Lost New England Goes West: Union Square, San Francisco

Union Square, seen from the corner of Post and Stockton Streets shortly after the April 18, 1906 earthquake. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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Union Square in 2015:

Today, Union Square is one of the premier shopping areas in San Francisco, but 110 years ago it was, like the rest of the city, covered in earthquake debris and surrounded by burned-out buildings. The most prominent building in the first photo is the St. Francis Hotel, on the right side of the scene. Completed only two years earlier, the building survived the earthquake itself with minimal damage, but a combination of damaged firefighting infrastructure and poor city leadership allowed fires to spread throughout much of the city. The hotel was completely gutted by the fire, as the first photo shows, but it remained structurally sound. Soon after the photo was taken, a temporary hotel was built in the middle of the square, where it housed guests until the burned-out hotel reopened a year and a half later. Now known as the Westin St. Francis, it has been expanded several times, and today it still stands overlooking Union Square.

Another Union Square landmark from the first photo is the Dewey Monument, located in the center of the square. It was designed by sculptor Robert Aitken, whose later works included the pediment atop the US Supreme Court Building, and it was dedicated in 1903 by Theodore Roosevelt, in honor of Spanish-American War hero Admiral George Dewey and recently-assassinated President William McKinley. The 85-foot tall monument survived both the earthquake and the subsequent fires, and it is still standing in Union Square today, although it is now partially hidden by the palm trees around it.

This post is part of a series of photos that I took in California this past winter. Click here to see the other posts in the “Lost New England Goes West” series.

Lost New England Goes West: Hall of Justice, San Francisco

The Hall of Justice at Portsmouth Square in San Francisco, shortly after the April 18, 1906 earthquake. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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The scene in 2015:

When the 1906 earthquake hit San Francisco, the Hall of Justice building was just ten years old. Despite what the first photo shows, it actually survived the earthquake itself. It had been seriously damaged, but neither the building nor the 77 prisoners housed on the upper floors were in any immediate danger. In fact, on the first day of the disaster the mayor made the Hall of Justice his temporary headquarters, since City Hall had been completely destroyed.

However, the situation here soon deteriorated. The earthquake had started a number of fires throughout the city, and a series of poor decisions on the part of city officials allowed the fires to spread. One of the ill-fated tactics was to attempt to create firebreaks by destroying buildings. In most cases, though, this was counterproductive, because the explosives tended to do a better job of igniting the buildings rather than destroying them, which only exacerbated the problem.

By nightfall on the first day, the fire was approaching Portsmouth Square, and the Hall of Justice was hastily evacuated. The prisoners were transported to another prison, and the bodies in the morgue and the police records were removed from the building and piled up in the middle of the square, covered in canvas. As the city burned around the square that night, two police officers guarded the pile. There was virtually no water available for firefighting, so the officers emptied bottles of beer onto the canvas to keep it damp, thus saving both the corpses and the records.

The first photo shows Portsmouth Square perhaps a week or so after the fire. By then the bodies and the police records had presumably been moved to a safer location, and the square was instead covered with tents of displaced residents. The burned-out remains of the Hall of Justice loom in the background, with the frame of the cupola dangling from the top of the building. It was beyond saving, and was demolished soon after. Its replacement was completed in 1910 on the same spot, and it stood here until it was demolished in 1968 to build the 27-story hotel that now stands here. Today, the only thing left from the first photo is Portsmouth Square itself, which is a major focal point within the city’s Chinatown neighborhood.

This post is part of a series of photos that I took in California this past winter. Click here to see the other posts in the “Lost New England Goes West” series.

Lost New England Goes West: Ferry Building, San Francisco

Author’s note: Although the main focus of this blog is New England and the northeast, I sometimes include photos from other parts of the country. This is the first in a series of then and now photos of California that I took this past winter.

The San Francisco Ferry Building in the aftermath of the April 18, 1906 earthquake. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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The Ferry Building in 2015:

San Francisco is not an island, but for most transportation purposes it might as well be. Except for those traveling from the south, any approach to the city requires crossing either the San Francisco Bay on the eastern side of the city, or Golden Gate to the north. Prior to the construction of these bridges in the 1930s, the only way to do this was by ferry, and as a result this building was once among the busiest ferry terminals in the world.

The ferry terminal was built at the foot of Market Street along the present-day Embarcadero, and opened in 1898. Just a few years later, its durability was put to the test by the disastrous April 18, 1906 earthquake that, along with the resulting fires, destroyed much of the city. The first photo was probably taken only days after the earthquake, and it shows that, in contrast to the rubble and charred telephones in the foreground, the building survived with minimal damage. Interestingly, the first photo shows a makeshift barbershop on the far right side amidst the debris. The hand-written message on the side of the tent reads “Shaving 15¢” and, in smaller lettering, almost as an afterthought, is “Hair Cut 25¢.”

