Heart of Old San Francisco 2

Heart of Old San Francisco 2, San Francisco, California (A)

This audio tour is the second of two in San Francisco's central area where notable historic and modern structures literally lie just above sunken relics from the Gold Rush era. The magic of discovery here is in hearing and seeing the very palpable bond between these very different eras. You can take a virtual trip in a Wells Fargo stage coach or visit the Merchants Exchange, with its dramatic interior complete with maritime murals.
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Walk Route

Guide Name: Heart of Old San Francisco 2
Guide Location: USA » San Francisco
Guide Type: Self-guided Walking Tour (Article (A))
# of Attractions: 14
Tour Duration: 1.0 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 1.0 Km or 0.6 Miles
Author: Jackson Fahnestock
Author Bio: I am an architect (now retired) and urban planner with over 35 years in these fields. My career travels to projects across the globe have made me a shameless observer and critic of the design of urban places. It has been my good fortune to live in San Francisco for over 25 years and my affection for it only grows stronger with time.
Author Website: http://www.jacksonfahnestock.com
Sight(s) Featured in This Guide:
  • 456-60 Montgomery Street
  • Wells Fargo History Museum
  • Kohl Building
  • 475-85 California Street
  • Merchants' Exchange Building
  • Leidesdorff Street
  • Bank of California
  • The Newhall Building
  • Tadich Grill
  • 101 California Street
  • PG&E Building
  • Matson Building
  • New Federal Reserve Bldg.
  • Old Southern Pacific Bldg.
456-60 Montgomery Street

1) 456-60 Montgomery Street

Hi there! Welcome to this tour of one of my favorite parts of Old San Francisco—which, by the way, has a good many new parts. The headline for your first stop could be "New big building swallows old little buildings." Actually this is a good example of how older buildings can be saved—at least in part—and contribute to the interest and texture of the city. 456-460 Montgomery is a 24-story tower that has been set back in deference to two historic banking façades: that of the Italian American Bank on the left and Anton Borel and Company on the right.

The Italian American building was designed by John Galen Howard who also designed many of the most distinguished buildings on the Campus of the University of California at Berkeley. The Borel building's architect, Albert Pissis, employed the Beaux Arts styling which was common during the City's reconstruction after the 1906 earthquake.

If you glance across Sacramento Street you'll notice how popular the temple theme became in housing banking institutions. This 1918 building at 500 Montgomery now houses the Far East National Bank.

Now look directly across Montgomery Street—where Citibank currently is—and imagine a spa being there in 1842—well, kind of a spa anyway. The local native Americans used a Sweat House, or temescal, for spiritual purification. When a fire in a deep brush-covered hole was going strong the hot air would allow a good sweat followed by a plunge in Laguna Dulce, a nearby pool.
Wells Fargo History Museum

2) Wells Fargo History Museum

Here's your chance to get up close and personal with a fascinating bit of history. The stagecoach you see in the window is an original and is over 100 years old. Due to its rather fragile state you can only look but upstairs is one you can sit in. In that one the rocking motion gets you in the mood to hear all about a real journey taken by a young man in 1859 from St. Louis to San Francisco. There is also a free audio tour of the museum inside.

During the 1860's Wells Fargo stagecoaches served the western United States, carrying strongboxes and, thanks to the Gold Rush, it provided banking, mail, and express services. Of course while the scenery was no doubt spectacular the journey was often perilous—particularly during the time of the infamous Black Bart who managed to hold up 28 Wells Fargo stages before he was nabbed and sent to San Quentin prison.

Founded in 1852 by Henry Wells and William Fargo, the company opened for business in a modest two-story brick building close to this site. It actually did business utilizing many modes including stagecoach, steamship, railroad, pony rider, or telegraph. It became the country's first nationwide express company in 1888.

As you visit the museum take note of the gold samples from all the major Mother Lode rivers and artifacts from the 1906 earthquake and fire. Postmarked letters to San Franciscans from various mining towns give a real taste of this truly dynamic period.
Kohl Building

3) Kohl Building

This is the only building that survived the 1906 earthquake and avoided a total gutting of its interior. Built in 1901 of sturdy fire resistive construction, it served as a command post during the post-quake fire. The architectural firm of Percy & Hamilton acquired the project through their long time client, Alvinza Hayward in 1900. Willis Polk—who designed many of San Francisco's great buildings—joined the firm in 1900 and carried on the project after the deaths of both Percy and Hamilton. Just before the '06 earthquake Dr. Frederick Kohl of Burlingame purchased the building.

