S.F.’s swankiest building rose from ashes as fireproof wonder
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: firstname.lastname@example.org
The Montgomery Block at Washington and Montgomery was a response to the sixth fire that ravaged S.F. in the Gold Rush.