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.