S.F.’s swanki­est build­ing rose from ashes as fire­proof won­der

San Francisco Chronicle Late Edition - - BAY AREA - By Gary Kamiya

Many beloved San Fran­cisco build­ings have dis­ap­peared over the years, from the orig­i­nal Mis­sion Dolores to the City of Paris de­part­ment store to the old Pro­duce Mar­ket. But none was as rich in his­tory as the Mont­gomery Block.

When the four-story gran­ite build­ing at Wash­ing­ton and Mont­gomery streets was torn down in 1959, the city’s most im­por­tant link with the Gold Rush, the vig­i­lante days, and the bo­hemian fin de siecle dis­ap­peared for­ever. Mak­ing the loss still more painful was the fact that this ir­re­place­able land­mark was razed for that icon of mod­ern progress, a park­ing lot.

The Mont­gomery Block rose out of the ashes of the great fire of May 3, 1851, the sixth and last of the fires that rav­aged San Fran­cisco dur­ing the Gold Rush. The blaze de­stroyed three-fourths of the city.

In re­sponse, an Army en­gi­neer and lawyer named Henry Hal­leck pro­posed con­struct­ing

the city’s first fire­proof build­ing. The es­ti­mated cost was $3 mil­lion, an un­heard of sum at the time. When he heard the price tag, one po­ten­tial in­vestor rose to his feet, spat, “You are a fool, sir!” and walked out. But other in­vestors were con­vinced by Hal­leck’s metic­u­lous plans, and he was able to raise the money he needed.

No build­ing be­fore — or since — was con­structed like the Mont­gomery Block. Ac­cord­ing to Id­wal Jones’ 1951 book, “Ark of Em­pire: San Fran­cisco’s Mont­gomery Block,” Hal­leck hired 300 Chi­nese la­bor­ers to dig a huge square pit, shov­el­ing out the bay mud and hauling it away in fish bas­kets. (Mont­gomery Street was just yards from the shore­line at the time.) Into this pit Hal­leck dropped mas­sive red­wood rafts, made from trees cut down in the East Bay and floated across the wa­ter. Tim­bers were at­tached to these tiers with iron clamps and the whole struc­ture planked over. This “float­ing” foun­da­tion, far ahead of its time, made the build­ing re­sis­tant to earth­quakes.

As the four-story, iron­framed brick build­ing rose up, ma­te­rial for it poured into the city. There was newly in­vented Port­land ce­ment from Kent, Eng­land, win­dow glass and mir­rors from Bel­gium and France, and wrought iron­work from Philadel­phia. Two deep wells were dug in a cen­tral court­yard, and bulk­head doors of me­tal packed with as­bestos re­duced the risk of fire.

Gas heat was piped to the build­ing’s 150 of­fices, 14 ground floor shops and 28 base­ment rooms. The whole build­ing had run­ning wa­ter. A shin­ing stucco fa­cade was ap­plied over the brick­work; along the sec­ond floor ran a stately iron bal­cony. The build­ing was fin­ished with a row of mas­sive stone heads, which Jones writes were “sup­posed to be Mon­gols of some re­mote dy­nasty.”

The house­warm­ing party for the build­ing was held Dec. 23, 1853, just 14 months af­ter the work­ers had be­gun hauling away bas­kets full of bay mud.

“In the fog the Block was lu­mi­nous with strings of pa­per lanterns, looped back and forth by the hun­dreds, like am­ber opals in the bo­som of a vast dowa­ger,” Jones writes. “A coronet of tinted flames glit­tered along the para­pet, where pig­tailed Chi­nese were tend­ing great jars of brim­stone and send­ing up from the roof erup­tions of fire­works.”

Up­stairs, pa­tri­cians from the city’s swanky neigh­bor­hoods, Rin­con Hill and South Park, and every­one else of sig­nif­i­cance in town min­gled in a bril­liantly lit lobby and bil­liard room. As an orches­tra played, the guests dined on veni­son, oys­ters and wild game, washed down with Cham­pagne.

