Everything you wanted to know about San Francisco’s finest flatiron

Mr. Phelan’s building


by Sarah Agudo and Marcin Wichary

Both of us joined Medium at the beginning of the year, and quickly became fascinated with that “stupendous edifice” our 9th-floor office inhabits — the flatiron Phelan Building at 760 Market Street in San Francisco, put together in 1908. Here’s an early photo:

We wanted to learn more about it and started on a mission to find out the most we could. Here’s what we dug out.


I.

“The gore corner”

The first Phelan Building

The Phelan Building today is actually the second Phelan Building. The original one was constructed in 1881 by James Phelan, the father of James D. Phelan. It was a handsome, 6-story building with bay windows:

The photo above is interesting in that it removes—presumably through some proto-Photoshop — all the wires lining Market Street (and, presumably, many other streets) at that time. The below one seems a bit more realistic:

It was a great destination for… well, suits and overcoats, at least:

The 1906 earthquake

In The Fraternal Record in 1886, the original Phelan Building was advertised as “thoroughly fire and earthquake proof.”

The reality was a bit more cruel. Two decades later, here’s what was left of the Phelan Building after the fire finished what the earthquake started:

(The rumours had it that some building owners set them on fire as they bought out fire insurance, but not earthquake insurance.)

Whatever the truth is, the first Phelan Building was shattered and its remains dynamited soon thereafter on April 20, 1906:

This photo of people walking past the ruins of the Phelan Building is positively haunting:


II.

“Rents have been made moderate”

The construction of the second Phelan Building

Meet James D. Phelan (Jr.), once San Francisco Mayor and not yet California Senator. A pretty serious, well-dressed guy:

Although we found evidence he knew how to party, too:

Probably not with everyone, though. We also found this hilarious exchange from later in his life:

I remember that he called one day on Senator Phelan, in his office in the Phelan Building. “You mean to tell me,” the Senator said, “that I could sit here in my office and talk to someone in an office on the other side of Market Street, without the use of telephone wires?” Francis told him yes, it could be done by means of his invention, the wireless telephone.
“Why,” Senator Phelan said, “that is absurd. The waves, or whatever they are, would get mixed up with all the street sounds. If he could get the waves from my voice, he gets the waves from the horse cars, carriages and everything else on the street. He wouldn’t be able to make heads or tails out of what I was saying.”
People in those days just couldn’t conceive of the independent radio wave, as we know it, cutting through and penetrating all the other sound waves. It just wasn’t possible, they thought, to transmit the voice, except by wires, as in the telephone.

Crucial to this story, Phelan also wanted San Francisco to reappear on the map — bigger, better, and in every way more impressive:

The Phelan Building was supposed to lead as an example — taller, safer, built out of steel. It was to be San Francisco in a miniature. “It is Mr. Phelan’s intention to have this building one of the notable ones of the west, not only in size, but in finish and fine appearance,” wrote San Francisco Call in December 1907. And, on another occasion:

Soon, newspaper pages were filled with updates on plans, typos notwithstanding:

For a little over a year the lot stood almost empty, not counting an occasional pop-up store:

On the 6th floor of San Francisco Public Library, in the San Francisco History Center, we found an amazing actual photo album of the construction:

Here’s some of the earliest photos in that album:

The Organized Labor newspaper provided some fascinating information about who was working on that building as the offices were being furnished:

The construction progressed swiftly — from October 7, 1907 to September 19, 1908:

We found another photo from the construction, and we juxtaposed it with a photo we took in 2014 from a similar vantage point — how empty and low San Francisco was back then! The Phelan Building really was “mammoth,” as one later advertisement claimed.

The Phelan Building in 1908 vs. The Phelan Building in 2014

Here’s the last photo in the construction album:

We found one more photo of the building, right after it opened:

We also bought (via Amazon and eBay) some of the early postcards from the times you could pay just 1¢ for domestic, and 2¢ for international!