In the years following the earthquake, the terminal continued to be a vital part of the city’s transportation system until the completion of the Bay Bridge in 1936 and the Golden Gate Bridge the following year. Some ferries continued to operate out of here, but much of the interior was altered as passenger traffic declined. Another major change came in the 1950s, when the Embarcadero Freeway was built through here. Much like the Central Artery in Boston, this elevated highway cut off the city from the waterfront, and the ferry terminal was largely isolated.

The building survived another major earthquake in 1989, but the Embarcadero Freeway did not. It was heavily damaged in the earthquake, and was demolished in 1991 and replaced with light rail tracks that are visible in the distance of the second photo. At the same time, restoration work also began on the ferry terminal. Today, some ferries still depart from here, but the historic building is also used for office space and as a marketplace, and a year-round farmers’ market is held in front of the building three times a week.

1007-1017 Main Street, Springfield, Mass

The building at the corner of Main and Union Streets in Springfield, around 1938-1939. Image courtesy of the Springfield Preservation Trust.

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The scene in 2015:

The section of Main Street south of State Street was once primarily residential, but as the city grew in the second half of the 19th century many of the homes were either demolished or, in many cases, had storefronts built in front of them. Based on its blend of Greek Revival and Italianate architectural styles, this house was probably built around the 1850s, but sometime around 1900-1910 the owners built a one-story commercial building around it, presumably incorporating the first floor of the house into the stores. This is similar to what happened to the John Avery House, a c.1825 house located diagonally across the street from here.

When the first photo was taken, the building had several commercial tenants, including The Linoleum Shoppe on the left and a cigar store on the right. The old house was still clearly visible at the time, but later taken down after a fire. The rest of the building was damaged in the June 1, 2011 tornado, and was subsequently renovated into its current appearance, as seen in the 2015 photo.

130 Union Street, Springfield, Mass

The building at 130 Union Street, just east of Main Street in Springfield, around 1938-1939. Image courtesy of the Springfield Preservation Trust.

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The building in 2015:

This two-story brick building was built around 1906-1910, on the site of the Swedish Evangelical Lutheran Bethesda Church, which had been built here in 1897. Although the church building was short-lived, I suspect that part of the church walls may have been incorporated into this building, because part of the first floor walls are made of stone, the same material as the church. This is also consistent with the church’s footprint as it appeared in the 1899 city atlas, although I do not have any photos of the church to confirm my theory.

In any case, when the first photo was taken the building had a sign that read “Bay State Mattress Company,” which may have occupied the upper floor, because the ground floor appears to have been used as a repair garage. There is a car visible inside the building, with signs on the exterior for “Brake Service & Greasing” and for Exide batteries. Later on, this building was home to Radding Signs, as the vertical neon sign on the left still indicates. Most recently, the building was owned by the Anti-Displacement Project, but it was damaged in the 2011 tornado and now appears to be vacant.

1069-1073 Main Street, Springfield, Mass

The building at 1069-1073 Main Street in Springfield, around 1938-1939. Image courtesy of the Springfield Preservation Trust.

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The site in 2015:

This duplex was built sometime between 1870 and 1880, at a time when this section of Main Street was still largely residential. In the 1880 census, the unit on the left was the home of Dennis S. Goff, a 47 year old widower whose occupation was listed as working in a pistol shop, presumably the nearby Smith & Wesson factory. He lived here with his 25 year old daughter Jessie and their servant, Jane West. In the same census, the unit on the right was owned by Austin B. Bush, his wife Susan, and their son Harry. His occupation was rather curiously listed as “No Special Business,” but he was evidently a somewhat prominent individual because his biography included in the 1902 book “Our County and Its People” A History of Hampden County. The book, though, mentions his ancestry and his education, but likewise makes no mention of his actual occupation.

By the 1900 census, Austin Bush still owned the unit on the right, but Dennis Goff died in 1896 and his daughter Jessie inherited the house to the left. She used this house as a rental property, because at the time she was married and living with her husband, Henry S. Safford, in a house at 80 Dartmouth Street that is still standing today. Jessie’s husband was a Springfield native who over 20 years before their marriage had played a role in the aftermath of the Abraham Lincoln assassination. At the time, Safford had been living in Washington DC, where he rented a room in the Petersen House across from Ford’s Theatre. When he heard the commotion outside after Lincoln was shot, Safford went outside and told the men carrying the mortally wounded president to bring him into the boarding house, where he died the following morning.

Sometime between 1900 and 1910, the entire property was sold to Nelson L. Elmer, and the storefront on the right was added. When the first photo was taken, this storefront was used as a barber shop, and the rest of the building appears, based on the signs in front, to have been used as a boarding house. Today, the building has long since been demolished, and the site is now occupied by a parking lot, but the Morse Block, which is visible to the right in the first photo, is still standing today.