Streetwise: Signs of the Times

by Frank Dunnigan

Businesses and institutions generally want to prominently display their names to passersby. From the OpenSFHistory photo archive, here are just a few of the more memorable San Francisco signs, both past and present.

Mission and 22nd Streets, 1951.View northeast across the intersection of Mission and 22nd Streets of the American Trust Company, 1951. (wnp58.186; SF Assessors Office Negatives / WNP Collection)

AMERICAN TRUST — The American Trust sign dominated the intersection of 16th and Mission Streets for decades, but it came down when the institution was acquired by Wells Fargo Bank in 1960. The building, heavily remodeled, remains home to multiple business tenants.


Golden Gate International Exposition, September 25, 1940.Bank of America pavilion at the Golden Gate International Exposition, Treasure Island, September 25, 1940. (wnp25.5675; Courtesy of a Private Collector)

BANK OF AMERICA — The façade of the Bank of America pavilion at the Golden Gate International Exposition on Treasure Island featured a dramatic lighted display showing each location of the bank’s hundreds of branches in California at the time. The pavilion was demolished when the Navy took over Treasure Island after the fair closed in 1940.


Cow Palace, circa 1958.Cow Palace, circa 1958. (wnp25.0586; Courtesy of a Private Collector)

COW PALACE — Opened in 1941 just over the county line in Daly City (a portion of the parking lot is, in fact, located in San Francisco), the Cow Palace arena came about because of the popularity of a livestock pavilion at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in 1915. As early as 1935, during the depths of the Great Depression, a newspaper asked, “Why, when people are starving, should money be spent on a ‘palace for cows’?” and the name stuck. Over the years, the building has been used for numerous sporting events, musical concerts, political conventions, trade shows, and performances, as well as livestock activities. The color scheme in this photo is what many people remember from the past. In the 1970s, it was repainted in a brown/orange combination, and later, in the present gray-red color scheme.


Bayshore Blvd. and Blanken Street, circa 1924.Crocker Estate Company Bay Shore tract, looking east from today’s San Bruno Blvd/Bayshore Blvd. intersection, circa 1924. (wnp27.4585; Crocker Estate Album / Courtesy of a Private Collector)

CROCKER ESTATE — Nearly 100 years ago, new homes were being sold in the Visitacion Valley neighborhood in the southeastern corner of San Francisco. The Crocker Estate Company set up the real estate office for their “Bay Shore Tract” on Bayshore Boulevard (then just a wide country road) near Blanken Avenue. The early homes were very similar to those found in the Sunset District. Today, the site is on the T Third Street Muni line and adjacent to the old Schlage Lock Company factory, which is being redeveloped into a new residential area.


Market near 5th Street, November 4, 1910.The Emporium, as seem from an elevated view east on Market from south side of Fifth Street, November 4, 1910. (wnp36.00017; photo by Horace Chaffee/SF Department of Public Works / Courtesy of a Private Collector)

EMPORIUM — The sidewall of the Emporium Building at 835 Market Street, blank for years, began to display the store’s name after its rebuilding from the 1906 earthquake and fire. The sign’s wording varied somewhat over the years, with the following changes taking place over time:
1907: Scripted THE EMPORIUM and the words OPENS HERE IN OCTOBER
1912: Simply, a scripted THE EMPORIUM
1935: A vertical block-lettered THE EMPORIUM
1945: Back to horizontal script of the store name with bold reminder: BUY WAR BONDS
1946: Scripted store name and SAN FRANCISCO’S SHOPPING CENTER-50th ANNIVERSARY
1952: A large red-scripted E was added
1980: A simple font, all-capital horizonal block-lettered EMPORIUM
1997: Blank
2006: Lower-case lettering of the name “bloomingdale’s”


Aquatic Park, July 1972.Aquatic Park; view across the lawn to Ghirardelli Square, July 1972. (wnp25.3920; Courtesy of a Private Collector)

GHIRARDELLI SQUARE — When the Ghirardelli Chocolate Factory was built in 1915, the large rooftop sign was double-sided, with the company’s name facing both the bay and Russian Hill. When the site was converted to Ghirardelli Square in 1964, the city-aimed portion of the sign was eliminated, leaving a more dramatic image. After 50+ years of marking the site of restaurants and shops, the letters were removed for maintenance in 2020. The sign was replaced after many months, having been upgraded to LED bulbs – looking the same, but with a new ability to change color for special events.


