Streetwise: Nighttime San Francisco

by Frank Dunnigan

San Francisco at night showcases everything in a wonderful light. Looking through the OpenSFHistory photo archive, many images stand out from others simply because the sun has already set. While San Francisco enjoys a busy nightlife all year long with sporting events, music programs, dining out, and much more, many local residents just seem to get out and about more frequently than usual in the month of December. Here are a few of the sights that always manage to evoke fond memories among San Franciscans while shopping, dining out, or just going through their daily routines after dark.


Telegraph Hill, circa 1960.Night view of Telegraph Hill from the Bay, circa 1960. (wnp27.3350; courtesy of a Private Collector)

TELEGRAPH HILL — This classic image of 1960 San Francisco was taken from offshore, above the waters of the bay.


Civic Center, December 26, 1933.Lighted Christmas tree in Civic Center Plaza with City Hall, December 26, 1933. (wnp26.146; photo by Horace Chaffee, SF Department of Public Works / Courtesy of a Private Collector)

CIVIC CENTER — The lighted dome of San Francisco’s City Hall is always a striking contrast against the nighttime skies, seldom more so than in this image from December 1933, taken at the depths of the Great Depression. Bright lights in dark times. Changing the standard incandescent bulbs in 220 light fixtures was expensive, requiring 2-3 staff members plus 4 lighting contractors to spend hours crawling in and out of office windows and onto the roof to install colored theatrical gels. A computer-controlled LED lighting system was installed in 2016 and now easily adds themed colors to the building’s façade.


Grant Avenue and California Street, 1967.Chinatown at night, Grant Avenue & California Street, 1967. (wnp25.4082; Courtesy of a Private Collector)

CHINATOWN — One area of San Francisco regularly filled with bright lights is Grant Avenue, shown here in 1967.


View east from the roof of 450 Sutter Street, circa 1940.Nighttime view east from the roof of 450 Sutter Street, circa 1940. (wnp26.1392; Bill Kostura Collection / Courtesy of a Private Collector)

DOWNTOWN & BAY BRIDGE — This 1940s view of the downtown shopping area, along with the Financial District and the Bay Bridge, is a clear reminder of the visual appeal of nighttime in a big city. The large, well-lighted, round-cornered structure near center is the old White House Department store, which occupied four separate, adjacent buildings. San Francisco’s first department store, it was founded in 1854 as Davidson & Layne Dry Goods at Post and Grant, and adopted the White House name in 1870 when it moved to Kearny and Post. After rebuilding at Sutter and Grant in 1908 following the earthquake and fire, the store remained a staple of the downtown area until its closure in 1965.


Market near 4th Street, June 17, 1952.Window display at Hartfield’s store, 817 Market Street near 4th Street, June 17, 1952. (wnp100.00006; Morton-Waters Co., SCRAP Negative Collection / Courtesy of SCRAP)

SHOPPING — Lighted display windows beckon shoppers to inspect the fashions of 1952 at Hartfield’s, located at 817 Market Street near 4th Street. Many downtown stores remained open late on Monday nights, and by the 1960s, the practice expanded to include Thursdays and Fridays as well. By the mid-1970s, many of the larger stores remained open late five nights a week.


Market and Powell Street, October 3, 1962.Market and Powell Street, October 3, 1962. (wnp28.6148; photo by Andrew Petrishin, Examiner Negative Collection / Courtesy of a Private Collector)

POWELL & MARKET — Fans celebrate the Giants win over the Dodgers on October 3, 1962, thus placing the home team into the World Series for the first time in San Francisco history. The Douglas Building at left was demolished in the late 1960s to make way for Hallidie Plaza.


United Artists Theatre, March 1958.United Artists Theatre marquee on Market Street near 7th Street, March 1958. (wnp5.50607; Courtesy of Jack Tillmany)

MARKET STREET THEATERS — With dozens of theaters lining both sides of Market Street between 4th and 9th Streets, the area’s nighttime lure was powerful from the 1920s to the 1960s. Shown here in 1958, the number of active movie houses has dropped from dozens to a mere handful, with the largest decline taking place at the time of BART and Muni construction activities in the late 1960s/early 1970s.


Transamerica Pyramid, 1973.Transamerica Pyramid from Columbus near Vallejo Street, 1973. (wnp28.2560; Courtesy of a Private Collector)

NORTH BEACH — Since 1972, this is the scene that has greeted pedestrians crossing Columbus at Vallejo, perhaps after a filing Italian dinner. Construction of the Transamerica Pyramid began in 1969 and took four years.


Nob Hill Hotels, circa 1962.Telephoto view at night looking west towards Mark Hopkins Hotel, Fairmont Hotel, and Fairmont Tower, circa 1962. (wnp25.6499; Courtesy of a Private Collector)

HOTELS — This 1962 image contrasts the 1928-built Sir Francis Drake Hotel at Powell and Sutter on the left (the Beacon Grand since 2022) with the 1907-built Fairmont Hotel on Nob Hill and its then-new Fairmont Tower, with a glass elevator to the Crown Room.


View from Buena Vista Park, 1973.View from Buena Vista Park to downtown, 1973. (wnp28.2624; Courtesy of a Private Collector)

BUENA VISTA PARK — This was the scene that greeted visitors to Buena Vista Park in 1973, with many recently-built downtown office and hotel towers glimmering through the nighttime skies. See more of the changing downtown landscape as viewed from hilltop parks in Arnold Woods’ 2019 article.


1st and Folsom Streets, circa 1939.Night view north from center of 1st Street across Folsom, circa 1939. (wnp14.11959; Courtesy of a Private Collector)

SOUTH OF MARKET & FINANCIAL DISTRICT — The 28-story gothic moderne Shell Building opened in 1929 at 100 Bush Street (at Battery), one of the last new Financial District office buildings completed prior to the Great Depression. Shown here in a view from the corner of 1st and Folsom Streets ten years later, in 1939, the building made a striking addition to the local skyline — before it was surrounded by many larger structures beginning in the post-World War II era. Today it’s the 69th tallest building in San Francisco. Although the Shell Oil Company relocated elsewhere in the 1960s, the building underwent an extensive renovation/restoration nearly 30 years ago and still offers top-of-the-line office amenities today as it approaches its 100th birthday.