Streetwise: San Francisco Landmarks

by Frank Dunnigan

Many places across multiple San Francisco neighborhoods have been so well-known to residents that they have required only a single-word description (sometimes prefaced with a simple THE) to evoke a clear image in everyone’s mind. Here are some of those places – both past and present.


Palace Hotel, circa 1940.Palace Hotel, Market and New Montgomery Streets, circa 1940. (wnp100.20031; Morton-Waters Co./SCRAP Print Collection / Courtesy of SCRAP)


THE PALACE – Built by banker William Ralston, the original Palace contained 755 individual rooms, each featuring a private bath, and all rooms could be combined into larger suites as needed. Ralston lost his fortune in the collapse of the Bank of California and died by suicide in late August of 1875. Ralston’s business partner, U.S. Senator William Sharon, acquired control of the hotel and it opened on schedule just over one month later in October of 1875. For more than a decade, the 9-story building was San Francisco’s tallest. The lavish hotel burned on the first day of the Fire of 1906, and the present structure (shown here) was erected at the site, opening in December of 1909. Two notable deaths occurred at The Palace over the years – King David Kalakaua of Hawaii in 1891 and U.S. President Warren Harding in 1923. In 1954, the Sheraton chain acquired control and re-branded the hotel as the Sheraton-Palace, to the consternation of many die-hard San Franciscans who did not like to see changes to the venerable institution. The most obvious permanent alterations have involved the removal of the wrap-around exterior balcony near the top of the structure a few years after this photo was taken, and the subsequent removal of six smaller balconies (three on the Market Street side and three on the New Montgomery Street side) in the 1950s. The hotel was closed from January of 1989 through April of 1991 for an earthquake retrofit and extensive refurbishing and in 1995, the Sheraton name was dropped, thus restoring the original Palace Hotel name.


Ferry Building, 1991.Demolition of Embarcadero Freeway in front of Ferry Building, 1991. (wnp4.1340; Courtesy of a Private Collector)


THE FERRY – The site of the present Ferry Building, at Market Street and The Embarcadero, had been home to a smaller wooden ferry terminal since 1875. From the present building’s 1898 opening until the commencement of auto and train traffic on the Bay Bridge, it remained the world’s second-busiest transit terminal, surpassed only by London’s Charing Cross Station. With drastically reduced traffic and the subsequent construction of the Embarcadero Freeway directly in front of the Ferry Building in the 1950s, the structure slipped into a period of decline, and two fires (April 1955 and July 1962) caused serious damage. Ironically, two major earthquakes (1906 and 1989) caused little damage other than to the building’s clock and flagpole. By the 1980s, increasing congestion on the Bay Bridge and BART (opened to Transbay service in 1974) led to the the re-establishment of commuter ferry routes that were further expanded in the days following the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake. The damage sustained by the Embarcadero Freeway in that earthquake led to its eventual demolition and the refurbishment of the Ferry Building into a vibrant waterfront retail community.


Emporium, February 28, 1975.Emporium, Market and Powell Streets, February 28, 1975. (wnp25.4164; Photo by Caesar J Milch / Courtesy of a Private Collector)


EMPORIUM – The Emporium was founded on Market Street in 1896, with the building designed by Albert Pissis, who also developed plans for Hibernia Bank at 1 Jones Street. The store prospered for generations, with branch locations opening in shopping malls throughout the Bay Area in the years after World War II. Still, when the name was mentioned, everyone thought of the Market Street location, with its bargain basement, visits to Santa and Roof Rides in December, a massive Toy Department at the back of the 4th Floor, and a huge variety of products for sale: clothing, furniture, appliances, books, stationery, greeting cards, sewing notions, and services that included lunch counters, shoe repair, optical, podiatrist, watch repair, and a branch of the U.S. Post Office. Street disruptions during BART construction in the 1970s (as well as the closure of nearby J.C. Penney in early 1971) caused many customers to shift their shopping focus north to the Union Square area, and many Market Street businesses began to suffer from a decline in foot traffic. Emporium never regained its popularity or sales volume and the entire chain closed in the mid-1990s. The dome and the front-wall façade were saved and made part of a new Bloomingdale’s store and expansion of the adjacent 1980s shopping mall.


