Historical Essay

by Gregory J. Nuno

This originally appeared in The Argonaut, Summer 1993, Vol. 4, No. 1


Union Square from St. Francis Hotel, 1937.

Photo: Courtesy of Jimmie Shein

With post-earthquake reconstruction, the retail area centering around the Square became even more vital. Large department stores arose on Post and Geary streets, attracting throngs of shoppers. Facing the Square was the City of Paris, built in 1909 as a replica of a modern Parisian department store. This was followed by the Fitzhugh Building, which mainly contained offices, in 1923, the O'Connor Moffatt store (now Macy's) in 1928, and the new I. Magnin facade in 1945.

After removal of the temporary structures that covered most of Union Square Park after the earthquake, the pre-earthquake design of the park was reinstalled. The only change was the addition of a new north-south pathway running at midblock, terminating at a semi-elliptical flower bed. The first electric lights were also installed in the park at this time. These skirted the central oval.

Little transpired in the next few decades. In the late 1930s, the park was refurbished and new flower beds were laid out. Sometime prior to this, additional Canary Island palm trees were planted along Geary Street and in a circle around the central oval. In 1934, the Knights Templar Conclave erected a Gothic tower that covered the Dewey Monument, and in 1939, a temporary building was constructed in the park for the Golden Gate Exposition.15 It also became customary to place live Christmas trees in the park each year during the holiday season,


The idea of a garage under Union Square was first proposed in 1910 by W P, Fennimore, president and founder of the Downtown Association. Such a scheme was quite novel, and in 1922 and 1928, charter amendments to permit sub-surface use of public parks for automobile parking were defeated by the electorate. But in 1930, an amendment was finally passed.16

Because of downtown development and the increasing use of automobiles, the streets surrounding Union Square were becoming greatly congested, and there was an acute parking shortage. By 1940, for example, within the city's "Triangle District," an area between Market and Sutter streets, there were concentrated 17 large retail stores, 11 office buildings, 88 hotels, 15 clubs, and 7 theaters. The capacity of nearby garages could scarcely serve the patrons of a single store. Local merchants became concerned that they would lose business to outlying suburbs if something were not done about the parking problem.

Thus the Union Square Garage Corporation was formed in 1938 for the purpose of building an underground garage in Union Square. Such a feat had never been undertaken before, and three years of research were required before construction could begin.

The idea of a private corporation leasing public land underneath a city park was also new. Because of this, Union Square became a test case before the California State Supreme Court, which ruled in City of San Francisco v. Linares, that the City of San Francisco had the right to lease the subsurface area to the Union Square Garage Corporation provided that the park proper was not destroyed.

Work then proceeded with Timothy Pfleuger as architect and McDonald and Kahn as general contractors. No public funds were used, rather, financing was by stock subscription amounting to $850,000, mostly from local property owners and a Reconstruction Finance Corporation loan of $650,000.

Ground was broken on March 31, 1941, and the entire block bounded by Geary, Stockton, Post, and Powell streets was soon excavated to an average depth of 48 feet. Steel piles were driven into the ground for bulkheading and 160 massive columns were put in place to support four levels, including the garage roof surface.

The Dewey Monument, which weighed 350 tons, demanded special treatment, not only to move it to make way for construction and excavation, but to strengthen it against further earthquakes. The monument's granite cylinders, which were slightly askew from the earthquake of 1906, were hollowed out and fitted over a core of reinforced concrete that extends all the way down to the foundation of the garage.19

At full capacity, the garage housed 1,700 automobiles. Additionally, most of the space on the top floor was reserved for waiting rooms, restrooms, offices, a sales room for accessories, and an area for servicing cars. The garage became an immediate success and 766,000 automobiles were parked there in the first year of operation.

Fortunately, the garage was never used for another purpose for which it was designed: as a bomb shelter. The garage was well under way when on December 7, 1941 Pearl Harbor was attacked, and the United States entered the Second World War. It was only because of its alternate use as a bomb shelter or as an emergency hospital that special materials were released for the building's completion.

By the summer of 1942, the world's first multilevel underground garage was finished. Mayor Angelo Rossi presided over the dedication ceremonies on September 12, 1942. The Dewey Monument was also rededicated on October 25, 1942 as part of the San Francisco Navy Day celebration.


