stone from New England and the South, and it engaged in general contracting of marble work for residential, cemetery and church uses and for public and private buildings. In its heyday, Joseph Musto Sons-Keenan Co. was the biggest supplier of commercial marble in California. In 1914, the company won a bid for fitting the interior of the new San Francisco City Hall in grey domestic marble, a work of art whose magnificence has recently been restored. At the time, the contract, in the amount of $234,860, was the largest ever awarded for marble work on the Pacific Coast. Among other notable edifices adorned with Musto marble were the Spreckels Mansion, the Flood Building, the Bohemian Club, the Palace of the Legion of Honor, TempIe Emanu-El, the churches of St. Ignatius and Sts. Peter and Paul, the Doe Library at UC Berkeley, the Oakland City Hall, the Los Angeles Stock Exchange, and a string of Bank of Italy branches. The quality and beauty of the material and workmanship are still there to admire.
A decline in the firm’s core business set in after World War Two, due to changing tastes in interior decoration, competition from other suppliers, and rising labor costs. In 1966, the one-hundred-year-old San Francisco marble business was liquidated, and in the 1980s the Los Angeles operation, which had since expanded into abrasives and diamond cutting tools, was sold. A successor company, Musto Properties, Inc., was formed. This, and the old Joseph Musto Estate Co., constitute the present Musto family enterprises, now exclusively devoted to real estate investment and property management. Of the seven members of the board of directors of the two firms, five are fourth-generation descendants of Joseph Musto. Their‘ headquarters are located at the site of the old San Francisco Steam Marble Saw Mills on Battery St.
Besides entrepreneurial success and longevity, the Mustos were also known for community involvement and civic-mindedness. In 1921, the family contributed $3,000 towards the establishment of an Italian Hospital in San Francisco, a project of the erstwhile Italian Federation of California on whose fundraising committee sat Clarence E. Musto. Two of Joseph’s daughters were particularly active in civic affairs. Emilia, wife of the painter Eduardo Tojetti, single-handedly endowed the music department of the San Francisco Public Library. Her sister, Florence Adeline Musto, was a forceful child welfare advocate, who lobbied successfully for the introduction of better hygienic standards, nurses and a free dental clinic in the city schools. A director of the Italian Board of Relief and president of the Vittoria Colonna Club, Florence organized the local branch of the Congress of Mothers, forerunner of the PTA. By the 1940s and 50s, the third generation of Mustos in America, albeit less civicly involved, were socially prominent and very photogenic and repeatedly graced the society pages of the San Francisco papers.
This was the family and business context in which Guido Joseph Musto lived and died. He was born in San Francisco on February 24, 1879, the last of the seven children of Joseph Musto and Maria Sturla. Guido’s formal education is, so to speak, the Area 51 of his life. No one so far knows where or how long he attended school; presumably, his education was local and didn’t extend beyond high school. We do know that in 1896 he entered the family business, and he became secretary-treasurer of Joseph Musto Sons-Keenan Co. when it was incorporated in 1906. After the death of his brother Clarence in 1927, Guido took the reins of the firm, over which he presided until his retirement in 1964. Guido thus actively participated in the company’s mighty expansion during the post-earthquake building boom, and he also witnessed its relentless postwar decline. The marble works, which employed one hundred mostly Italian workmen in 1940, was a source of continuing education for Guido. There, he exercised his practical Italian—by all accounts, never the most literary—and became a close friend to the sculptor Benny Bufano, who exchanged small decorative pieces for a free hand at scavenging scrap marble from the company yard.
In 1904, at St. Mary’s Cathedral, Guido Musto married Romilda Sbarboro, daughter of the famed Andrea Sbarboro, founder of Italian Swiss Colony. The couple had two daughters, Romilda (Bunny) and Elena (Ellie). In 1910, Guido had a jewel of a house built at 3401 Washington St. in the Presidio Heights district, a tract of land originally developed by his father-in-law. It was designed by architect Henry C. Smith and, needless to say, it boasted a magnificent marble entrance hall. (The residence was listed in 1995 by McGuire Real Estate at $3,350,000.) In the 1930s, Guido had a chalet-style weekend retreat built in the Fairfax highlands of Marin County. Called Punto Fino (or fine vantage point), it was the scene of countless parties, barbecues and late-night card games, illustrated in the sharp black-and-white snapshots of his daughter Bunny’s photo albums.