Woolworth's, circa 1953.Woolworth’s, Powell and Market Streets, circa 1953. (wnp25.6982; Courtesy of a Private Collector)


WOOLWORTH’S – The retailer operated many individual stores across San Francisco for many years, but the most well-known was the company’s largest outlet in the world, operating on the ground floor and basement of the Flood Building at 870 Market Street. Relocated from a smaller space on the opposite side of Market Street in October of 1952, this location was a retail magnet for all San Franciscans, selling everything from bulk candy to picture frames, housewares, home décor items, pet supplies, cleaning products, and much more. With multiple sit-down lunch counters, plus offerings from a deli, pizza counter, and bakery, the store was also lunchtime-central for many downtown workers, and it remained busy until its final closure in 1997 when the firm was liquidating.


Read the San Francisco Chronicle’s story of Woolworth’s closure that took place more than 25 years ago.


Hibernia Bank, 1980.Hibernia Bank, Jones and McAllister Streets, 1980. (wnp25.1604; Courtesy of a Private Collector)


HIBERNIA – Built at 1 Jones Street in 1892 by a group of Irish business owners, the structure designed by Albert Pissis carried the ancient Latin name for Ireland, “Hibernia.” Known for its Beaux-Arts form of architecture popular in the day, the interior was adorned with Tiffany-glass skylights. The bank suffered little damage in the 1906 Earthquake & Fire, and reopened for business a few weeks later. Managed by the Tobin Brothers, the firm was slower to embrace newer practices such as branch banking and credit cards than most of its competitors. One of its few branches, at 22nd Avenue and Noriega Street in the Sunset District, was the site of an April 15, 1974 robbery by newspaper heiress Patricia Campbell Hearst while she was a captive of the Symbionese Liberation Army that had kidnapped her 10 weeks earlier from her Berkeley apartment. The bank was acquired by Security Pacific Bank in 1988, which was later acquired by Bank of America in 1992. The classic old building ceased to operate as a bank, and was temporarily used by the San Francisco Police Department as an outpost for the Tenderloin neighborhood. In 2008, the building was acquired by a local investment firm, thoroughly refurbished, and is now operating as an upscale event venue.


See more classic images of 1 Jones Street.


Mission Dolores, circa 1920.Mission Dolores, circa 1920. (wnp27.7706; Courtesy of a Private Collector)


Mission Dolores, 1927.Mission Dolores, 1927. (wnp14.10078; Courtesy of a Private Collector)


THE MISSION – Founded in 1776, with its current adobe building dating back to 1791, Mission Dolores is part of what is known as San Francisco’s “triple-pronged origin: Mission, Presidio, and Pueblo”. The adjacent church building was a 1918 replacement for a red brick church that was built at the site in 1876 in order to provide more worship space for the growing neighborhood. That 1876 structure was lost in the 1906 Earthquake, and a small wooden church building served the community for 12 years until the present church (named a Basilica in 1952) opened on Christmas Eve of 1918. Originally designed with a simple façade, the towers were modified and the “Churrigueresque” ornamentation was added circa 1926. The old Mission itself has undergone sensitive restorations and earthquake retrofits, most notably in 1917 and again in the early 1990s.


Read a detailed history of San Francisco Landmark #1 in the March 2021 edition of STREETWISE.


Alioto's and Fishermen's Grotto, Taylor Street and The Embarcadero, circa 1958.Alioto’s and Fishermen’s Grotto, Taylor Street and The Embarcadero, circa 1958. (wnp25.3434; Courtesy of a Private Collector)


