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.
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.
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 — 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.
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.
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
1910: Scripted THE EMPORIUM—CALIFORNIA’S LARGEST, AMERICA’S GRANDEST STORE (shown above)
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
1964: SAN FRANCISCO’S DOWNTOWN SHOPPING CENTER was added
1980: A simple font, all-capital horizonal block-lettered EMPORIUM
2006: Lower-case lettering of the name “bloomingdale’s”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.