One of those photos, dated May 31, 1939, shows the “Baron of Punto Fino” seated at table, clad in a white cook’s apron, and lifting a glass of wine. He has an impish gleam in his eye, his mouth is open, and he is presumably singing. The subject, composition and period feel of the photo are reminiscent of Robert Doisneau’s famous series on the simple pleasures of everyday life in France before and after the war. Aside from its art photography qualities, the snapshot is a true mirror of Guido J. Musto, as remembered by those who knew him best. It portrays his generous hospitality (we can imagine his having just finished preparing a meal for his guests), his joviality, and his love of wine and music. If he were holding a toscano in his other hand, the portrait would be complete. His grandson, Peter Ackley, recounts how Guido would suddenly bolt up from the table during family gatherings, impose silence with a loud whistle, and launch into the impassioned singing of an opera aria. When his other grandson, Alex Lilley, used to visit him in the 1960s, Guido would take him down to the cellar of the Washington St. home, where he kept old Prohibition-era wines—some memorably undrinkable, some still quite good. They would then proceed up to the library to enjoy them, to listen to classical music, and to Guido’s unavoidable operatic renditions. Another of Guido’s loves was cars, especially Lincolns and Buick Roadmasters. A former resident of the Italian Swiss Colony, Lelio Giampaoli, remembers his penchant for speeding. When he drove up to Asti for Sbarboro family functions, Guido would collect speeding tickets with predictable regularity. He got to know the patrolmen along the northern reaches of the Old Redwood Highway and once invited four of them, motorcycles and all, to the winery. They all got drunk and spent the night at Sbarboro’s Villa Pompeii.
In spite of this lighter side, Guido was one of the most civic-minded and community-oriented of the second-generation Mustos. In 1934, Mayor Angelo Rossi appointed him to the Depression-era Citizens’ Emergency Relief Committee, which coordinated federal and city relief and employment programs and oversaw the spending of $800,000 a month in public funds. He continued in this same post with the newly formed Public Welfare Commission, until being assigned in 1940 to the War Memorial Board of Trustees, which administered the Opera House and Veterans Building in the Civic Center. He served as president of the board in 1952. Guido was obviously in familiar surroundings, having been a founding member of the San Francisco opera and symphony associations and a personal friend of the opera director Gaetano Merola.
Guido Musto took his civic appointments very seriously and did not shy away from controversy. As a welfare commissioner in 1938, in spite of personal ties to Benny Bufano, he forcefully opposed granting an additional $18,000 for work on the sculptor’s monumental statue of St. Francis, then slated for Twin Peaks, on the grounds that it would benefit only forty to fifty workmen, when “that amount of money could,” according to Musto, “keep 700 to 1,000 white collar workers for one year on a less expensive project.” In 1949, he voted with the minority on the War Memorial Board of Trustees to lift its ban on San Francisco performances by the Wagnerian soprano Kirsten Flagstad, whose husband had been a Nazi collaborator in wartime Norway. In October 1934, between the acts of an opera, Guido expounded to his friend Redfern Mason a project for beautifying Telegraph Hill by drilling niches into the cliff, filling them with soil and then planting flowers. Redfern Mason was art and music critic for the Examiner and vigorously plugged the scheme on the pages of the newspaper. Redfern Mason was also, by the way, a frequent guest of II Cenacolo in its suite of rooms at the Fairmont Hotel.
Guido J. Musto’s connection with the club goes back to at least 1931, when he was elected vice president. The following year, he became president and served until 1949, the longest tenure of any president, one of the most productive, and certainly the most delicate. It was Musto who presided over the organization during the dark days of World War Two.