In conjunction with the garage's architect, Timothy Pfleuger, a landscape plan for the garage rooftop was designed by the Division of Engineering and Landscape Design of the City of San Francisco, whose superintendent was John McLaren. The park was the first in the world situated above a multi-level garage. A preliminary design completed in 1940 called for a large central pill-shaped plaza to contain the Dewey Monument. Two paths would run north-south, skirting the main garage entry, and on the east and west ends of the Square paths would connect to the street corners and run at mid-block. Along each path were to be several grassy areas. The central plaza was to be surrounded by planter boxes containing Irish yew trees.

This plan was modified over the next two years to allow for extra garage entries. Also, to ease the flow of traffic around the Square, sidewalks were set back to provide an extra car lane on all four surrounding streets.

As in previous designs, the pathway design was laid out symmetrically. In the center of the Square was placed a rectangular plaza containing five large, raised flower beds along its longest axis. The central bed was to contain the Dewey Monument, now with a streamlined base rather than the original platform. From the corners of the rectangular plaza, paths radiated outward to connect to each street corner. These paths were supplemented with a secondary path system encircling all four sides of the central plaza.

As for landscaping, the central plaza was planted with a ring of sixteen columnar Irish yew trees (Taxus baccata "Stricta") placed in concrete planter boxes four feet deep and eight feet square, around which were planted low hedges of English yew. Along all pathways granite seat walls or curbs were placed to hold in two to three feet of loam. These were lined with boxwood (Buxus microphylla), though myrtle (Mrytus communis "Compacta") was originally intended in some areas. Where paths diverged, forming corners, mirror plant shrubs (Coprosma repens) were to be planted, but they are not evident in old photographs or renderings of the Square. Lawn areas were planted in the spaces between the hedges. Flower beds of annuals, including pansies, scarlet sage, and white marguerites, were specified in the original planting plan, but today the central beds are the only places where annuals are planted.

Finally, the Canary Island palm trees that presently line each entry into the central plaza were not called for in the original design. They first appear in renderings done about 1950. Today, along with the yew trees and boxwood hedges, the palms form one of the most dominant and memorable features of the Square.


With its completion, the new garage and rooftop park immediately took on a myriad of social functions. Two days after its dedication the Army held a war show in the Square, and a "Victory Stage" was set up for war bond rallies held there. With the surge of patriotism that the Second World War engendered, eighteen flagpoles bearing the US. flag were placed around the central plaza of the Square. Even with such a wartime focus, however, the Downtown Association held the first annual Rhododendron Show in the Square from April 27 to May 3, 1944.20 The Downtown Association and the Parks and Recreation Department also began sponsoring Christmas events in the Square, a tradition since discontinued.

By the late 1960s, the retail area around Union Square began to decline, as exemplified by the closure of department stores such as the City of Paris. But as the adjacent financial district expanded in the 1970s, the retail district again began to grow.21 This was reflected in the St. Francis Hotel, which added a new tower with 600 rooms in 1971, and in the opening of the Hyatt Hotel at Post and Stockton streets in 1973. The retail area was also boosted by the opening of Saks Fifth Avenue in 1981 on the site of the old Fitzhugh Building at Powell and Post streets; followed by Neiman Marcus in 1982 at Geary and Stockton streets, where the City of Paris once stood. Both were widely criticized as not measuring up to the buildings they had replaced.22

By 1985, the total retail footage around Union Square had become one of the greatest concentrations in the world. Within one block of the Square can be found national department stores, national specialty stores, international boutiques, jewelry stores, and a plethora of local establishments.

Union Square remains crucial to the tourist industry today, for almost anyone who comes to San Francisco passes through the Square, whether for cable cars, restaurants, hotels, foreign exchange offices, airline tickets, or shopping.24 Tourists account for a significant portion of retail sales in the area.

The early 1990's saw the exodus of several airlines that held leases on the Square. By the fall of 1993, two large retail developments will add upwards of 215,000 square feet. Twenty new retailers are expected. In addition, Tiffany's and Victoria's Secret have recently made Union Square their home.


Union Square facing southeast in 1997, as seen from corner of Post and Powell.

