In 1847 when Jasper O’Farrell sketched out a street plan for San Francisco, he left two spaces open for a public plaza. This was one of them. The area got its name when it was used for rallies of support for the Union Army during the Civil War. Today the battles fought in the blocks around Union Square are for the credit cards of consumers who crowd one of the largest collections of department stores, upscale boutiques, tourist trinket shops, art galleries, and salons in the United States.

From its inception Union Square has played the role of ceremonial heart of San Francisco by hosting public events, concerts and holiday celebrations throughout the year. Each year a painted heart from a local artist is installed at the four corners of Union Square that will be auctioned off to benefit the San Francisco General Hospital.

In addition to world-famous retail stores, the streets surrounding Union Square are stuffed with venerable theaters, grand hotels and historic clubhouses. Originally this was a park surrounded by churches and residences but the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 changed all that. To see how the last century has transformed Union Square we will begin where Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds began, at the center of the square... 

Union Square Park
Geary, Powell, Post and Stockton streets

San Francisco’s first American mayor, John Geary, created this park in 1850; it got its name for the boisterous pro-Union rallies before and during the Civil War. Today’s granite plaza covers 2.6 acres and is studded with palm-speckled gardens. The soaring 97-foot shaft is a 1903 installation, a monument honoring Admiral George Dewey’s victory at the Battle of Manila Bay during the Spanish American War and a remembrance of recently assassinated President William McKinley. Executed by Robert Aitken, the statue at the top of the monument, “Victory,” was modeled after a comely Danish-American stenographer and artist’s model named Alma de Bretteville. The chairman of the selection committee, sugar magnate Adolph B. Spreckels, became smitten with de Bretteville and the two eventually married. She was 23, he was 46 and Alma often referred to her husband as her “sugar daddy,” a relationship description which would pass into the popular lexicon. In 1941 the world’s first underground parking garage was completed beneath Union Square.


340 Post Street on north side of Union Square

This is the flagship store for the 200-store cooking-based chain. Charles E. Williams spent World War II fixing airplanes in India and East Africa and after the war he settled in Sonoma, working as a contractor. In 1956 he bought a hardware store and gradually shifted his stock to cookware imported from France. The concept thrived quickly and Williams moved his operation to San Francisco in 1958 on its way to becoming one of the pioneering lifestyle retailers.


Argonaut Club
400 Post Street at northwest corner of Powell Street

This building was constructed in 1908 for the Argonaut Club. Joseph Brandenstein organized the San Francisco Verein (German for club) in 1853 for the town’s Jewish immigrants. Eleven years later Levi Strauss spearheaded the establishment of a private men’s club eventually known as Concordia. The two organizations attracted the bluest of San Francisco Jewish blood until the faltering Argonaut Club gave up its building and merged with Concordia in 1939. For many years this was a bustling United Airlines ticket office. 

Westin St. Francis
335 Powell Street at west side of Union Square

Charles Crocker was founder of the Central Pacific Railroad and co-builder of the Transcontinental Railroad. His family took some $2.5 million of his estate in 1904 to build what they hoped would be the equal of the grand hotels of Europe. The building withstood the earthquake two years later but fire destroyed the hotel’s 250 rooms. When renovations were finished a third wing appeared in 1908 and the St. Francis was the largest hotel on the Pacific Coast. The breathtaking lobby features an antique grandfather clock that spawned the common phrase around town, “Meet me at the clock.” Additional rooms were added along Post Street and in 1971 the 32-story Pacific Tower opened behind the St. Francis.

Elkan Gunst Building
301 Geary Street at southwest corner of Powell Street

Gustave Albert Lansburgh, best known for his elaborate theaters, designed this rounded Beaux Arts building on the corner of Union Square in 1908. Panama-born but San Francisco raised, Lansburgh had just received a diploma from the prestigious Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, France at the same time as the earthquake and fire in 1906. This was one of the first important commissions for Lansburgh, who was a friend of the Gunst family. Moses A. Gunst was a millionaire founder of a chain of tobacco stores who came to San Francisco in 1888 from New York. His son Morgan Arthur Gunst constructed this building as a memorial to his son who died at the age of 16 while playing football. There were so many deaths from football injuries in those days that President Theodore Roosevelt summoned the games powers that be to the White House to enact rule changes to eliminate foul play and brutality. 


