Seventy-five years ago this past Sunday, this beautiful photograph taken by Moulin Studios captured a Union Square very familiar to many San Franciscans of a certain age.
View northwest over Union Square, March 22, 1944. (wnp14.11464.jpg; Moulin Studios photograph, courtesy of a private collector.)
Post Street as seen here is much changed from the 1940s. The old Fitzhugh Building on the northeast corner of Post and Powell is long gone and the corner is now the home of a Saks Fifth Avenue. The Stockton Street corner is today a glass box Apple store. But the St. Francis Hotel still rules with sophisticated benevolence from the west, the Sir Francis Drake tower, not very old at this time, is visible with its cocktails-and-swing-bands charm in the center distance, and the square itself, with the pathways, garage portals, and Dewey Monument, is instantly recognized.
As the San Francisco’s center of tourist and shopping activity for a century, Union Square is very much the face the city shows the world, and the square’s layout and design have changed a few times. For most of my life, the sloping lawns seen in the photograph above were an unruly nightmare of hedges which one kept a healthy distance from upon passing. A twenty-first century face-lift brought in wide stadium steps up the square itself and a renovation of the underground parking garage. This is what Union Square looked like a few years before the 1940s garage installation:
View northwest over Union Square, September 5, 1935. (wnp14.2447.jpg; courtesy of a private collector.)
As part of OpenSFHistory’s collection of negatives we scanned from SCRAP are 65 photographs documenting the making the Union Square Garage over 1941 and 1942 by the firm of MacDonald & Kahn. It’s creation was hailed as an engineering marvel of the time.
Union Square Garage Construction, ground level view east from Stockton Street with St. Francis Hotel in background, April 8, 1941. (wnp100.00458.jpg; Morton-Waters Co. photograph, SCRAP Negative Collection.)
Note the mature palm trees on the edges of the square, doomed to give way to construction and sleek design aesthetics of the midcentury. New palms would be planted at the corner entryways, however.
The construction equipment at times look like child’s toys left at a sandy beach. In the early 1850s, massive sand hills still covered this area.
Union Square Garage Construction, ground level view east from Stockton Street with St. Francis Hotel in background, June 4, 1941. (wnp100.00466.jpg; Morton-Waters Co. photograph, SCRAP Negative Collection.)
While I know it’s an unfair comparison, after years of navigating the construction of the never-to-be-finished Central Subway along Stockton Street, it’s a marvel to watch how quickly the work by MacDonald and Kahn was done. Here are the forms already shaping up in October 1941, as seen from the Elkan Gunst Building on the southwest corner of Powell.
Union Square Garage Construction, view northeast from Powell and Geary, October 22, 1941. (wnp100.00485.jpg; Morton-Waters Co. photograph, SCRAP Negative Collection.)
And most of the work done, with the Dewey Monument back in place, by June 1942!
Union Square Garage Construction, view west from Stockton Street, June 17, 1942. (wnp100.00520.jpg; Morton-Waters Co. photograph, SCRAP Negative Collection.)
Take a look at all the construction photos.