by Frank Dunnigan
For a quarter-century from 1970 until the mid-1990s, this author was among the tens of thousands of San Francisco residents whose workdays found them in the downtown area between Market Street and Union Square. Recently, there was time to pause and reflect on what daily life was like back in those simpler times, so let’s take a short walk from Powell & Market up to Union Square while looking around to see some of the sights from the past and what has become of them today.
The Brown Twins, Marian and Vivian, shown here in 1974 in front of the former Bank of America building at #1 Powell Street, were a quintessential part of downtown San Francisco. Settling in the City in 1970 from their native Michigan, they worked for different companies in the Financial District, and maintained their twinship by dressing alike—right down to carrying identical bags if they had been shopping. For many years, they shared an apartment on Nob Hill and were a popular sight on city streets, eventually becoming featured performers in several print and television advertising campaigns. They were friendly and outgoing to locals and tourists alike, and their wardrobes became bolder over the years, often featuring dramatic matching hats in vivid colors in later years. Sadly, both of them passed away just 22 months apart in 2013 and 2014, and now rest peacefully at the Columbarium in the Richmond District. The bank building at #1 Powell, built 101 years ago, now has apartments on the upper floors, with a frequently changing ground-floor retailer—everything from phones to clothing over the years. Read a 2021 Chronicle retrospective and see additional photos of the incomparable pair.
For more than 45 years, from October of 1952 until July of 1997, Woolworth’s occupied the ground floor and the basement of the historic 1904 Flood Building at Powell and Market Streets—shown here in 1964. The largest store in the chain, it dispensed enormous quantities of notions, sundries, candy (allegedly the largest single location for retail bulk candy sales, by tonnage, in the U.S), and countless other items that people needed on a daily basis—bargain-priced cosmetics, “fashion” clothing and jewelry, picture frames, phonograph records (later, 8-track and cassette tapes), pet supplies, and even pets themselves, including parakeets and goldfish. There were also shoelaces, dishes and glassware, cleaning products, and those ubiquitous orange-and-black cans of NO-MOTH that sold for 88 cents. The store included three different lunch counters, a deli, bakery, pizzeria, and on the middle aisle in housewares, there was always someone demonstrating the latest version of the “Veg-a-matic” kitchen slicer. Today Woolworth’s old ground-floor space is home to multiple smaller retailers. Read more in a 1997 Chronicle article on Woolworth’s closure.
The corner of Powell & Market had a steady supply of street preachers promoting a wide variety of beliefs in the mid-1970s. The old Lincoln Building in the background, with multiple stores, is now the Westfield San Francisco Center, built in 1991.
The Emporium opened at 835 Market Street in 1896. Selling moderately priced goods, it also had a “bargain basement” for most of its years in business. Lunch counters were popular and the store prided itself on selling everything “from a needle to an anchor”—note the prominent signs for TOYS in this photo from the holiday season in the early 1960s. Following various corporate reorganizations, the grand old place closed in 1995, just one year short of its 100th birthday. The outer wall and the massive dome were preserved and incorporated into a new retail structure that is linked to the adjacent San Francisco Shopping Center (now the Westfield San Francisco Center) at the corner of Fifth & Market Streets that was built in 1991 to replace the old Lincoln Building shown at far right. Bloomingdale’s and other tenants occupy 835 Market Street today.
The BART system, narrowly approved by voters in the 3-county district in the November 1962 election, brought tremendous changes to downtown San Francisco when construction began five years later. Here, only a few signs and sawhorses are in place to mark the 1967 beginning of open-trench, cut-and-cover construction that lasted for a full six years. The theatres and small shops shown at left were eventually demolished to make way for Hallidie Plaza and the entrance to the BART/MUNI Powell Street Station. BART began East Bay revenue service in the fall of 1972, then the first San Francisco trains began running between Montgomery Street and Daly City in November of 1973, with full service through the Transbay Tube beginning in September of 1974.
“The Ship That Never Goes to Sea” was home to Bernstein’s Fish Grotto at 123 Powell Street from 1907 to 1981. The restaurant’s bar, The Drunken Dolphin, had its own entrance to the left of the pillar. The once-popular spot closed in 1981, and a non-descript retail outlet occupies the site today.
From the 1950s, Marquard’s Little Cigar Store held down the southwest corner of Powell & O’Farrell, shown here in 1974. Essentially a newsstand and smoke shop that was open from early morning until late at night, the store also sold vast quantities of postcards to tourists and dispensed various packaged beverages—often in pint and half-bottles—to thirsty customers. Neighboring businesses to the right along O’Farrell Street included Cooper’s Shoeshine Stand, a hofbrau restaurant, and the classic Bardelli’s Restaurant. All have vanished into the mists of time, with Marquard’s having been the last to close just a few years ago, replaced by a shop selling sports hats.