City of Paris (Nieman Marcus)
150 Stockton Street at southeast corner of Geary Street

Felix Verdier, a silk-stocking manufacturer from Nîmes, France, sailed to San Francisco in 1850 with a ship loaded with silks, laces, fine wines, champagne, and Cognac to introduce the California Gold Rusher to the fineries of life. The goods never even made it off the ship before they sold out. Verdier sailed back to France with bags of gold dust and returned the next year to open a store. The City of Paris moved into a Beaux-Arts confection here designed by Clinton Day in 1896 and it was one of the few buildings in the neighborhood to survive the 1906 San Francisco earthquake but was demolished after the Verdier family sold out in the 1970s. This post-modern building by Phillip Johnson incorporates the original rotunda.


170 O’Farrell Street at northwest corner of Stockton Street

Rowland Hussey Macy was born of Quaker stock on Nantucket Island, Massachusetts and like many young men was seized by the sea. He sailed at the age of 15 on the Emily Morgan, bound for Cape Horn and beyond. He spent four years sailing through the South Seas before returning to Massachusetts. Although he was often called Captain Macy in later years he never again set to sea, save as a passenger. Macy had no clear idea what to do after his sea adventures and for several years his trail is lost to history. He surfaced in the dry goods trade in Boston is 1844, his first of several marginally successful retail operations. In 1849 Macy headed for San Francisco in the Gold Rush, leaving behind his wife and family. His success in the gold fields is unknown but by 1850 he was doing business in Marysville as Macy & Company but the merchant partnership was soon put up for public auction. We next find Macy back in Haverhill, Massachusetts operating a store offering a full line of dry goods in 1853. He was experimenting with many of the principles that would later become Macy staples: dealing only in cash, a single price policy and extensive advertising. But this venture failed also. Macy tried brokering for a short while and then bolted to Superior City, Wisconsin in 1857 to engage in land speculation just as the boom shipping town was going bust. At the age of 35, struggling in the nation’s heartland, it was hard to see how Rowland Macy had laid the foundation for creating the world’s most famous department store. But he did just that when he came to New York in 1858 and opened a small fancy goods store. In 1945 R. H. Macy & Company acquired O’Connor Moffat that was established in San Francisco in 1866. Renaming the store Macy’s this location, opened in 1928, was expanded using the original architect, Louis Parson Hobart. 


Powell Street Cable Car Turntable
Powell Street and Market Street 

At Powell and Market streets, there is a cable car turntable which serves as the beginning stop for two lines, the Powell-Mason and Powell- Hyde lines. The Powell-Mason line begins at the Powell/ Market turntable, and the line runs from there up and over Nob Hill and down to Bay Street at Fisherman’s Wharf. The Powell-Hyde line also begins at the Powell Market turntable and runs over Nob and Russian hills before ending at Aquatic Park near Ghiradelli Square. When the cars reach the end of the line here the gripman manually rotates the car on the turntable.

Bank of Italy/Bank of America Building
1 Powell Street at Market Street

This branch of the Bank of Italy, the forerunner of the Bank of America, was created in 1921 from the pens of Walter Danforth Bliss and William Baker Faville who were responsible for some of San Francisco’s most striking buildings in a partnership that lasted from 1898 until 1925. This rounded, three-story Italian Renaissance banking house sits proudly on that roster.

Flood Building
870 Market Street at the foot of Powell Street

James Flood was a stockbroker and partners with John Mackay, James Fair and William O’Brien in silver mining interests in Virginia City, Nevada’s Comstock Lode. One day in 1873 miners Mackay and Fair were following a narrow sliver of low-grade ore in the Consolidated Virginia and California Mine. Persisting long after others would write off the puny vein, Fair discovered the “Big Bonanza,” a field of high-grade silver ore so rich it took several years to exhaust and yielded more than $60 million - well over a billion 2012 dollars. Flood’s son, James, Jr., used part of his considerable inheritance to build San Francisco’s largest building here in 1904. Albert Pissis contributed the Classical Revival design. When the earthquake and fire struck two years later only the first two floors were damaged and quickly restored. 