THE WHARF – By the 1920s, several Fisherman’s Wharf operators, accustomed to selling their catch to the public, had begun expanding into the restaurant business. Names like Sabella, Tarantino, Castagnola, and others dotted the area after that. Many locals instinctively thought of the adjacent Alioto’s and Fishermen’s Grotto restaurants (#8 and #9 respectively) along with the nearby A. Sabella’s as being the heart of the neighborhood near the corner of Taylor and Jefferson. Sadly, the ravages of time have taken a toll on the area. A. Sabella’s, dating back to the 1920s, closed its doors in 2007 and was replaced with an Applebee’s restaurant when the owners acknowledged that upcoming generations of the Sabella family were pursuing other careers. Nearby Castagnola’s, opened in 1916, closed in 2001, but later reopened, and then closed permanently in 2021 after a year of Covid-related closure. Tarantino’s, one of the Wharf’s newer eateries (opened post-WWII) also closed in 2021 after a year-long Covid closure, and Pompei’s Grotto, opened in 1946, remains closed post-Covid. Alioto’s closed in 2020 like other restaurants, never re-opened, but announced its permanent closure in April of 2022. Capurro’s, opened in 1946 by another Sicilian family connected to the Alioto family, expanded in 2005 and has reopened after the 2020 Covid closure. Fishermen’s Grotto, dating back to 1935 as the Wharf’s first full-service, sit-down restaurant, likewise closed during Covid, but has also reopened. It was sold several years ago by the founding Geraldi family, and now operates under the name The Grotto, though still with its iconic lighted sign and the yellow-slicker-clad old fisherman atop the red-tiled roof.


See 465 vintage images of Fisherman’s Wharf in the OpenSFHistory Photo Archive.


Transamerica Pyramid, 1973.Transamerica Pyramid, 1973. (wnp28.2560; Photo by Greg Gaar / Courtesy of a Private Collector)


THE PYRAMID – Under construction from 1969 to 1972, the building remained San Francisco’s tallest until 2018 when Salesforce Tower was completed. Designed with a goal of allowing more daylight to reach the street, the building’s main occupant was originally the Transamerica Corporation, an insurance and investment firm that was founded in the 1920s as a part of Bank of America, and later spun off. After Transamerica was acquired by Aegon, a Netherlands-based insurer at the turn of the millennium, Transamerica relocated to Baltimore, though the image of the building remains part of the company’s logo. The Pyramid is now occupied by a variety of business tenants.


Candlestick Park, October 10, 1971.Candlestick Park during first 49er football game, October 10, 1971. (wnp28.2054; Courtesy of a Private Collector)


THE STICK – Candlestick Park was built to house the San Francisco Giants, and opened in April of 1960 after the Giants had played their first two seasons at the old Seals Stadium. The team remained at Candlestick from 1960 to 1999. In 1971, the 49ers football team relocated from Kezar Stadium to share the expanded stadium, remaining there until their departure to Santa Clara for the 2014 football season. Multiple World Series and All-Star baseball games were held there (including the infamous 3rd game of the 1989 World Series that was interrupted by the Loma Prieta Earthquake), along with NFC Championship and Super Bowl games, plus one college playoff game (Cal vs. Fresno State in 2011). Other events included a 1966 Beatles concert, a 1981 Rolling Stones concert, and a 1987 Papal Mass by John Paul II. There were multiple “official” name changes for the stadium over the years: 3Com Park (1995-2002), San Francisco Stadium at Candlestick Point (2002-2004), Monster Park (2004-2008), and then back to Candlestick from 2008-2014, though for many, it was always referred to as “The Stick”. The final event at the site was a Paul McCartney concert in August of 2014, with demolition commencing just over one year later. The site awaits redevelopment.


See 290 vintage images of the Candlestick Point neighborhood in the OpenSFHistory Photo Archives.


Buena Vista Cafe, circa 1963.Buena Vista Cafe, Hyde and Beach Streets, circa 1963. (wnp25.6970; Courtesy of a Private Collector)


THE BV – The Buena Vista is a long-standing neighborhood bar and café at the end of the cable car line near Fisherman’s Wharf. In 1952, Chronicle columnist Stanton Delaplane worked with a bartender at the BV to recreate a drink that he had enjoyed at the airport in Shannon, Ireland. The basics of black coffee, a lump of sugar, and Irish whiskey were easy enough, but the two had difficulty getting the layer of whipped cream to float on the top – it repeatedly sank to the bottom every time. After consulting with dairy owner George Christopher (then a City Supervisor and later a two-term Mayor), they learned that the cream being used was too fresh, and that it would float better after it was refrigerated for 48 hours. Presto – a landmark drink was created and the rest is history, with the BV serving up to 2,000 Irish Coffees per day.