The stores

This is the original setup of the stores on the ground level:

Most of the stores had entries on both Market Street and O’Farrell Street. (It’s interesting to walk around the building today — in person or virtually — and see how very little of that configuration still exists. The tiny left-most store, for example, is closed off, just a front for a Wells Fargo ATM.)

In addition to the ground level stores, there was also the second level of arcade stores. The ad in the lower-right corner explains the rationale:

Generally, the ads were fascinating. “It will pay you.”

“The arcade or second floor idea is a novel one and new to San Francisco”:

Unfortunately, we could not find any photos of those arcade stores, except just a bit in this damaged night photograph:

We also don’t know how long arcade stores lasted — this article suggests well into 2000s?

On the ground floor, one amazing feature was an impressive awning over the tip of the triangle, today long gone (also: horses! also: cigars!).

By 1925, the horses have been replaced by automobiles:

The offices

Soon afterwards, other types of ads started appearing in papers:

The Send for Illustrated Booklet on the New Phelan Building caught our attention. After some digging, we found out that a copy of that booklet was available in the State Library in Sacramento!

So, yes, we drove there.

And we scanned the entire brochure using their handy, weird book scanner. You can download the brochure here in high-resolution PDF.

It’s quite an amazing thing. Here’s the cover and the map:

Look at all of those great amenities — integrated motors and vacuum cleaning coming from walls:

Life in the Phelan Building one hundred years ago must have been great… if you happened to be a guy in a bowler hat!

(If someone can translate that last box into English, let us know.)


III.

“So many hours a day are spent by a business man in his office.”

The building frame

Depending on where you look, there are suggestions that the original foundations and structure of the Phelan Building were supposed to accommodate not 11, but 13, or even 21 floors. We made a little visualization to help us understand what a taller Phelan Building could look like:

We also found this cool image superimposing the vaunted steel cage structure with the finished terra cotta exterior:

The basement

Originally, the basement had a café (Old Louvre for the first few years, unsure after that), as evidenced by the advertisement and the illustration in the promotional booklet:

Other floors

Early on as well, every single floor from third up (above the ground floor and arcade floor) looked similar to this—with dozens of small offices:

Today, only the 7th floor remains in this configuration, and its clock is slowly ticking:

Here’s a view of the 7th floor from the tip of the building:

Every other floor has been, or is in the process of, being converted to an open-floor format. Here’s the 8th today, in April 2014:

Up until a few years ago, The Phelan Building was the de facto jewelry center in San Francisco.

A few merchants on the 7th floor still remain:

At some point we stumbled upon an incredible account of some of the Phelan Building history. It’s a must-read for anyone interested in the building or issues of San Francisco’s gentrification:

“Next year the tiny offices in the Feelin building that have stood for a century will be demolished in favor of single floor landscapes. I can only speculate as to the decor, but I hear that steel and glass are in this season. There will be cubicles of some sort, or if cubicles are no longer the accepted fashion, some half cubicle that fosters a more communal workplace environment. One thing is for sure, there will be screens. Screens large and small, screens to really get lost in and get that good new work done. The contrast between handcrafted work and whatever passes for a job these days in San Francisco is almost too explicit to speak about without falling into sentimentality.”

And:

“I went up to see Jimmy recently. I don’t get to the Feelin building much anymore but when I heard that everyone was being evicted I wanted to check in on him. He has occupied the same office on the 3rd floor for nearly 30 years. When I walked out of the elevator, the 3rd floor was dark and vacant. I was told Jimmy had been moved temporarily to the 10th floor while he found a new place. I found Jimmy working out of a closet with no running water. He told me that he fills up a bucket from the bathroom each morning. I asked him how he was doing up here. No good! No good!, he said.”

This promotional video of Revere Academy Of Jewelry Arts also captures some of the spirit (the academy moved out of the Phelan Building in early 2013, after 33 years there):

The mail chute

One of the remaining infrastructure bits is the mail chute:

It’s still serviced by US Post Office:

Alas, our highly scientific tests on whether it still works (from the 4th floor) proved inconclusive; Marcin’s $5 bill was never to be seen again.