835 Market Street

The Emporium was a shopping institution for almost 100 years, one of California’s largest and grandest stores from 1896 until 1995. Adolph Feiss began the business as a co-operative of individually-owned shops. The Emporium, another design by San Francisco architect Albert Pissis with a trademark dome, withstood the earthquake but burned in the fire and required two years to rebuild. There have been countless additions and renovations in its lifetime but the historic domed glass roof, recently restored, remains.

Pacific Building
southwest corner of Market Street and 4th Street

Following the 1906 earthquake builders here tapped a new construction technology that involved concrete reinforced with steel rebar. They would eventually pour more concrete than any building in the world for the nine-story Pacific Building - an dour over a million dollars in the process. Architect Charles F. Whittlesey outfitted the behemoth with decorated tiles of green and cream and yellow. Old Navy made this their largest retail store in 1999, leasing more than 70,000 square feet.

Humboldt Savings Bank
785 Market Street

Frederick Herman Meyer and Smith O’Brien designed this high-rise for the Humboldt Savings Bank in 1906. Interrupted by the Great Earthquake, Meyer re-purposed the building to be constructed with reinforced concrete and steel. His lavish plans called for a building festooned with granite and marble details and a wedding cake dome topping the entire confection. The 19-story Beaux Arts building was completed in 1908. The partnership the dissolved after six years and Meyer opened his own office here.


Phelan Building
760 Market Street at O’Farrell Street and Grant Avenue

James Phelan, one of San Francisco’s pioneer bankers, constructed the first flatiron building in this space, a six-story mansard-roofed affair that burned in the fire of 1906. James Duval Phelan, his son, was a reforming mayor of San Francisco from 1897 until 1902 and vocal advocate of the City Beautiful movement that was gripping America at the time in the wake of the Chicago Exposition of 1893. Most of the tenets of the movement would be trampled in the haste to rebuild after the 1906 Earthquake but Phelan remained true, hiring William Curlett, one of the city’s top architects to replace his father’s landmark. Curlett had easily made the transition from flowery Victorian design to the popular classically inspired styles and here he delivered an elegant Baroque Revival structure fashioned in steel and glazed terra cotta. Phelan went on to a term in the United States Senate in 1913 and kept his office on the the 6th floor.

Savings Union Bank and Trust Company
1 Grant Avenue at O’Farrell Street

Architects William Danforth Bliss and William Baker Faville based this 1910 Beaux Arts vault on the Pantheon in Rome. Six fluted Ionic columns march up Grant Street under a decorative triangular pediment. The Savings Union Trust Company was a new financial institution that brought together two venerable San Francisco money houses. The Savings Union and Loan Society took its first deposits in 1857 and the San Francisco Savings Union was the first bank chartered under California’s 1862 savings bank law. Inside the main vault was crafted by the Bethlehem Steel Company with a door that weighed 23 tons; its capacity was more than 5,000 safe deposit boxes.  

Union Trust Company (Wells Fargo Bank)
2 Grant Avenue at Market Street 

This is one of the most historic and dignified intersections in San Francisco. Clinton Day, then in his sixties, won a design competition to create this exuberant Beaux Arts vault in 1910. Day’s father Sherman was a state senator and co-founder of the College of California that was the predecessor of the University of California at Berkeley and Clinton designed several campus buildings. Isaias W. Hellman started the bank which became the first successful trust company in California.

Maiden Lane

In the 1800s this was Morton Alley, a place where gentlemen could come to find some paid female companionship. The 1906 Earthquake crumbled the bordellos and a century later the block is a pedestrian-only street stuffed with the chicest names in retail with a name designed to stir images of the posh Maiden Lanes in London and New York. The wrought iron gates swing open to permit vehicular traffic in the evenings. 


Xanadu Gallery
140 Maiden Lane

This is Frank Lloyd Wright’s only San Francisco building, designed for the client V.C. Morris Gift Store in 1948. Wright eschewed normal storefront display windows and instead lured shoppers inside with a beautifully crafted Romanesque arch in the brick facade. Inside is a spiral rampway that Wright would become iconic in Wright’s New York City Guggenheim Museum a decade later.