Photo: Chris Carlsson

The current economic recession has been a challenge for many retailers around the Square. Boutiques and non-chain stores have been especially hard hit since they must not only cope with losses in sales, but also must pay high rents for a Union Square address and face competition from other parts of the city. Just outside the Square proper, store vacancies have increased while rents have decreased, although stores right on the Square are seen as "recession-proof."24

Other events have put a damper on recent economic activity around the Square. The Loma Prieta earthquake of October 17, 1989 left the Square relatively unscathed, but reports of severe damage in the Marina District and the closure of the Bay Bridge kept shoppers away in droves. With the announcement of the Rodney King verdict on April 29, 1992, riots broke out in the area around Union Square. Although damage was minor in comparison to what occurred in Los Angeles, Macy's reported looting and smashed windows, and the St. Francis Hotel experienced some vandalism.25


Union Square is the primary focus of activity for downtown San Francisco, functioning as a showcase" for the city. The Embarcadero, Justin Herman, and Civic Center plazas take on a similar role, and they are used just as frequently as Union Square. A variety of "events" take place at these locations every week.26

Annual events in Union Square include a cable car bell ringing contest, the USC-Stanford pre-football game rally, Macy's spring flower show, the Cherry Blossom Festival, the Chinese New Year Festival, the lighting of the Christmas tree, and the lighting of the Menorah.

Over the years, the Square has been the site of political rallies and demonstrations, memorial services, fund drives, blood drives, art shows, noon concerts, outdoor fashion shows, product promotion events, weeks of amity between England and France, visits from dignitaries, Christmas and Hanukkah celebrations, and many other events.

The Square is also heavily used by so-called "undesirables." After the Second World War, the space gradually was used more frequently for loitering by the chronically unemployed and drunkards. Then and today, lawn areas secluded by the high hedges functioned as sleeping areas during the day and at night. Drug peddling became commonplace in the late 1960s and continues today. With the exception of lunch hours, when nearby office and store workers populate the Square, busy weekends in surrounding stores, and times of special events, the park has come to be seen as unsafe.27

To counteract this trend, a police kobon ( a police stand) has recently been installed. The added police presence has made the park safer.28

Elderly people who reside in the nearby Tenderloin district also use the Square as a neighborhood park. They often congregate at park entrances, sit on benches, socialize, and empathize with passersby. Friction between the elderly and the undesirables is kept to a minimum since both groups tend to privatize separate areas of the Square. Added to this milieu are a significant number of tourists who frequent the Square throughout the year.

The park shows some signs of physical deterioration: aging and dying plants (especially the yew trees), inadequate drainage, an excess of pigeon droppings, and the presence of rats. To counteract such problems, the Union Square Association was formed in 1978. It consists of concerned citizens and owners of nearby businesses with the purpose of "improving the physical properties and ambiance of this world famous Square and returning it to its former place of beauty and elegance for the enjoyment of the people of San Francisco and thousands of daily visitors."29

The Association's first sponsored event was a laser light show in 1980. Laser beams were shot from building to building in the Square. Then from 1981 to 1983, the Association sponsored Christmas festivities in the Square which included rides, bands, carolers, choirs, sports demonstrations, live theater, and dancers - all on a voluntary basis. In 1983, for the first time, the Dewey Monument was transformed into an electronic Christmas tree. In 1984, the Association was responsible for rerouting the Chinese New Year parade to pass by the Square. Also in 1984, during the Democratic Convention, the Square took on major national importance as a place for speakers, bands, and other events.30

Today, most festivities or events held in the Square are privately sponsored and permits are issued by the Parks and Recreation Department of San Francisco. The Union Square Association continues to sponsor yearly Christmas festivities and the cable car ringing contest. Macy's has provided a large Christmas tree for the Square for the past four years. And local radio stations continue to sponsor concerts in the Square during the spring and summer months. In 1993, the Mayor's office began to sponsor ethnic/cultural events in the Square such as Greek National Day and Israel National Day."

Ideally, the Square would have a full-time programmer and a schedule of events to be sponsored throughout the year. Fortunately, many private groups continue to use the Square, and although increasing bridge tolls, fear of crime, and traffic congestion encourage people in the suburbs and outlying areas to shop at nearby shopping centers or malls, San Francisco's retail district is doing remarkably well. But activities in a revitalized Square could help draw additional people, with increased revenue to local businesses as an added bonus. The city's most dynamic square could be a social center as well as a center of consumerism. It also might become a more educational and informative place, a place for multiple uses, and above all, a place rich in meaning and symbolism.


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