Portsmouth Square: The Plaza

Primary Source

from The Annals of San Francisco, 1855


Portsmouth Square, May 4, 1850... is the man in the white hat the famous John Sutter of Sutter's Fort in Sacramento?

Photo: via John Alioto, FB.


Portsmouth Square, 1851

Photo: Shaping San Francisco


Portsmouth Square, Kearny in foreground, Washington Street running east/west along plaza.'

Photo: Bancroft Library

Portsmouth Square, San Francisco, from Robert N. Dennis collection of stereoscopic views.jpg

Portsmouth Square, from the Robert N. Dennis collection of stereoscopic views.

Photo: commons.wikimedia.org


Collage depicting The Plaza by Satty, from "Visions of Frisco" edited by Walter Medeiros, Regent Press 2007

Near the center of town is a square, which... is called the "Plaza;" two sides of this are occupied by brick buildings, devoted solely to gambling. We have the "Veranda," "El Dorado," "Parker House," "Empire," "Rendezvous," "Bella Union," in one row... On entering one of these saloons the eye is dazzled... by the brilliancy of chandeliers and mirrors. The roof, rich with gilt-work, is supported by pillars of glass: and the walls are hung with French paintings of great merit, but of which female nudity forms alone the subject. --Frank Marryat, 1855

Portsmouth Square 1850s, courtesy Society of California Pioneers

The eye was delighted with the varieties of costume, and more readily distinguished the wearers; while the ear was only confounded with the babble of unknown, and to its harsh gutteral and meaningless sounds which flowed from every mouth, and where all alike talked loudly, and many furiously gesticulated.

Thus the people passed in pairs or in crowds--they loitered, stood still, and moved on again, while other parties jostled beside and around them. A horse or bullock breaking loose would dash along the way, and make a momentary struggle and flight; but soon again the scene resumed its old appearance. On two, if not three sides of the plaza, were the open doors of the "hells" of San Francisco, where gamblers, and others for amusement, stood out and in during the whole day. On the other portions stood hotels, stores and offices, the custom-house and courts of law, all thronged with numerous visitors.

The little open space which was left by the crowds we have been describing, was occupied by a multitude of nondescript objects, by horses, mules and oxen dragging burdens along, by cars and carriages of various kinds, boys at play, stalls with sweetmeats, newspapers, prints, toys and other trifling articles of merchandise.


Portsmouth Square, c. 1905

Photo: courtesy Mike Fusello, via FB

Portsmouth Square March 1924 AAA-7073.jpg

Portsmouth Square, corner of Clay and Kearny, March 1924.

Photo: San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library


Portsmouth Square looking north/northeast, c. 1950s.

Photo: Courtesy of Jimmie Shein

Portsmouth Square before construction with old Hall of Justice AAA-7079.jpg

Portsmouth Square before garage construction, old Hall of Justice still on Kearny Street, early 1960s.

Photo: San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library