Head Building
201 Post Street at southwest corner of Grant Street

This is a Renaissance Revival creation of William Curlett from 1909, creating a bookend for his Shreve Building finished several years earlier across the street. Curlett was Irish-born and trained but was practicing in San Francisco by the time he was 25 in 1871. He was nearing the end of his career by this time, with a long roster of splendid mansions and important buildings to his credit. He was one of the original members of the California State Board of Architecture and was a fellow of the American Institute of Architects; Curlett died in 1914.     

The Shreve Building
210 Post Street at northwest corner of Grant Street 

Brothers George and Samuel Shreve had opened their first jewelry store in San Francisco back in 1852, catering to the newly wealthy gold rushers. Curlett finished the classically flavored Shreve Building in 1905 and Shreve & Company settled into the ground floor in March of 1906. A month later the city was destroyed by an earthquake and fire. The Shreve Building remained standing and loyal employees had locked the firm’s valuables in a fireproof vault. It would be two years, however, before the interior of the Shreve Building would be habitable again.


Ruth Asawa’s Fountain
Hyatt steps on Stockton Street across from Campton Place

If you don’t have time to visit all the city’s treasures you can get a crash course with the 41 landmarks depicted on bronze plaques that make up this tribute to San Francisco erected in 1972. 


450 Sutter Street

This beautiful and elegant 26-story high-rise, an Art-Deco masterpiece, was designed by world famous San Francisco architect Timothy Ludwig Pflueger. Pflueger was a leader in the development of Art Deco design in California and created some of the town’s most prominent skyscrapers and movie theaters in the 1920s and 1930s. As an interior designer Pflueger crafted some of San Francisco’s most luxurious cocktail lounges. Here he gave the office building an array of decorations influence by the Mayan Civilization.

Sir Francis Drake Hotel
450 Powell Street at southeast corner of Sutter Street

The hotel locals call “the Drake” has helped define the elegance of San Francisco since 1928. Built for the princely sum of $5 million by Midwestern hotel developers, the Sir Francis Drake Hotel offered impressive innovations like an indoor golf course, ice water on tap, and radios in every guest room. The window panes were made of Vitaglass, so-called because it let even the healthful ultra-violet rays into each room, making it possible, according to early advertisements, to suntan without going outside.   

Press Club
449 Powell Street at southeast corner of Sutter Street

The building was erected in 1913 and designed by architect Frederick H. Meyer. The Press Club, organized on August 30, 1888 with eighty charter members, occupied the top three floors until 1952 when they moved to 555 Post Street. 

Francisca Club
595 Sutter Street at southeast corner of Mason Street

The Francisca Club is San Francisco’s oldest woman’s social club, started in 1903 during a period of great growth of private clubs where women could gather for meals, talk about books and other cultural events, and to hear speakers. A century later the club’s traditional rules have scarcely changed - despite a vastly different role of women in society. Phones are discouraged and all business is banned inside the Colonial Revival brick building. blue jeans are not allowed, there is no gym and the club closes at 4:00 p.m. when ladies are expected to return home for the day. 

Marines’ Memorial Club & Hotel
609 Sutter Street at southwest corner of Mason Street

The Marines’ Memorial Association’s charter from 1946 established the Marines’ Memorial Club as the first “Living Memorial” in the United States, dedicated as a “tribute to those who have gone before; and to provide a service to those who carry on.” The intention was to provide a facility that would: honor the memory and commemorate the valor of the members of the Armed Forces who were killed, lost, or who died in military service for their Country; provide spaces for forums, for educational lectures and meetings; and include a museum and library for records, literature, historical objects, and military books. The 12-story Neoclassical brick building dates to 1926. 

Young Women’s Christian Association
620 Sutter Street

The first Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) was established in London, England in 1855. The movement reached San Francisco in 1878 with early programs including sewing classes for little girls, a kindergarten, and residences for women who were homeless or just out of the hospital. This classically-themed community center was constructed in 1917 and in 1930 its swimming pool became the first integrated one in the city. Like many heritage buildings in the district it is now occupied by the Academy of Art University. 