Clad in greenish-gray Colusa sandstone, the building's special detailing can be seen above the two-story doorway and in the upper story columns styled in a Baroque-Renaissance manner. You can probably make out part of the building's h-shape that supposedly lent a symbolic statement for Mr. Hayward who was reported to be California's first millionaire. In the 1880's Hayward acquired a major interest in a California quartz deposit that ultimately yielded the single richest gold deposit in California. He also owned an 800-acre estate in San Mateo that had a lake, race track, and deer park.

Much earlier this corner held Sam Brannan's Express Building. Built in 1854 the four-story edifice sported New Orleans-style iron balconies on the upper floors and a stone façade. Brannan sold mining supplies from his store in Sacramento and sought to establish a new colony of Latter Day Saints in the West.
475-85 California Street

4) 475-85 California Street

Another example of the great banking edifices of its era this building was designed by George Kelham in 1922. Kelham's other notable projects in the City include the old Federal Reserve Bank and the Old Main Library in the Civic Center. Similar styling is found here in the impressive colonnade on the California Street side. Head inside to check out the banking hall that was modeled after a Roman basilica interior—one more metaphor for the sacredness of the institutions of finance. Head on through to the striking Montgomery Street entrance lobby which was done in the Moderne style that flourished in the 1940's.

Now for a quick mention of Joseph Duncan, an eccentric to say the least, who built a four-story iron and stone bank on this corner in 1875 which housed some financial enterprises of his including the Safe Deposit Company of San Francisco. A massively reinforced safe stood in the basement guarded by twelve bronze statues of conquistadors and uniformed armed guards. But his enterprise was short lived: after two years in business Duncan's bank failed. Irate depositors came after him with criminal charges. The ever-inventive Duncan then disguised himself as a woman but eventually was caught, tried, and then acquitted after four trials.

The building you see across Montgomery Street has been a dominant feature of San Francisco's skyline since 1969. This 52-story skyscraper served as the Bank of America headquarters until the bank moved to Charlotte, North Carolina in 1998 after merging with Nations Bank.
Merchants' Exchange Building

5) Merchants' Exchange Building

You should now be at 465 California Street which is known as the Merchants Exchange. As its name implies it was built as a central congregation point for traders and merchants during the Gold Rush. Built in 1903 it was one of the few buildings that survived the 1906 earthquake and fire with its walls intact—thanks to its Chicago style skyscraper construction of steel and masonry. Willis Polk—you may remember him from the Kohl Building—designed what is actually the third Merchants Exchange here. It became a kind of template for a set of impressive commercial buildings like the PG&E and Matson Buildings on Market Street—we'll visit those in a few minutes.

A roof top belvedere—or lookout tower—provided views of the Bay. From here signals sent from ships gave merchants assembled in the great hall a heads-up on cargoes arriving at the Embarcadero. As you walk through this hall you'll once again be aware of the Roman basilica theme that we just saw next door. Rich materials—bronze, gold leaf, and marble—speak to solidity and importance. And, on the walls of the banking hall, we're still privileged to be able to see William Coulter's paintings of San Francisco Bay and other parts of the Pacific Rim.

Julia Morgan, the designer of Hearst Castle near Cambria, had her offices in this building for more than fifty years. An elaborate ballroom on the fifteenth floor was named after Morgan and now serves as a popular events venue.
Leidesdorff Street

6) Leidesdorff Street

Here we are at one of the oldest streets in San Francisco. This section extending south to Pine Street was known as "Pauper Alley" in the 19th century. This label may have resulted from the losses piled on stock speculators by curbstone brokers or from those losing horse racing bets made in the local pool halls. But now it has been converted into a more upbeat place with outdoor tables and seating.

Now take a glance directly across California Street. Before the Wells Fargo Bank building was built in 1960 the so-called "Cast Iron" building stood here. It was built in 1873 at the heart of the newly forming Financial District and near the fast disappearing Yerba Buena Cove. An elegant façade of some 200 tons of cast iron, the building withstood the fires of the 1850's and although the 1906 earthquake and fire gutted its interior, the perimeter walls stood fast. Now look near the fire plug at the curb and you'll see one of my favorite historic urban fragments. This iron stanchion with an acorn finial was a hitching post, complete with a feed bag compartment. It survives from the 1870's—good for it!

As you make your way toward the next site glance up at the very special Insurance Exchange Building. Another Willis Polk gem it is part of a grand street gesture and carries on the columnar rhythm found in its neighbor, the Merchants Exchange Building. The use of detailed terra cotta gives it a special glow.
Bank of California

7) Bank of California

You're now looking at one of the prime landmark buildings in the heart of the Financial District. In 1864 the Bank of California opened here. The original two-story building was built of blue sandstone quarried from Angel Island in the San Francisco Bay. The bank's early success was mostly owed to the financing of several gold mining operations. The volatile nature of this lending led to the collapse of the bank in 1875. However, it ultimately regained its stature and became a leading center of exchange between European and Asian money markets. In 1996, the bank merged with Union Bank resulting in the Union Bank of California whose logo you now see on the building.

