Most changes to San Francisco over the last century have undoubtedly bettered the city for its residents.
But while huge improvements — like the removal of the neighborhood-desecrating Central and Embarcadero freeways — made the city better, other changes created a more sorry street evolution. Corners of the city that thrived with life, culture and neon lights are gone to urban development. Jazz clubs, ornate movie palaces and bustling sidewalks leveled to make way for high-rises, Starbucks and lots of concrete.
We found seven spots in San Francisco (and one in Oakland) almost unidentifiable from their former selves. Though if you look closely, some vestiges of the old city still stand proud.
Neon on Market
One of the saddest street changes is seen here: San Francisco’s gorgeous neon theater district near Civic Center now faded into history. Among some of the flashy signs visible in this 1959 postcard are marquees for the Embassy Theatre, the United Artists Theatre (later the Loew’s Theater, where the world premiere of “Dirty Harry” was screened in 1971), the Paramount and the Warfield.
Long gone are the Embassy and Paramount, once some of San Francisco’s most popular entertainment venues. The Embassy survived (barely) both the 1906 and 1989 earthquakes, although it sustained major damage in ’89. It was demolished in the mid-1990s. The same fate befell the Paramount in the ’60s. Theaters that rented office space in the upper floors, like the Warfield, had better odds of survival.
One of the only consistent signposts of this stretch of Market is the stalwart Odd Fellows Temple. Surprisingly for a fraternal organization, the lodge has a lit-up sign, making it look more like the movie houses on the block than a hangout for club members. The building is still fun to see today; it’s decorated in Odd Fellows symbols like stars, all-seeing eyes and three-link chains.
The Fabulous Fox
There’s a lifeless, windy corner a few blocks up Market Street from the old theater district that maybe reveals the greatest contrast in a San Francisco streetscape from the old city to today.
For 34 years, William Fox’s “greatest theatre in the world” at 1350 Market St. was a thriving entertainment cathedral. The giant, 4,600-seat movie palace was built to cater to patrons flocking to the expanding reach of Hollywood in the ’20s. The ornate lobby featured a gold-leaf ceiling, rich tapestries and numerous antiques.
But by the ’60s, attendance had dwindled, and the Fox Theatre’s glory days were numbered. The building was slated for demolition despite a passionate “Save the Fox” campaign.
At the close of the theater’s two-night sold-out farewell shows in February 1963, as a searchlight swooped above the crowds outside, organist George Wright played “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” for the final time as his Wurlitzer sank into the orchestra pit.
The relics were sold off and the building was razed, eventually replaced with the uninspired 29-story office building that stands next to a Starbucks, a few scattered pedestrians and some moribund trees today.
This archival shot looking north on Fillmore in 1908 across O’Farrell Street shows a teeming neighborhood returning to city life after the devastation of the earthquake and fire only two years prior. The 1906 blaze was finally halted by a firebreak on Van Ness, seven blocks east, allowing the Fillmore to spearhead the city’s comeback as it became one of the major commercial and cultural centers of San Francisco.
The old scene reveals a doctor’s office in a Victorian corner building looking over the intersection and San Franciscans huddled on street cars as a horse and wagon passes. The northern corner of O’Farrell houses Van Vroom’s “painless” dentistry and a cigar store below.
Years later, after becoming one of the most vibrant Black jazz strips west of the Mississippi, every Victorian structure in sight here would be leveled in one of the most regrettable urban planning decisions in the city’s history.
While city planners, led by controversial administrator M. Justin Hermann, claimed the decision was based on soaring crime rates in the neighborhood, most saw it for what it was — a racially motivated removal of African Americans from the district. The redevelopment project in the ’60s affected nearly 100 city blocks and displaced more than 20,000 mostly Black residents.
The district has seen some renewal, even to the Jazz scene, in recent decades, but the Starbucks and high-rise condominiums that now loom over O’Farrell and Fillmore are a shadow of the former bustling corner of city life a century ago.
