Sunday, March 20, 2011

If You Can’t Save It, Plaque It

In which we wax nostalgic

Fire, flood, famine, pestilence and urban renewal.

These are just some of the forces that preservationists fight as they fight to preserve historical places from the forces of nature and “progress.”

In downtown San Francisco, this has been no easy slog, for the area itself is landfill, built on sunken ships and the hopes of those sailors who hoped to find gold in them thar hills. And much of what was built after that was burnt. And much to what survived that (or was rebuilt) was bulldozed to make way for the Manhattanization of San Francisco, aimed at turning dockside warehouses and maritime "slums" into the premier financial powerhouse of the Pacific Rim. Guess it worked. For the most part.

But that’s San Francisco, a city that’s never finished. C’est la Frisco.

In my walks around the Financial District and its surroundings, I’ve noticed many plaques and small monuments adorning edifices new and old which speak of times gone by. Here’s just a handful that I photographed recently. Sorry if these are not my usual photographic masterpieces. They’re just plaques, after all.

The Old Ship Saloon

The Old Ship's bona fides are questionable. In theory, the bar and the building above it rest on the bones of the Arkansas, a three-master shipwrecked here in 1849. If there's anything left of the old ship itself I haven't seen it. The building and the bar itself have gone through many iterations. But then we Clampers never let the truth get in the way of the good story.

What Cheer House
At the corner of Sacramento and an alley called Leidesdorff (formerly called Pauper Alley), is a dreary modern granite-faced building. But the corner boasts a cheery plaque for the "What Cheer House." Founded by R.B. Woodward of Woodward's Gardens fame, the What Cheer House was a hotel for respectable fellows from the sea -- no ladies and no liquor allowed but one of the first free lending libraries in San Francisco. (That's one part cheer, two parts drear in my book, but I quibble.)

William Leidesdorff
Right across from the What Cheer House plaque is another plaque commemorating William Leidesdorff, after whom the alley is named. Leidesdorff was one of the first black citizens of early California and one of its most successful early businessmen -- founding the town's first hotel, launching its first steamboat, and establishing its first shipping warehouse, among many other notable successes.

The Waterfront
Front Street is famously where San Francisco's first landfill began into Yerba Buena Cove. But the shoreline was never a straight line. As it ran north and south, it meandered east and west, the way shorelines do. This monument rests at the corner of Clay and Battery, next to the fairly new Club Quarters Hotel. The red line is meant to indicate the original shoreline; the brass curves ripples in the water. The post is meant represent an early, rope-bound piling.

Bummer and Lazarus
In the little garden at the foot of the Transamerica Pyramid is an ECV plaque to Bummer and Lazarus, San Francisco's First Dogs. Bummer and Lazarus were two strays who adopted Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico a local madman-come-savant, following His Imperial Majesty in his wanderings throughout the nascent city.

Hotaling's Whiskey
Across from the Transamerica Pyramid is Hotaling Place, a tiny, one-block alley now home to Villa Taverna, a private Italian American dining club. But it's also famed for being the home of the warehouse of A.P Hotaling which before the Great Earthquake and Fire was the largest liquor repository on the West Coast. During the fire, the U.S. Navy laid a mile-long fire hose to save the warehouse area in which Hotaling's building was located. The whiskey was saved. The fact that the whiskey was saved, rather than more wholesome goods, prompted clergymen to take umbrage (as is their wont). This, in turn, prompted one wag by the name of Field to pen the verse:

If, as they say, God spanked the town
For being over frisky,
Why did He burn the churches down
And save Hotaling’s whiskey?

The saved liquor was later sold under the name, Old Kirk. (Kirk is Scots for "Church." Get it?)

The Family Club
At the corner of Montgomery and Sacramento is another nondescript building which bears the plaque below. It says that "The Family" is "one of San Francisco's oldest and most distinctive social clubs." True enough, but it doesn't give you the back story. The Family is an offshoot of the Bohemian Club. Its members split from the Bohemian because the Bohemians had lost their, well, bohemian roots---the Bohemians originally being made up of journalists and writers, not money-men, bankers and grasping politicos. The current Family clubhouse is on Bush at Powell. Today it's not exactly what you would call bohemian in the strictest sense.

"Keep young."

More to come...


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