The press raved about the new build­ing, the tallest in the West. It was not only the first fire­proof struc­ture in the young city, it was also the most im­pos­ing in ev­ery way. Lead­ing law firms, stock­bro­kers, min­ing com­pa­nies and other busi­nesses lined up to be ten­ants, pay­ing as much as $1,000 a month — the high­est rents in town. Lawyers were heav­ily rep­re­sented. As Jones writes, “Its name on one’s let­ter­head ... was in the pro­fes­sion the seal of el­e­gance, an ad­dress to be seized on, what­ever the cost.”

This was the hey­day of du­bi­ous and fraud­u­lent San Fran­cisco land claims, and many of them were hashed out in the Block’s cor­ri­dors and lounges. Also haunt­ing the build­ing were many Cal­i­fornios (Span­ish­s­peak­ing Cal­i­for­ni­ans) who had had their le­git­i­mate land ti­tles thrown into ques­tion by un­just Amer­i­can laws. They were of­ten rep­re­sented by Hal­leck, who was a part­ner in a law firm in the build­ing.

Hal­leck was not a par­tic­u­larly lik­able man — one con­tem­po­rary de­scribed him as “a reg­i­men­tal clerk with the per­son­al­ity of a cold muf­fin” — but his ef­forts to help the Cal­i­fornios in their long, usu­ally fu­tile at­tempts to gain le­gal ti­tle to their land re­dounded to his credit. Hal­leck later be­came the gen­eral in chief of the Union Army dur­ing the Civil War.

For decades, the palm­lined sec­ond-floor lobby of the Block, with its bil­liard ta­bles, lounges and cigar stand, was among the city’s fore­most “moist cen­ters of mas­cu­line recre­ation,” as Charles Cald­well Do­bie de­scribed them in his 1943 book, “San Fran­cisco: A Pageant.” An­other was the opu­lent Bank Ex­change, lo­cated down­stairs and home of the fa­mous Pisco Punch.

The Block’s street-level shops were oc­cu­pied by tai­lors, hat­ters and deal­ers in prints and jew­els. A Hun­gar­ian baron named Haraszthy, one of the first Cal­i­for­nia wine­mak­ers, used the ca­pa­cious base­ments to store claret.

Also oc­cu­py­ing the brick-lined base­ment rooms was a gold-re­fin­ing firm called Adams and Co. Be­hind iron doors a foot thick, work­ers stoked a fur­nace where gold was re­fined, cast into in­gots and stored.

Ev­ery day, crowds would gather to watch gold ar­rive from the docks. As the chests were low­ered from a car­riage, a dozen bearded watch­men stood guard with ex­tended mus­kets. A Chi­nese book­keeper would tally up the in­com­ing chests, mark­ing each ar­rival with a shout and the click of his aba­cus.

The Mont­gomery Block wit­nessed some of the most mo­men­tous events in the city’s his­tory. The cru­sad­ing ed­i­tor James King of William was shot out­side the Block in 1856 and car­ried in­side to die; the Sec­ond Vig­i­lance Com­mit­tee that was formed in re­sponse to his mur­der met at the Block.

A num­ber of ed­i­tors and pub­lish­ers had of­fices in the Mont­gomery Block. It was ini­tially too high-end to at­tract artists and writ­ers — although in 1863, Mark Twain met a San Fran­cisco fire­man named Tom Sawyer in the build­ing’s sauna.

The Block’s bo­hemian glory days would have to wait un­til the build­ing fell on hard times in the 1880s. That gaslit era, and the build­ing’s check­ered his­tory in the 20th cen­tury, will be the sub­ject of the next Por­tals.

Gary Kamiya is the au­thor of the best-sell­ing book “Cool Gray City of Love: 49 Views of San Fran­cisco,” awarded the North­ern Cal­i­for­nia Book Award in cre­ative non­fic­tion. All the ma­te­rial in Por­tals of the Past is orig­i­nal for The San Fran­cisco Chron­i­cle. To read ear­lier Por­tals of the Past, go to sfchron­i­cle.com/por­tals. Email: metro@sfchron­i­cle.com

Chron­i­cle ar­chives

The Mont­gomery Block at Wash­ing­ton and Mont­gomery was a re­sponse to the sixth fire that rav­aged S.F. in the Gold Rush.


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