View west from Ferry Building, circa 1928.Heinz 57 sign, as seen from an elevated view west from Ferry Building up Market Street, circa 1928. (wnp70.0406; photo by Moulin/Marilyn Blaisdell Collection / Courtesy of Molly Blaisdell)

HEINZ 57 SIGN — H.J. Heinz, founder of the food/condiment company that continues to bear his name, liked to say that the firm produced “57 Varieties” rather than the more accurate (but mundane) number of 60+. Beginning in 1896, the number 57 was routinely associated with the company and its products. The image of those digits was installed on the roof of company headquarters in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and copied in multiple other locations, including world’s fair displays, atop a Southern California hillside near Culver City, and on the rooftop of the Hotel Terminal building in San Francisco in 1920, clearly visible to incoming ferries. The sign remained in place for decades, though a careful study of photos indicates that it was removed sometime between 1939 and 1948.


Mission near 26th Street, 1985.2963 Mission Street, near 26th Street, 1985. (wnp12.00611; photo by David Gallagher / Courtesy of David Gallagher)

HOUSE OF MIRRORS — Vertical “blade” signs were prominent features on many San Francisco businesses from the 1930s to the 1950s. However, the cost of maintaining the glass tubing for the neon lighting became prohibitive over time, and many of these signs were allowed to deteriorate before their eventual removal. This old sign is long gone and the restored building today contains two residential units above ground floor retail space.


Pacific and Montgomery Streets, circa 1943.International Settlement, Pacific and Montgomery Streets, circa 1943. (wnp37.01795; photo by Zan Stark/Marilyn Blaisdell Collection / Courtesy of a Private Collector)

INTERNATIONAL SETTLEMENT — This one-block stretch of Pacific between Kearny and Montgomery Streets, once part of the Barbary Coast, was again a popular entertainment district from just before World War II until about 1960. Prominently featured in the 1957 Frank Sinatra/Kim Novak film Pal Joey, the area was soon overshadowed by newer 1960s entertainment offerings along Broadway in North Beach. The prominent neon sign was removed more than 60 years ago.


Embarcadero and Market Street, circa 1953.Mobilgas sign, as seem from a view west up Market Street from the Embarcadero, circa 1953. (wnp25.6983; Courtesy of a Private Collector)

MOBILGAS — One of downtown San Francisco’s most prominent rooftop signs along the Market Street corridor was the bright red pegasus of the Mobil Oil Corporation, which sat atop the Fife Building at 1 Drumm Street from the 1930s to the late 1950s. The sign was removed in 1959 and the building was later demolished for a high-rise that became known as 1 California Street when it opened in 1969.


Market near 3rd Street, 1954.View southeast across Market toward 3rd Street of the Morris Plan Company, 1954. (wnp25.4342; Courtesy of a Private Collector)

MORRIS PLAN — A bold vertical neon sign announced the presence of The Morris Plan Company headquarters at 715 Market Street. The company offered short-term consumer loans through its many branch offices – a business model that began to be replaced in 1958 with the introduction of the BankAmericard credit card. The building, constructed in 1908 and later remodeled, contains about 75,000 square feet of commercial office space that is currently leased to multiple business tenants.


Sixth and Harrison Streets, circa 1927.St. Charles Bachelor Hotel at 456 Sixth Street near Harrison Street, circa 1927. (wnp4.1413; Courtesy of a Private Collector)

ST. CHARLES BACHELOR HOTEL — Located at 456 Sixth Street in the South of Market neighborhood, the hotel was identified by a side-wall painted sign that also included advertisements for cars and trucks. The adjacent Associated Oil station includes its own advertising, plus a blank billboard with exceptionally ornate support columns. The site is adjacent to the original 1930s approach to the Bay Bridge, and the old building and gas station are long-gone, with a modern, low-rise commercial structure occupying the location today.

Time Capsule Under the Cross: A Closer Look

by Arnold Woods

100 years old today, on April 1, 1923, the first Easter services atop Mount Davidson were held by a 40-foot temporary cross that had been erected there for the occasion. It was the beginning of a now century-long tradition of Easter Services there.

Car on Mount Davidson near wooden cross, 1924.Car on Mount Davidson near wooden cross, 1924. (wnp15.1426; Courtesy of a Private Collector)

The following year, a new 87-foot cross was built for the 1924 Easter services, but it burned down in 1925. This led to the construction of a 100-foot cross in 1926.

View from Diamond Heights to Mount Davidson, circa 1926.View from Diamond Heights to Mount Davidson, circa 1926. (wnp27.4274; Courtesy of a Private Collector)

Like the first cross, the second one burned down in 1928. A new 80-foot wood and stucco cross was the erected later in 1928. San Francisco also purchased 20 acres at the top of Mount Davidson for use as a park. This cross had lights built into it, but arsonists burned it down in 1931.

Mount Davidson cross, circa 1934.Mount Davidson cross, circa 1934. (wnp27.6285.jpg; Courtesy of a Private Collector)

Several years later, politicians and civic groups pledged to build a new cross, one that would be more, shall we say, durable. Construction started in 1933. This cross was 103-feet high and was built out of concrete and steel.