Directly across from Marquard’s in the SE corner of Powell & O’Farrell was the classic 1907 structure known as Elevated Shops—a rabbit-warren of small Mom-and-Pop businesses that included hair salons, coin and stamp dealers, jewelry repair, travel agents, and others. For decades, the ground-floor merchants included a Japan Air Lines ticket office and the tiny Swedish Bakery that dispensed hundreds of servings of raspberry Danish pastries and coffee on a daily basis, plus Tro Harper Books. More than 15 years ago, the interior of the building was gutted, though the exterior shell was preserved and rebuilt. The two small neighboring buildings to the left along O’Farrell were demolished and replaced with a new structure that connected to a renovated Elevated Shops building with new upper floor condos and a single ground-floor retail space that has recently been vacant.
Bardelli’s was a classic downtown restaurant on O’Farrell Street just west of Powell, with crisp white tablecloths and napkins, uniformed servers, and a magnificent wooden bar and stained glass interior décor. The site housed a number of different dining establishments before Chef Charles Bardelli took over in 1949. He and his staff served hundreds of daily lunches and dinners and quenched the thirst of many more customers at the bar, with spirited beverages alongside appetizer platters of deep-fried zucchini sticks until the restaurant’s closure in August of 1997. The site was later occupied by different restaurants, but it has recently been shuttered.
The St. Francis Hotel, dating back to 1904, was expanded with another wing in 1913, and with a 32-story tower—containing one of the best free elevator rides in town—opening in 1972. The hotel has played host to numerous civic and private events in its nearly 120 years in business—from the Fatty Arbuckle scandal in the early 1920s in which a young actress was found dead to 1975 when Sara Jane Moore fired two shots, one of which narrowly missed President Gerald Ford and passed through the wall of the hotel above the Post Street door from which Ford had just exited the building. Now, nearly half a century later, that small bullet hole remains. Union Square in front of the hotel has also hosted numerous events, speakers, political rallies, and protests, including a 1970s music performance by Country Joe McDonald, shown here with his guitar. McDonald, now age 80, still lives in the Bay Area.
Much has changed on the north side of union Square along Post Street, shown here in 1962. The decades-old ticket office for United Air Lines at the corner of Post & Powell was closed long ago when tickets went paperless. The multi-tenant Fitzhugh Building, dating back to the early 1920s, was demolished for a new Saks Fifth Avenue store, circa-1979-80. Just prior to that, Quantas Airlines demolished an adjacent smaller building, putting up a new structure (now occupied by Tiffany and other tenants) that approximated the color and height of the Fitzhugh Building, unaware that Fitzhugh would soon be demolished. The Plaza Hotel, at far right, was demolished in 1969 to make way for what was then known as the Hyatt on Union Square, now the Grand Hyatt. The Sir Francis Drake Hotel in the background at center, has been closed since March of 2020, and is now undergoing refurbishment and rebranding. Only the 450 Sutter Medico-Dental building in the background at right, remains essentially unchanged in appearance. Several of the palm trees and yew trees, long a feature of Union Square, were removed during a remodel early in this millennium.
Mime Robert Shields at his favorite spot, the southeast corner of Union Square in 1976. For several years, Shields performed there daily, mimicking the expressions and the walks of passersby, sometimes in tandem with his spouse, Lorene Yarnell. Shields is now retired and living in Arizona at the age of 71. Read their biographies.
Once known as the Butler Building at the corner of Geary & Stockton, the site, shown here in 1957, was acquired by I. Magnin after World War II and remodeled with plate glass windows and clad in white marble, operating as the chain’s flagship store from 1948 until it closed in 1994. Acquired by Macys, the upper floors were eventually annexed to Macy’s existing adjacent buildings. Twenty-five years later, Macy’s vacated the premises and sold the 233 Geary building to an investors group. The San Francisco Planning Commission recently approved a proposal for a new mixed-use development, including retail on the lower floors, offices on the middle floors, and 21 condominium units on the upper floors.
The City of Paris building at Stockton & Geary opened in 1896, was restored in 1909, and demolished in 1981, following the store’s 1972 closure. A new Neiman-Marcus store was built at the site, with the old store’s original glass dome incorporated into the new structure. The City of Paris store and its iconic Christmas tree were an integral part of the holiday shopping season until the early 1970s. Read more about San Francisco holiday traditions.
The 1970s also saw a number of street musicians performing classical music, including this man in 1977 at the Liberty House store (1974-1984) that was located at the SE corner of Stockton & O’Farrell. It was built as a replacement for the building that had once housed parts of City of Paris, including the Children’s Department. Following the closure of Liberty House in 1984, the building was acquired by Macy’s (its main building is reflected in the Liberty House display windows) and was labeled the Men’s Store from 1984 to 2019 when it was vacated and sold. It has since been extensively remodeled and converted to office/retail uses, which you can see here.