Palace of Fine Arts Rotunda: Five Favorites

by Arnold Woods

San Francisco’s second World’s Fair, the Panama-Pacific International Exposition (“PPIE”), opened on January 20, 1915. One of the centerpieces of the exhibition was the Palace of Fine Arts that was designed to display works of art. Highlighting the Palace of Fine Arts complex was a huge open Rotunda. With the anniversary of the PPIE, this week, we thought it would be a good time to take a look at five of our favorite images of the Palace of Fine Arts Rotunda and surrounding area at the PPIE in 1915.

Palace of Fine Arts and lagoon, 1915.Palace of Fine Arts and lagoon, 1915. (wnp27.1360; Courtesy of a Private Collector.)

The Palace of Fine Arts was designed by famed architect Bernard Maybeck. He was inspired by classical Greek and Roman architecture. The Rotunda, in particular, drew inspiration from the Temple of Minerva Medica in Rome. The scene in the image above looks almost like it could have been taken today, as preservation efforts have managed to keep the original feel of the site.

Close view of Palace of Fine Arts Rotunda with reflections in lagoon, 1915.Close view of Palace of Fine Arts Rotunda with reflections in lagoon, 1915. (wnp12.00573; Courtesy of David Gallagher.)

On the ceiling of the Rotunda were a series of large murals painted by Robert Reid, who also painted murals at the Library of Congress, the Massachusetts State House rotunda, and the Appellate Court House in New York City. Reid’s eith murals on the ceiling of the Palace of Fine Arts Rotunda were called The Four Golds of California (four panels), Inspiration in All Arts, Ideals in Art, Birth of Oriental Art, and Birth of European Art. While you can see some of the lower part of the Rotunda in the above image, we have no images of Reid’s murals.

Pioneer Mother statue in front of the Palace of Fine Arts Rotunda, 1915.Pioneer Mother statue in front of the Palace of Fine Arts Rotunda, 1915. (wnp70.1284; Marilyn Blaisdell Collection / Courtesy of Molly Blaisdell.)

By the entrance to the Rotunda was a statue called The Pioneer Mother. The PPIE Women’s Board chose sculptor Charles Grafly to make the monument. It stood 26 feet tall including the pedestal. Below the statue was a plaque with the following quote from Benjamin Ide Wheeler: “Over rude paths beset with hunger and risk she pressed toward the vision of a better country. To an assemblage of men busied with the perishable rewards of the day she brought the three-fold leaven of enduring society – faith, gentleness, and home with the nurture of children.” Do you recognize the statue? It was moved to Treasure Island for the Golden Gate International Exposition in May 1940. After that was over, it was moved to its current spot in Golden Gate Park.

View of Rotunda through Colonnade at Palace of Fine Arts, 1915.View of Rotunda through Colonnade at Palace of Fine Arts, 1915. (wnp37.04315; Marilyn Blaisdell Collection / Courtesy of Molly Blaisdell.)

To each side of the Rotunda extends a colonnade that separated the exhibition building from the lagoon. Maybeck sought to evoke the ruins of ancient Rome and Greece. While much of the rest of the PPIE was demolished after it was over, the Palace of Fine Arts and its Rotunda was saved through the efforts of Phoebe Apperson Hearst. She founded the Palace Preservation League before the PPIE was even over.

Night view east from Palace of Fine Arts Rotunda across lagoon at Palace of Education and Social Economy, 1915.Night view east from Palace of Fine Arts Rotunda across lagoon at Palace of Education and Social Economy, 1915. (wnp14.11385; Bockman Family / Courtesy of a Private Collector.)

Besides the Palace of Fine Arts building, the lagoon was also kept after the PPIE. Reid’s murals were removed and replaced by art from WPA artists in the 1930s. However, since the structure was not originally intended to last, it was not built to stand the test of time. The Palace of Fine Arts deteriorated over the years and was eventually largely demolished in the 1960s. It was then reconstructed, mostly conforming to the original design. Among the few missing elements is the absence of murals on the Rotunda ceiling. Further restoration occurred in the early 2000s. Over 100 years later, it remains a top attraction in San Francisco.