Streetwise: Looking Back 100 Years in San Francisco

by Frank Dunnigan

Many people take large swaths of San Francisco architecture and infrastructure for granted, seldom thinking about the history of an area. Given the devastation of 1906, there are numerous buildings, civic improvements, and even entire neighborhoods that were rebuilt in the two decades after that event, with many now turning 100 years old. This month, we take a look at several scenes from the year 1924.

 

Minna near Mary, 1924.Minna near Mary, 1924. (wnp15.158; courtesy of a Private Collector)

This construction site image shows the foundation preparations then underway for the Chronicle Building at 5th and Mission Streets in 1924. The Old U.S. Mint, which opened fifty years earlier in 1874, was and still is the Chronicle Building’s across-the-street neighbor.

 

Post and Powell, circa 1925.Post & Powell, circa 1925. (wnp100.00300; photo by Morton-Waters Co., SCRAP Negative Collection / Courtesy of SCRAP)

The classic gray Fitzhugh Building at the northeast corner of Post and Powell Streets — designed to complement the adjacent St. Francis Hotel — opened in January 1924 and served as offices for many small business firms, including accountants, attorneys, jewelers, and medical professionals. It also had ground-floor retail space (for many years, a Roos-Atkins clothing store operated there). The building was demolished in 1980 after a five-year preservation fight, and Saks Fifth Avenue built a new store on the site shortly thereafter.

 

Pacific Telephone Building, December 9, 1924.Pacific Telephone Building, December 9, 1924. (wnp26.1879; Courtesy of a Private Collector)

The first modern skyscraper in the South of Market neighborhood was the Pacific Telephone & Telegraph Building (generally referred to as The Telephone Building) at 140 New Montgomery Street. Construction began in 1924 and when the opening ceremonies were held in 1925, the 26-story tower was the city’s tallest building until the same-sized Russ Building opened in 1927; the height distinction of both buildings held until 1964. This author had numerous older relatives who spent their entire working lives in this building as telephone operators, electrical engineers, and clerical staff for “Ma Bell.” Following corporate changes, the tower was sold, and by 2008, a new owner had plans to convert the structure into a 118-unit condominium tower. Two years later, those plans changed and a major refurbishment took place, updating the building for continued use as an office tower. By 2012, Yelp Inc. occupied nearly half of the building’s square footage, along with several other corporate tenants. In 2021, Yelp did not renew its lease due to the increase in remote work, and as of early 2023, the building was nearly two-thirds vacant.

 

Telegraph Hill, circa 1924.Telegraph Hill, circa 1924. (wnp15.700; courtesy of a Private Collector)

In 1924, the site of today’s Coit Tower was still open space atop Telegraph Hill. Lillie Hitchcock Coit, a wealthy socialite, died in 1929 and left the substantial sum of $100,000 for the beautification of San Francisco. The Board of Supervisors debated an appropriate use for the funds and settled on two monuments: one in Washington Square Park to honor the city’s volunteer firemen, and one on Telegraph Hill to honor Coit herself. However, the tower is often erroneously thought to also be a memorial to the city’s volunteer firefighters, given Coit’s well-known interest in the subject and its resemblance to a fire hose nozzle. Coit Tower opened in 1933, and architect Arthur Brown Jr. was adamant that the tower is not meant to resemble anything in particular.

 

Potrero Hill, 1924.Potrero Hill, 1924. (wnp32.3672; Emiliano Echeverria/Randolph Brandt Collection / Courtesy of Emiliano Echeverria)

In 1892, St. Teresa’s Church was built at 19th and Tennessee Streets to replace an earlier structure that dated back to the founding of the parish in 1880. In 1924, that church was no longer in a convenient place to accommodate the new influx of parishioners living on Potrero Hill, so another parcel of land was purchased a few blocks away on 19th between Connecticut and Missouri Streets. The church building was cut in two, and moved several blocks before being reassembled atop a newly-built social hall, where it remains in regular use today.

 

View West toward Nob Hill, circa 1924.View West toward Nob Hill, circa 1924. (wnp15.1118; courtesy of a Private Collector)

Built in 1921 at 315 Montgomery Street and officially known as Commercial Insurance Building, the office structure (shown here in 1924) has been home to various administrative departments of Bank of America over the years. It recently underwent a thorough update and is now home to multiple corporate tenants. Its lobby now accommodates Bank of America’s San Francisco Main Branch, which was downsized several years ago from a larger space in the modern five-story marble-clad structure at 345 Montgomery.

 

San Francisco Call, July 1924.San Francisco Call, July 1924. (wnp30.0034; Emiliano Echeverria/Randolph Brandt Collection / Courtesy of Emiliano Echeverria)

The San Francisco Call newspaper office in July 1924 was filled with wooden desks and chairs, candlestick-style telephones, noisy manual typewriters, and crumpled-up debris on the floor in what appears to be a “men-only” workplace. The Call merged with the San Francisco Bulletin a few years later in 1929 to become the Call-Bulletin, and that entity teamed up with the San Francisco News in the late 1950s to form the News Call-Bulletin. That afternoon paper vanished from the scene in the fall of 1965 when the Chronicle became the city’s only morning newspaper, with its competitor, the Examiner, moving from morning to afternoon publication.

 

Marina and Scott, March 6, 1924.Marina and Scott, March 6, 1924. (wnp36.02821; photo by Horace Chaffee, SF Department of Public Works / Courtesy of a Private Collector)

The Column of Progress was a remnant of the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition. Located in the Court of the Sun and the Stars, the archer at the top of column was known as the “Adventurous Bowman.” After the fair closed, the column was kept intact and was soon surrounded by what became the intersection of Marina Boulevard and Cervantes Boulevard by the early 1920s. The structure, barely a decade old, was deemed a traffic hazard after being struck by several motorists. By 1924, it was in very deteriorated condition as shown here in March of that year, and was soon demolished.

 

Bush and Larkin, circa 1924.Bush and Larkin, circa 1924. (wnp26.1716; courtesy of a Private Collector)

This Pacific Telephone Central Office opened in 1924 at Bush and Larkin Streets, serving the GREYSTONE Exchange in the area around Van Ness Avenue. It has since been renovated into a senior housing complex, operated by On Lok Housing with a relocated entrance and known today as 1333 Bush Street.

 

Silver near Merrill, May 24, 1924.Silver near Merrill, May 24, 1924. (wnp36.02727; photo by Horace Chaffee, SF Department of Public Works / Courtesy of a Private Collector)

Despite the popularity of automobiles, motion pictures, and residential development by 1924, some San Francisco neighborhoods still had relatively few of those amenities, with unpaved streets and horse-drawn transportation still prevalent. This area of Silver Avenue near Merrill in the Portola neighborhood is now a well-developed residential street that extends from Bayshore Boulevard all the way to Mission Street in the Excelsior District.