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Thursday, July 9, 2015

Bohemian Grave: The Montgomery Block

Posted By on Thu, Jul 9, 2015 at 4:15 PM

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Welcome to Bohemian Grave, a semi-regular feature on the vanished countercultural history of San Francisco, from long before anyone started lamenting the impending demise of Lucky 13

When the Transamerica Pyramid was completed in 1972, the 853-foot tower was the eighth-tallest building in the world. It did not hold that record for long; in the 43 years since, it has fallen out of the top 100. Prior to its construction, the site was a parking lot, but before that, the block bounded by Montgomery, Washington, and Clay streets was home to another famous (and now-forgotten) structure, the Montgomery Block.

Erected in 1853, the simple, four-story building stood at what was then the waterfront, as the bayshore hadn’t yet been filled in. It was not only the tallest building in San Francisco, or even the three-year-old state of California, but the tallest west of Chicago. (That record would be surpassed the following year by Old Saint Mary’s Cathedral, whose 90-foot steeple still stands at 660 California Street.)

As with most engineering marvels, there was a bit of chest-thumping bluster attached to it. Considered fire-proof and earthquake-proof by the builder, Henry Wager Halleck (who laid out the diagonal that is now Columbus Avenue and would go on to be a high-ranking Union General during the Civil War, and who has a two-and-a-half block alley named for him in the Financial District, along with a street in the Presidio), its detractors thought it might either sink into the tidal mudflats or else float away on its foundation of redwood logs!

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For this, it was called “Halleck’s Folly.” (This was a common insult in the mid-19th century. The 1867 purchase of Alaska, for instance, was referred to as “Seward’s folly,” after the Secretary of State who bought it from Czarist Russia.)

Another nickname, the “Monkey Block,” stuck longer. As the building was at the edge of the Barbary Coast, it initially attracted attorneys and other white-collar professionals only to become a center of bohemianism as the Wild West ethos of the neighborhood toned down and North Beach grew out of it.

Mark Twain, Bret Harte, Robert Louis Stevenson, Jack London, and Ambrose Bierce all worked out of it. James Casey, editor of the Bulletin, was shot and killed there in 1856 (as the current plaque observes.) During the Depression, it was where many WPA artists maintained their offices, with rents as low as $5. Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, Maynard Dixon, Emma Goldman, Ruth Cravath, Dorothea Lange and others all visited. As artists were generally leftists, planning for the 1934 San Francisco General Strike largely happened there, as were the murals that adorn both Coit Tower and the Rincon Annex Post Office. And of course, the Monkey Block proved its critics wrong by surviving the 1906 earthquake intact.

But nothing lasts forever. The need for denser construction downtown put pressure on many 19th century buildings, and the Montgomery Block was demolished in 1958, having survived for 105 years. Knowing there would be a public outcry, the job was contracted to be done a quickly as possible, but having been built to last, it took longer than expected and the mounting rubble pile did not escape notice. Bad blood lingered, such that over a decade later, as the Transamerica Pyramid was going up, people were  still calling for the city to undo the damage.

In his 2005 National Book Award acceptance speech, San Francisco poet laureate Lawrence Ferlinghetti advocated for North Beach to become a historic district, protected from the encroachment of chain retail and other agents of character dilution. Citing the Montgomery Block’s demolition as a grave sin, Ferlinghetti called it “the most famous literary and artistic structure in the West,” and demanded of San Francisco that it establish its own French Quarter.

It hasn’t happened, but it’s quite something that two of the most iconic buildings in the city have both held the same address.

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About The Author

Peter Lawrence Kane

Peter Lawrence Kane is SF Weekly's Arts Editor. He has lived in San Francisco since 2008 and is two-thirds the way toward his goal of visiting all 59 national parks.


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