California Historical Landmarks in San Francisco

California Historical Landmark 80
Site of the Montgomery Block
600 Montgomery Street
Built 1853
Demolished 1959
Replaced by Transamerica Pyramid

Plaque in Lobby of Transamerica Pyramid

This is the site of San Francisco's first fireproof building, erected in 1853 by Henry Wager Halleck. It was the headquarters for many outstanding lawyers, financiers, writers, actors, and artists. James King of William, editor of the Bulletin, died here on May 14, 1856 after being shot by James Casey. This building escaped destruction in the fire of 1906.

Citation from California Office of Historic Preservation

Built as the largest and safest office building in San Francisco, the Montgomery Block became the headquarters of professional men from 1853 to 1890. It housed the Adolph Sutro Library and at the turn of the century became the domicile of such artists and writers as the Norrises, George Sterling, Maynard Dixon, Ralph Stackpole, Charles Caldwell Dobie and Jack London. It was the only major downtown San Francisco building to escape the earthquake and fire of 1906.

From Historic American Building Survey

Though it is now one of the most recognized buildings in the world, the Transamerica Pyramid at its inception 30 years ago was one of the most controversial and most vilified. Hailed by its fans as the world's first modern pyramid when it poked into the sky in 1972, the building was branded by critics, as one Examiner magazine writer put it, "the most portentously and insidiously bad building in The City." Another called it antisocial architecture at its worst.... The Chronicle's Pulitzer Prize-winning architectural critic, Allan Temko, called it an abomination, and still believes that....

The building and the neighborhood have a colorful history.... The block on which the Pyramid sits, bounded by Montgomery, Washington, Clay and Sansome streets, long been the heart of San Francisco's Financial District. Besides that prosaic designation, the area has had more colorful names - the Montgomery Block and the Monkey Block being the most prominent. The part of Merchant Street that was obliterated by the Pyramid once was called Fish Alley, an extension of the open air market that once dominated that part of town.

Artists, poets and writers lived there into the 1950s in something called "Halleck's Folly," a strange architectural landmark built by architect Henry Wager "Old Brains" Halleck. When it was built in 1853, it was described as the grandest building west of St. Louis. Before the early-day bohemians moved in, it was a bank exchange. Newspaper editor James King of William was murdered there and Sun Yat-sen plotted the overthrow of China's Manchu dynasty in one of the Folly's rooms....

The critics who warned of a forest of skyscrapers being inspired by the Pyramid were right. What once was one of The City's most colorful neighborhoods is now filled with highrises, most of them, critics say, with less architectural distinction than the Pyramid. Along with the long-vanished produce and fish market, gone, too, are such venerable San Francisco landmarks as the Blue Fox, Black Cat, Purple Onion, Iron Pot, Pietro's, the Hall of Justice, Bea and Ray Goman's Gay '90s, Earthquake McGoon's, where Turk Murphy and his band played, and the Barbary Coast international settlement.

By Larry D. Hatfield writing in the San Francisco Examiner dated 18 February 1999.

Montgomery Block in San Francisco c.1862
The Montgomery Block c.1862

Montgomery St. showing the Montgomery Block (they all used to call it the "Monkey Block" for short), Washington & Kearny Sts., 1862. Telegraph Hill in distance. The Montgomery Block was built on made ground. They first put down logs, and then straw, and then logs, criss-cross. And when they had that where it wouldn't sink any more, then they put the foundation on top of that. And it lasted through the fires and earthquakes and everything of San Francisco. In fact, in the big fire there, Mr. Stidger, who lived in the building and who was a past president of the Society of California Pioneers, begged them not to blow it down because he said it's a good fire break, and he was right. They didn't dynamite the building and it saved all what would be Jackson Square today.

Photograph and caption courtesy of UC Berkeley, Bancroft Library.

Montgomery Block in San Francisco on 22 May 1906
22 May 1906
Photo Courtesy of UC Berkeley, Bancroft Library

The photograph shows the 700 block of Montgomery Street and the Montgomery Block one month after the Earthquake and Fire of 18 April 1906.

The buildings in the 700 block survived both the Earthquake and the midcentury redevelopment which demolished the Montgomery Block. The surviving buildings are included in the Jackson Square Historic District.

The rubble in the foreground was cleared, and in 1909 the Fugazi Bank Building was built on the triangular parcel bounded by Montgomery Street and Columbus Avenue.

1924 Photograph of Montgomery Block in San Francisco
February 1924
Courtesy of UC Berkeley, Bancroft Library

1940 Photograph of Montgomery Block in San Francisco
March 1940
Courtesy of Historic American Buildings Survey
(Click Photos to Zoom)

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