Time capsule at Mount Davidson cross before removal, April 1, 2023. (Courtesy of Arnold Woods)

The new cross was dedicated on March 3, 1934.1 Part of the ceremony was the laying of a cornerstone in the platform for the cross. The granite cornerstone covered a “record box,’ i.e., a time capsule.2

Mount Davidson cross, circa 1934.Mount Davidson cross, circa 1934. (wnp27.6285.jpg; Courtesy of a Private Collector)

Two of the items placed in the time capsule were two items from the Holy Land–rocks from the Garden of Gethsemane and water from the River Jordan. Both items had been brought to San Francisco under the command of Captain Robert Dollar in December 1932 and had been kept in the vault of the American Trust Company. Also placed in the time capsule were the original 1845 deed for Mount Davidson, an 1847 Bible, copies of newspapers and telephone directories, and a 20-page sermon written for the occasion by Roger Babson.

Mount Davidson Cross, April 10, 1936.Mount Davidson Cross, April 10, 1936. (wnp4.1217; DPW Horace Chaffee, photographer – SF Department of Public Works / Courtesy of a Private Collector)

The March 4, 1934 dedication ceremony started at 3:00 p.m. The festivities included a number of speeches, music by the Salvation Army Band, and the singing of “The Rugged Old Cross” by Mrs. Celese Sheldon Olsen and Miss Muriel Bates. During the ceremony, Mayor Angelo Rossi appointed the Boy Scouts of San Francisco as the guardians of the cornerstone and record box. Eagle Scout William H. Worden, Jr. of Troop 88 accepted this duty on behalf of the Boy Scouts.

Some of the contents of Mount Davidson Cross time capsule, April 1, 2023. (Courtesy of Arnold Woods)

Park Superintendent John McLaren and a representative of the Dollar Steamship Line placed the Holy Land items in the time capsule. Walter P. Laufenberg of the real estate firm Baldwin & Howell, placed the capsule within the vault. The Salvation Army’s territorial commander, Benjamin Orames, then lowered the cornerstone atop the vault and it was cemented in.

Lights on Mount Davidson Cross with large Easter service crowd, circa 1935.Lights on Mount Davidson Cross with large Easter service crowd, circa 1935. (wnp26.1390; Bill Kostura Collection / Courtesy of a Private Collector)

Like the prior cross, this one was outfitted with lights. At a night-time ceremony on March 24, 1934, the lights were turned on for the first time.3 President Franklin D. Roosevelt pressed a golden key at the White House at 7:30 p.m., which lit up the floodlights at the cross. At this ceremony, the Girl Scouts sang their hymn.

Aerial view of Mount Davidson Cross, circa 1958.Aerial view of Mount Davidson Cross, circa 1958. (wnp27.2701; Courtesy of a Private Collector)

On April 1, 1934, the first Easter Service by the new cross was held. Both Muni and the Market Street Railway ran special schedules beginning at 6:00 a.m. to get people there.4 Reverend Jason Noble Pierce of the First Congregational Church presided over the service.5

Time capsule ceremony at Mount Davidson Cross, April 1, 2023. (Courtesy of Arnold Woods)

100 years after the first Easter Service, the time capsule was opened at a ceremony at the cross on April 1, 2023, featuring speeches by the Mount Davidson Cross Armenian Council (the caretakers of the cross), and city political and religious leaders. Then the time capsule was removed from its vault under the cornerstone and its contents displayed to a large crowd.

Contents for new time capsule at Mount Davidson, April 1, 2023. (Courtesy of Arnold Woods)

After the old time capsule was fully revealed, the gathered political and religious luminaries announced the items that they were giving to be placed into a new time capsule that would go back in the vault. Numerous other items, such as newspapers, bibles, the letter inviting President Roosevelt to light the cross in 1934, flags, a scout patches, a pendant featuring the Grace Cathedral Labyrinth, a 2023 Easter Sunrise Service program, a traditional Armenian Cross Stone, a Life in 2023 summary of events and news, COVID face masks, and the icon of Annunciation horning the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Cathedral. The new time capsule is to be opened in 2123.


1. “Thousands Will Participate In New Cross Rite,” San Francisco Chronicle, March 4, 1934, p. C5.

2. “Easter Cross Ceremonies To Be Held Today,” San Francisco Examiner, March 4, 1934, p. 18.

3. “New S.F. Easter Cross Lighted By Roosevelt” San Francisco Chronicle, March 25, 1934, p. 18.

4. “Mt. Davidson Car Service Is Announced,” San Francisco Chronicle, March 31, 1934, p. 21.

5. “Catholics Observe Church Feast Day,” San Francisco Chronicle, March 29, 1934, p. 13.