Built in 1908 it has an unmatched presence on the street. A slightly recessed main façade gives prominence to the elegant row of Corinthian columns. A recent restoration of the grand banking hall brought back most of its original handsome features. And, you can head downstairs to visit the Museum of Money of the American West where you'll find many artifacts from the gold rush era.

Before the first Bank of California was built, the Tehama House was here. One of the hotel's residents, Joshua Norton, was easily one of San Francisco's most eccentric citizens. Born in London, Norton came to San Francisco in 1849 and squandered his inheritance on Peruvian rice. Shortly thereafter he became mentally unstable and, at one point, declared himself "Emperor of these United States" issuing a series of outrageously colorful decrees and proclamations.
The Newhall Building

8) The Newhall Building

This modest looking building is one of those important background buildings in the district. Designed by Lewis Hobart in 1911, it maintains a scale and texture that stands up well to other nondescript buildings on the street. Its lobby is especially appealing and reflects the styling of its time.

Hobart was active in the rebuilding efforts following the 1906 earthquake. He is best known for implementing the design of Grace Cathedral on Nob Hill. Other notable structures of his include the original Academy of Sciences buildings in Golden Gate Park and the Mills Tower at 220 Montgomery.

Over 100 years old, the Newhall Building exhibits a multi-tiered façade with several shifts of materials and styles. Although it is an office building the overall feeling is not unlike some of his later residential projects with large deep set windows punched into the facade.

Before you move on take a moment to look across the street at the refined Robert and Harold Dollar Buildings. These were both built around 1920 for the Robert Dollar Steamship Lines. Robert was a shipping magnate, lumber baron, and philanthropist. In 1895 he acquired his first ship, a single steam schooner called Newsboy, to ship his lumber from the Pacific Northwest to markets down the coast. Former California Governor James Rolph said, at the time of his death, "Robert Dollar has done more in his lifetime to spread the American flag on the high seas than any man in this country."
Tadich Grill

9) Tadich Grill

This is one of my favorite facades in the city. Tadich Grill is said to be the oldest restaurant in the city and the state. It dates to 1849 when it was a tiny stand called the New World Coffee Saloon during the Gold Rush era. It occupied the site where the Transamerica Pyramid now stands. Three Croatian immigrants, including John Tadich, started something the city and hoards of tourists still find irresistible. In 1928 John sold the business to the Buich family. Mike Buich started working at the restaurant when he was 9 peeling shrimp and busing dishes.

Its menu now includes contemporary dishes but sports the long-time classics of shrimp louie, cioppino, and petrale sole. It holds out the claim that, in the 1920's, it was the first establishment to use mesquite charcoal to grill seafood.

Since it moved to this site in 1967 Tadich's still evokes an old-world feel, hanging on to an ambiance that recalls the times when waiters in long aprons hustled about on the white tile floor and men in hats sat at the long counter or in the semi-private booths. The archival photographs on the walls capture the life and times of the restaurant and its city.

If you've been to Fleet Street in London you can imagine its richly textured front fitting in there easily with its handsome assemblage of terra cotta, wood detailing, and bronze window frames.

Attributed to the architects Crim and Scott the Buich building was designed in 1909 and has housed restaurants since the 1920's.
101 California Street

10) 101 California Street

We're now in one of the more pedestrian friendly plazas in the city. It provides a natural setting for the art shows and concerts often held here. It almost seems to borrow from Mayan architecture with its stepped banks of seating, lush plantings, and fountain. If you're ambitious you can scale the forms and reach your very own patch of sunny cushioned turf. The plaza also serves as an important path from California Street and the heart of the Financial District to Market Street.

The building was designed by architects Philip Johnson and John Burgee in 1979-1982. It preceded, by a few years, their controversial postmodern AT&T building—now the Sony building—in New York. At 48 stories, 101 California includes 1 ¼ million square feet of office space and makes a distinctive presence on the skyline. Its faceted cylindrical form hovering over a dramatic 7-story atrium provides a lively vertical shape.

Now, let's look back toward California Street and you'll have a good view of 150 California Street which you passed on your way to this site. At 24 stories, this is one of the more refined new skyscrapers in the downtown area. Built in the year 2000, Architects HOK received an Honor Award in 2002 from the local AIA and San Francisco Business Times. And on your way to Market Street you'll get a great view of the PG&E and Matson Buildings.
PG&E Building

11) PG&E Building

As you headed across Market Street you hopefully got that good view of two prominent buildings that give a definitive boldness to this broad and important thoroughfare: the PG&E and Matson Buildings. Constructed in 1925, the PG&E Building, named for the local energy company, was designed by the firm Bakewell & Brown—a name you probably wouldn't have chosen for a bakery. It was enlarged in 1949 and a tower added in 1971. After the PG&E and Matson buildings were damaged by the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, they were joined and strengthened under a 3-year $178 million overhaul. They both now serve as the PG&E headquarters.

