Streetwise: Then & (Closer to) Now Across San Francisco

by Frank Dunnigan

Over the years, many views of San Francisco streets and buildings have undergone drastic changes. Here are a handful of scenes from the photo archives that show some of the significant alterations that have occurred in many neighborhoods over the years.


3514 21st Street, July 1974.3514 21st Street, July 1974. (wnp25.10359; Photo by Judith Lynch / Courtesy of a Private Collector)

3514 21st Street, November 1976.3514 21st Street, November 1976. (wnp25.10699; Photo by Judith Lynch / Courtesy of a Private Collector)

This Italianate home at 3514 21st Street, shown here in 1974, underwent a form of severe remodel that was sadly very common in the post-World War II years. Following a 1976 restoration, the building re-acquired its original appearance. Read more about this and other properties that have been lovingly restored in this August 2018 article by Woody LaBounty, as well as a large photo collection of similar work by photographer Judith Lynch.


O'Farrell & Mason Streets, 1953.O’Farrell & Mason Streets, 1953. (wnp28.2482; courtesy of a Private Collector)

O'Farrell near Mason Street, January 1957.O’Farrell near Mason Street, January 1957. (wnp25.4988; courtesy of a Private Collector)

Downtown San Francisco (including Union Square, the Financial District, South of Market, and Chinatown) saw significant increases in automobile traffic in the years after World War II, leading to the construction of several large parking structures, including the Downtown Center Garage at Mason and O’Farrell. These images show construction underway in 1953 and the completed structure a few years later in 1957.


Union Square, July 30, 1941.Union Square, July 30, 1941. (wnp100.00473; Morton-Waters Co., SCRAP Negative Collection / Courtesy of SCRAP)

Union Square, 1946.Union Square, 1946. (wnp27.5590; courtesy of a Private Collector)

Union Square itself was the site of one of the largest underground parking garages under construction before World War II. Ground was broken in March 1941, and the 1,700-space facility was dedicated in September 1942. These two scenes show the area in 1941 and 1946. The OpenSFHistory archive has more images of the garage’s construction.


El Presidio Theatre, January 1940.El Presidio Theatre, January 1940. (wnp67.0079; Jack Tillmany Collection / Courtesy of a Private Collector)

Presidio Theatre, 2002.Presidio Theatre, 2002. (wnp010.10211; Jack Tillmany Collection / Courtesy of a Private Collector)

The Presidio Theater on Chestnut Street in the Marina, seen here in 1940 and 2002. The movie house later underwent some exterior remodeling and a slight name change, along with a switch to adult films. In 2004, it had a significant interior remodel and a return to a more family-friendly selection of features.


Haight near Lyon, 1917.Haight near Lyon, 1917. (wnp15.1730; courtesy of a Private Collector)

Haight near Lyon, 1990s.Haight near Lyon, 1990s. (wnp07.00276; Richmond Review Newspaper Collection / Courtesy of Paul Kozakiewicz, Richmond Review)

The Third Church of Christ, Scientist, built in 1915 at 1250 Haight Street, opposite Buena Vista Park, was home to one of several Christian Science congregations in San Francisco in the early 20th century. It is shown here in 1917 and also in the 1990s. After the membership dispersed through attrition, the building was acquired by a non-profit group and its historic façade was preserved, with 40 affordable housing rental units for seniors built within the building’s shell, opening in 2010.


Geary near Masonic, 1870s.Geary near Masonic, 1870s. (wnp24.0153a; courtesy of a Private Collector)

Geary & Masonic, circa 1950.Geary and Masonic, circa 1950. (wnp26.1407; Bill Kostura Collection / courtesy of a Private Collector)

Beginning in the 1860s, at the time of the Civil War, Calvary Cemetery was established as San Francisco’s official Catholic Cemetery by Archbishop Joseph Sadoc Alemany. It is shown here circa 1870. By the dawn of the 20th century, cemeteries were relocating to the San Mateo County town of Colma, with Calvary’s final burial taking place in 1916. Lacking a perpetual endowment fund, the area was in serious disrepair by the early 1900s. By the late 1930s, following a city-wide mandate, bodies that had not been removed by individual families were exhumed by the Archdiocese of San Francisco and relocated to a central location at Holy Cross Cemetery in Colma. The land was then cleared for post-World War II development, shown here in 1950. Streets were laid out in this new neighborhood called Anza Vista. Note the advertisement announcing the planned Sears store for the site. This image also shows the work then underway for the widening of Geary Boulevard. The Sears store on Geary and Masonic operated with multiple parking levels at the site from 1951 to 1990. After the location closed, it was home to Mervyn’s, then Best Buy, and several other retailers. Now known as City Center, the complex has been home to a large Target store since 2013, plus a number of smaller retail outlets, including CVS, PetSmart, and others. See Woody LaBounty’s article from April 2018 for more on Calvary Cemetery.


Geary & Masonic, 1940.Geary & Masonic, 1940. (wnp27.50317; photo by Waldemar Sievers / courtesy of a Private Collector)

Geary & Masonic, January 1952.Geary & Masonic, January 1952. (wnp32.2303; Emiliano Echeverria Collection / courtesy of Emiliano Echeverria)

When Muni began its first streetcar line from downtown westward along Geary in 1912, the car barn at Geary and Masonic was built to service the rolling stock. Three years later, a second story of offices was added. Shown here in 1940 and 1952, the building was still servicing streetcars, but when Geary streetcar service was discontinued in 1956, the remaining streetcars were serviced at other Muni facilities. Muni maintains various administrative functions at the offices, known as 949 Presidio Avenue.


Geary & Fillmore, 1906.Geary & Fillmore, 1906. (wnp37.00287; Marilyn Blaisdell Collection / courtesy of a Private Collector)

Geary near Fillmore, February 1989.Geary near Fillmore, February 1989. (wnp72.15213; photo by Greg Gaar / courtesy of Greg Gaar))

At the time of the 1906 earthquake, Congregation Beth Israel had a new synagogue nearing completion on Geary Street near Fillmore. It suffered extensive damage, but was soon restored and remained in service until a 1969 merger with Temple Judea on Brotherhood Way. The building shown here fell into disrepair, but was acquired in the late 1980s and renovated by artist Tony Duquette as a gallery that was sadly destroyed by an electrical fire in 1989, as shown here. The remains of the building were then demolished and it was replaced with a non-descript post office building.


Lombard & Grant, 1963.Lombard & Grant, 1963. (wnp28.2788; courtesy of a Private Collector)

Lombard & Grant, August 1969.Lombard & Grant, August 1969. (wnp25.6641; courtesy of a Private Collector)

Until the 1960s, this corner of Lombard and Grant in North Beach was occupied by post-1906 residential cottages that were ready for demolition in 1963, as shown here. For most of the 1960s and 1970s, the site remained vacant, shown here in August 1969, until a modern four-story condo building was erected at the site in 1977.


Alhambra Theater, November 1926.Alhambra Theater, November 1926. (wnp14.10101; courtesy of a Private Collector)

Alhambra Theatre, 1995.Alhambra Theater, 1995. (wnp07.00363; Richmond Review Newspaper Collection / Courtesy of Paul Kozakiewicz, Richmond Review)

The Moorish-Revival Alhambra Theater opened on Polk Street in November 1926, as shown here. The theater was twinned in 1976, and converted back to a single screen format in 1988. It closed as a movie house in 1998 and was subsequently occupied by a fitness club that features movies, and is still operating as such today. The building has retained some of its original interior details, including the exterior sign shown in the second image from 1995, though the street level of the exterior façade has been changed considerably since 1926.