IV.

“A trouble maker, especially when he had money”

Crime and accidents in the Phelan Building

Trying to search for human stories in online newspaper archives revealed a surprising number of accident and crime reports… and very little else.

Construction standards a century ago seemed much more lax:

And you just have to love some of those crime reports (“he opened it and abstracted its contents”):

And check out the Upworthy-style headlines, in 1913!

Not to mention a really scary graphic we found in one of the folders in the San Francisco History Center:

On its back, it read Window washer plunged to death, with a date of February 5, 1936.

Be safe out there!


V.

“The shortest commute in town”

The mystery of the penthouse

If you haven’t yet, be sure check out the amazing Sanborn insurance maps section of the San Francisco History Center on the 6th floor of the Public Library:

We found our building there, with more than a few layers of additions and corrections accumulated over time (pity one cannot peek underneath and revert to original):

What caught our attention was the bungalow on the roof, or 12th floor — when we already knew there were supposed to be only eleven!

We found some old photos of this little roof penthouse from when Mr. Phelan was entertaining the dignitaries there:

We also found — on microfilm, no less—an article (PDF) about a couple who set up a photographic studio there later, in the 1960s, living there with “four cats, one collie dog, five parakeets, two goldfish, one myna bird and one large land turtle.”

Apparently, the couple once thwarted a suicide attempt from the Humboldt Bank Building just by virtue of having a good vantage point.

A few other photos confirm the garden on the roof:

Observation

What happened to it next? We could find no more information. Apple Maps confirmed the existence of something on the roof:

Unfortunately, the only access — through one lonely staircase — is denied:

And we couldn’t see that much through the keyhole:

So, let’s check out the buildings nearby. We thought we could observe the penthouse from the Humboldt Bank Building on the other side of Market Street:

Kind people from creative agency Gershoni let us take some photos through their windows:

Unfortunately, the angle wasn’t great and it didn’t allow us to see much:

We tried again, from the Call Building/Central Tower (the same one you could see in the historical photos above, but sans the amazing dome it lost later):

This gave us a much better vantage point:

Zooming in with a telephoto lens revealed the penthouse in a sorry, dilapidated state:

As it turns out, just a few years ago the former tenant of the penthouse, Bernice van Eckhardt, 97, was reunited with it for a brief moment:

Visiting in person

This made us even more curious. Eventually, after a lot of asking around, we managed to get rare access to see the penthouse in person!

It’s seen better days, but it’s still there:

There are some memorabilia hiding there found in the building during its recent renovations:

Including this creepy set of rusted razors:

Last but not least — not only no trace of the roof garden, but also some foreboding machinery in its place:


VI.

“One thing is for sure, there will be screens”

We found out a few other random tidbits. Among them, this little delight:

And construction details that went over our heads:

How about some transit plans from when BART was considered to be an elevated rail track:

…or to look completely different:

And, lastly, a report awarding the Phelan Building a status of San Francisco Registered Landmark 156:


In the end, what might be most fascinating about the Phelan Building is that it’s both ancient and modern at the same time; multiple slices of time meeting under one penthouse-sporting roof. A floor with tenants who moved in before Loma Prieta earthquake, right below an empty one waiting for a new owner. The original mail system next to wireless stations serving iPhones. Last century’s high-tech meeting its modern counterpart.

The penthouse never found its way out of 1980s, rotting and mostly forgotten, but otherwise the building keeps reinventing itself. Most of the companies residing here today moved in rather recently:

The Phelan Building tenants as of April 2014

…but if their employees were to take the stairs, it would still be the same stairs that The Winslow Bros Company from Chicago was boasting about in their 1910 promo book:

And in that way the Phelan Building becomes once again, a hundred years later, a metaphor for the tensions and hopes of the entire city.


We also started the Wikipedia entry for the Phelan Building — it seems criminal it never had one before.

And, if you want to learn more how we found all of this, we wrote it up, too.

Thank you! Let us know what you think.

Sarah & Marcin