The many lives of Pacific Avenue
There is maybe no single block in San Francisco that has had more makeovers than Pacific Avenue between Kearny and Montgomery. Once the heart of the infamous Barbary Coast, the sordid, violent strip catered to the vices of the thousands of young men who came ashore to find gold in the 1860s. After the 1906 quake, it was rebuilt and rebranded as “Terrific Street,” a dirty, boozy strip of nightclubs and jazz clubs where buttoned up middle-class businessmen would sojourn to “slum it” and get their fill of the debaucherous side of San Francisco.
The third iteration of Pacific Avenue, seen here in the 1957 musical movie “Pal Joey,” was somewhat oddly named “International Settlement” — a less vice-ridden but equally entertaining strip of restaurants and clubs including the Arabian Nights cocktail lounge, the Gay ‘N Frisky club, the Hippodrome club, Bella Pacific and Moulin Rouge.
The wild side of Pacific Avenue would finally be tamed in the late ’50s, when the bawdy establishments were replaced with respectable furniture and drapery stores, and the historic block hasn’t changed much since.
California and Grant
The view down the steep block of California Street towards Grant Avenue in San Francisco’s historic Chinatown is almost unrecognizable today when compared with this archival photograph, with a few notable exceptions.
The hatted gent strolling down the hill in 1915 has a clear view of Old St. Mary’s Cathedral on the left — unsurprising, as that building was once the tallest building in California, though now it’s not even the tallest building on the block. In 100 yards, he may catch glimpse of the strange sign that looms from the tower: “Son, Observe the Time and Fly from Evil,” still visible today.
The other tall structure on the right — under construction in today’s view — is the pagoda-like old Sing Fat Company building. The Chinese-styled architecture however was not built by, or for, the Chinese residents, but by white architects Ross and Burgren in 1910 as a tourist-enticing “Oriental Bazaar.”
The Cliff House
After the first Cliff House burned down in 1894, there was great consternation that property owner Adolph Sutro would destroy the aesthetic of the area with his new construction. “[Architects] fear that Mr. Sutro will sacrifice art to utility, and make the Cliff House a laughing stock rather than a delight,” the Examiner fretted in 1895.
Instead, he made one of San Francisco’s most photographed buildings, a seven-story gothic gingerbread fantasy. Next door, he also added the Sutro Baths, creating a huge entertainment complex along the seashore. But by the middle of the 20th century, both had burned down.
Although some may like the stark, clean lines of the current iteration of the Cliff House, we think it doesn’t compare with the opulence of the 1890s. Coupled with the fact the grounds used to be a public park, covered in statues and ornate landscaping, the area today feels rather antiseptic.
Latham Square in downtown Oakland
It’s not as striking as some of the other transformations, but this little corner in Oakland interested us primarily as an example of how public spaces changed over the past 70 years. Eagle-eyed locals may recognize the lion fountain that serves as the centerpiece of Latham Square at Telegraph and Broadway. Over the decades, much of the attractive landscaping was removed, as was a spectacular AC Transit bus stop.
Gone, too, are all the adorable retail and restaurant signs, like Monroe’s Toys, Pam’s (which advertises “famous pancakes”), Manning’s Coffee Cafe and a See’s Candies. Behind the square still is the slim and stunning Cathedral Building, finished in 1914. Back then, as the sign indicates, it was a Merle Norman. Today, the ground floor is home to — you guessed it — a Peet’s.
Top of the Mark
Since World War II, generations of San Franciscans and tourists have taken in the city skyline from the Top of the Mark.
Once the 19th-floor penthouse of the Mark Hopkins Hotel, the suite was converted into a cocktail lounge in 1939. It gained nationwide fame during the war as the farewell drinking spot of many troops about to ship out to the Pacific.
The black-and-white photograph shows a patron in the mid-1940s looking out onto Nob Hill’s tallest buildings, like the Clay-Jones Apartments and Bellaire Tower (where Gavin Newsom once lived in the penthouse). The current view, while still lovely especially on a clear day out to the Golden Gate Bridge, is not quite so iconic, now peppered with a number of nondescript apartment and condo buildings.
Katie Dowd is the SFGATE Managing Editor. Written ByAndrew ChamingsReach Andrew on