When he took the reins of the club from our first president Armando Pedrini, the activities consisted of regular Thursday luncheon meetings and informal evening get-togethers at members’ homes, to listen to music or to suffer through a lecture (“per subirvi qualche conferenza,” as a visiting Italian guest wryly noted in 1931). Musto inaugurated an annual picnic in 1933—copied perhaps from the so-called “jinx” of the Bohemian Club, of which he was a member. A strictly stag affair, the picnic alternated between the Pairadise Ranch of Victor Greco near San Jose and the grounds of the Italian Swiss Colony Winery. Non-Italians, who had been club guests from the very beginning, were now admitted into formal membership. Another of his innovations was the annual Christmas dinner. In our archives, we have a wonderful Moulin Studio photo of the dinner held on December 18, 1939, the earliest group photo of Il Cenacolo and the only one of the interior of its suite 152-154 at the Fairmont Hotel. Everyone there is dressed in suits and ties… except, of course, for Guido. He is wearing a short white mess jacket with epaulets, sort of what the bartender wore on the TV series The Love Boat. Besides institutionalizing many of Il Cenacolo’s current activities, Musto presided over special club events, such as the 1935 bimillennial celebration of the Latin poet Horace and a 1939 family outing to the Hotel del Coronado in San Diego, at the time managed by one of the club’s founders, Alberto Campione. In 1938, Guido J. Musto was honored by the Kingdom of Italy for his efforts on behalf of Italian culture with the cross of Cavaliere dell’Ordine della Corona d’Italia.
The founders of Il Cenacolo were kindred spirits with a love of conviviality and of Italian culture, but they were also political soulmates who shared pro-Fascist sentiments. Back in 1928 it didn’t matter much, but as the clouds of war gathered over Europe and then approached our shores, previous political attitudes became germane and suspect. Il Cenacolo, which in the early 1930s had donated a number of books inspired by Fascist propaganda to the San Francisco Public Library, saw the handwriting on the wall and ceased normal operations. The last prewar entry in our guest book, meaning the last regular Thursday luncheon, is dated December 19, 1940. The signer, whose handwriting is mercifully illegible, had the temerity to add the Roman numeral XIX after the date, signifying the nineteenth year of the so-called Fascist Era. After Pearl Harbor, the club’s quarters at the Fairmont were commandeered to provide housing for personnel of the Armed Forces. During the war, at least five of our members (Renzo Turco, Ettore Patrizi, Sylvester Andriano, Alberto Campione, Piero Canali), naturalized citizens of the United States, were deemed potentially dangerous by the Western Defense Command for their allegedly pro-Axis sympathies and were consequently excluded from California and banished to at least one hundred and fifty miles east of the Pacific Coast. Guido Musto, a native-born American above suspicion, kept the club alive with informal meetings during the war years, until it resumed normal activities in 1945.
The last Cenacolo function over which Guido J. Musto presided was a general meeting at La Scala Restaurant on May 17, 1949. At that meeting, it was resolved to make him president emeritus with the following testimonial statement: “If Il Cenacolo prospered, if it played a considerable part in the social and cultural life of the community, if it enjoyed the esteem and respect of our fellow citizens as well as of our civil and religious authorities, if it became the rendezvous of all prominent visitors from Italy to our beloved city, it was due primarily to you, who at all times gave generously of your time, of your talents and of your energy, so that Il Cenacolo might faithfully fulfill the pui‘- poses for which it was founded.”
Guido Musto continued his affiliation with Il Cenacolo until his death on August 30, 1966, at age eighty-seven. He had been a successful businessman, bon vivant, civic leader, and patron of the arts. In his seventeen years as president, he set a great part of the annual agenda of Il Cenacolo’s and piloted the club through perilous waters. Guido J. Musto clearly deserves our admiration and gratitude.
Musto Mills Fresco was one of six frescos rediscovered in 2013 on the campus of the San Francisco Art Institute. The fresco, hidden for years under paint, is being restored, It was originally painted by Frederick Olmsted, Jr., titled, Marble Workers (1935).
2700 Velejo was designed by Henry C. Smith for Clarence Musto was born in 1869, the 6th of 7 children of Joseph and Maria Musto. Link has a lovely photo and more info on the design.
Palace of the Legion of Honor images
© 2023 Il Cenacolo, Talk by Andrew M. Canepa April 27, 2000
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