Granite is used for the base although the rest of the building is clad in terra cotta which is made to evoke granite. Dramatic sculptural forms by Edgar Walter and impressive lanterns at the main entry add to the richness of the lower level. It has been said that the mountain goat forms perched over the windows are figurative references to the high mountains and snowfields where the energy company gets its water. I especially enjoy the heroic figures of hard-hatted energy workers. Even the historic street lights in the sidewalk seem to be part of the very alive stage set here.

When you crossed Market Street you might have noticed the engaged colonnade with freestanding urns at the very top. The uppermost floor once housed restaurants and doctors' offices for company employees. Now on to the Matson Building next door.
Matson Building

12) Matson Building

Like its beefy cousin, the PG&E building next door, the Matson Building holds its own at the beginning of Market Street where the two offset city grids meet. Here the terra cotta material that covers the façade does not pretend to be granite but literally gleams with its shiny multi-colored glazed surface. And here, the ornamentation is less sculptural than inlaid like a Renaissance Palace. In a light touch a colonnaded belvedere with a cupola graces its roof.

Designed by Bliss & Faville it was built in 1921. Between 1922 and 1947 it served as the headquarters for the shipping company founded by Captain William Matson. It was also the mainland headquarters for Hawaii's Big Five corporations. The Big Five were founded around the sugar processing industry during the early 20th century and when Hawaii was annexed to the U.S. in 1898 their influence and power grew even greater until they faded in the 1970's. Matson, a Swede, came to San Francisco in 1867 and teamed up with tycoon Claus Spreckels who funded many of Matson's new ships. In 1882 the three masted schooner Emma Claudina began carrying merchandise from the U.S. to the islands and sugar on the return trips.

The commercial trade led to greater tourist interest and the 146-passenger ship S.S. Wilhelmina started service in 1910. At Matson's death in 1917 the Matson fleet held 14 of the most impressive ships in the Pacific service. By the end of the 1970's with the increase in air travel the passenger service virtually disappeared.
New Federal Reserve Bldg.

13) New Federal Reserve Bldg.

You're now looking at the building that houses the Federal Reserve Bank for the twelfth district. This structure, designed by Skidmore Owings and Merrill, was built in 1982. Operations at that time were transferred from the old Federal Reserve building at Sansome and Sacramento Streets.

This district, services nine western states along with American Samoa, Guam, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Marinara Islands. The largest of the twelve districts, it covers 35 per cent of the nation's land area with a population over sixty million people. In 2010 it had a staff of over 1,500.

The Federal Reserve System was established in 1913 to form and implement national monetary policy. The Fed doesn't print money although it influences that policy in many ways. One specific tool to achieve this is to set the discount rate, or interest rate, charged to commercial banks on loans received from the regional Fed. While it is independent of Congress it comes under government scrutiny by way of audit and review.

But to get a proper education on how the Fed fits into monetary choices even at the individual's level I highly recommend taking the public tour from 12 to 1 PM on Fridays. If you can organize a group you can get on the Fed web site and reserve a tour. The real shame is that there used to be a money museum open to the public on most days. This access ceased after the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York in 2001.
Old Southern Pacific Bldg.

14) Old Southern Pacific Bldg.

This building gives a sturdy anchor to this end of Market Street. Bliss & Faville, architects of the Matson Building you just saw, designed it in 1916. It cost a mere $1.5 million back then and was one of the earliest major corporate headquarters buildings in the city. The rhythmic arched base and engaged colonnade at the uppermost level give a unifying coherence to the whole.

Two office towers were added to the older building in 1976: the 27-story tower on the Steuart Street side and the 42-story tower on the Spear Street side. A six-story arcade connects the three parts. Then, in 1995 a $35 million renovation by the architect Cesar Pelli infused new life into the complex. If you enter from Market Street you will see one of two tall pergolas with latticework screens. The other one is outside on Mission Street.

The Southern Pacific companies started as a land holding company in 1865. A group called the Big Four, Leland Stanford, Collis Huntington, Charles Crocker, and Mark Hopkins purchased SP in 1868 and collectively oversaw the building of the first transcontinental railroad. Its completion was celebrated with the driving of the famous golden spike in 1869 in Promontory Summit, Utah. The SP quickly grew into a major railroad by 1900, acquiring other systems. It operated lines running from New Orleans, through Texas and California, and up to Oregon. Many mergers later the Union Pacific Railroad took over SP in 1996 under an acquisition that had its roots back in 1901.

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