Woman’s Athletic Club/Metropolitan Club
640 Sutter Street

With a founding group of seventeen members the Woman’s Athletic Club organized in 1915. The club hired esteemed architects Walter Danforth Bliss and William Baker Faville who delivered a six-story Italian Renaissance palazzo rendered in rich brown brick. The architects and a handful of lawyers would be the only men involved in the “House That Women Built.” The well-appointed club boasted dining rooms, pool, gymnasium, beauty salon and spa, and overnight rooms. There were over 1,000 members when the club opened in 1917 and expansion plans were underway almost immediately. During the 1920s the Woman’s Athletic Club of San Francisco flourished, with active basketball, swimming and tennis teams. After the original 50-year incorporation of the Woman’s Athletic Club expired in 1965, the club has trundled on as the Metropolitan Club. 


Bohemian Club
624 Taylor Street at northeast corner of Post Street

In New York City and other American metropolises in the late 1850s groups of young, cultured journalists flourished as self-described “bohemians” before the Civil War in 1861 scattered their ranks. The San Francisco version formed in 1872 from a regular meeting of journalists, artists and musicians; it soon began to accept businessmen and entrepreneurs as permanent members. Ambrose Bierce was a founding member and later luminaries on the club membership roster include Presidents William Howard Taft, Herbert Hoover and Ronald Reagan.

The Clift
495 Geary Street at southeast corner of Taylor Street

In 1913, Frederick C. Clift, an attorney from a large family in the Sierra foothills, built what was advertised as the first hotel in San Francisco to be fire and earthquake proof. George Applegarth provided the design. When an additional three floors were tacked onto the building in 1924, it became the largest hotel in California. Inside, the highlight is the Redwood Room, draped in coastal redwood paneling with an enormous bar said to be carved from a single redwood tree.


Curran Theatre
445 Geary Street

Homer Curran began a career as a theatrical producer after graduating from Stanford University and running the Cort Theatre. In 1922 he established his own Curran Theatre to provide San Francisco with a Broadway experience and in the 1950s the theater indeed took a star turn itself as the Broadway stage in the Bette Davis tour de force, All About Eve. the ceiling above the main lobby was hand-painted to make the plaster look like wood.

American Conservatory Theater
415 Geary Street

The American Conservatory Theater was designed by prominent architects Walter D. Bliss and William B. Faville in a Neoclassical style with heavy doses of Baroque detailing. The facade is primarily of yellow brick and polychrome-glazed terra-cotta. The building opened as the Columbia Theatre in 1910 and has undergone numerous revivals to both the structure and the name in the century since.


First Congregational Church
432 Mason Street at southeast corner of Post Street

T. Dwight Hunt was a missionary in the Sandwich Islands in the 1840s when he was summoned to San Francisco shortly after the discovery of gold in 1848. He was holding services by October of that year and by February of 1850 had established a church building at the corner of Jackson Street and Virginia Place. Immigrants were still more interested in gold than salvation at the time - by the end of 1850 church membership was only 20. But by the time of the 1906 Earthquake the First Congregational Church had the largest membership of any Protestant church in San Francisco, worshipping in a large meetinghouse with a widely recognized Gothic steeple. To build its replacement the church tapped the versatile talents of brothers James William and Merritt James Reid. These Canadian architects managed a busy practice in the early years of the 20th century and designed a wide array of San Francisco buildings including the Cliff House, the Fairmont Hotel, the Spreckels House and the bandshell in Golden Gate Park. Here they crafted a Classical Revival house of worship in line with the city’s “banking temples” that were proliferating at the time. Completed in 1915, the church served the congregation throughout the century until it was sold and is now occupied by the Academy of Art University.

Medico-Dental Building
490 Post Street at northeast corner of Mason Street

George William Kelham was born in Massachusetts in 1871 and educated at Harvard and the legendary Ecole des Beaux-Arts in France. Working in the New York office of Trowbridge and Livingston, Kelham was sent to San Francisco in 1906 to supervise construction of the Palace Hotel and never left. He would develop the master plan for the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco and design some of the town’s most impressive skyscrapers. This 17-story high-rise with a classical visage was constructed in 1925.