Back in the mid-1800s before San Francisco was San Francisco, the city’s shoreline looked remarkably different. You can see the exact location of SF’s original waterfront if you take a peek down Hotaling Place, an unassuming one-block alleyway at the base of the Transamerica Pyramid. You’ll know you’ve found it when you see the wavy lines in the concrete.
As SF’s oldest alley, Hotaling Place has an absolutely fascinating history. Read on to learn about its namesake, background, and surviving structures.
Origins of Hotaling Place
If you’re a fan of local history, you likely know that San Francisco was previously called Yerba Buena starting in 1821 when Mexico won its independence from Spain. However in 1846, Captain John B. Montgomery claimed Yerba Buena for the United States during the Mexican-American War.
He raised the American flag over the town plaza, which became known as Portsmouth Square in honor of Montgomery’s ship, the U.S.S. Portsmouth. Yerba Buena was renamed San Francisco, the California Gold Rush began, and the city transformed seemingly overnight.
By 1849, San Francisco’s population had grown from below 1,000 people to 25,000 and counting due to the influx of “forty-niners.” Hundreds of ships were left abandoned on the city’s shoreline, causing the water to recede significantly.
Hotaling Place is one of several old shoreline markers in San Francisco. You can also find plaques delineating the old shoreline at 160 King Street, 501 Market Street, and at the intersection of Bush and Market.
Anson Parsons Hotaling
The alley’s namesake is Anson Parsons Hotaling, who owned a whiskey warehouse around the corner that miraculously survived the 1906 earthquake. You can still see the original building, which was the West Coast’s largest liquor warehouse, at 451 Jackson Street.
The story goes that the U.S. Army wanted to dynamite the the warehouse in order to create a firebreak during the earthquake’s subsequent firestorm. However the building was ultimately spared after the distillery manager pointed out the flammability of its product, and a mile-long fire hose was laid from Fisherman’s Wharf over Telegraph Hill to save this section of the city.
When clergymen asserted that the catastrophe was divine retribution for San Franciscans’ misdeeds, journalist and poet Charles Field responded in jovial fashion with a poem that you can read on the side of the building.
If, as they say, God spanked the town
For being over frisky,
Why did He burn the churches down
And save Hotaling’s whisky?
Historical buildings at Hotaling Place
The Hotaling Building is not the only historical structure you’ll find from pre-earthquake times. Another building that survived is now Barbarossa Lounge at 714 Montgomery, whose original red-brick back entrance still stands on Hotaling Place. The cocktail lounge has distinctive décor inspired by the Barbary Coast and a fun menu with drinks named after famous criminals, madams, dance hall girls and politicians.
Another surviving building with a fascinating history is Hotaling Annex West at 463-473 Jackson Street. The Italianate building dates back to the 1860s and was also once owned by Anson Parsons Hotaling as part of his liquor business. During the 1930s the Works Progress Administration (WPA) rented the building for its Federal Writers and Federal Artists projects, which resulted in Coit Tower’s Depression-era frescoes among other things. Famous artists and writers continued to live there during World War II while they worked in the shipyards — names include Giacomo Patri, Avrum Rubinstein, Byron Randall, and Emmy Lou Packard.
You’ll find The Ship Building at 716 Montgomery Street, which is said to have been built on the hull of a schooner named The Georgian that ran aground in 1849. Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera rented this building as their studio in the 1930s, at which time Rivera painted several of his most famous murals in San Francisco. The City Club in downtown SF is home to Allegory of California, the San Francisco Art Institute houses The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City, and SFMOMA is still showcasing Pan American Unity in the free Roberts Family Gallery.
Finally, make sure you take a peek at the marble goddess sculpture that marks the entrance to Villa Taverna. This private dining club is an invitation-only establishment dating back to 1958 with members including Richard Blum, Dianne Feinstein, and Margery and William Zellerbach, among others. The sculpture is said to be an ancient Roman piece gifted by the Italian government.
As for what didn’t survive, legend has it that a herd of stampeding cattle raced down the street to their deaths during the big ‘quake of 1906, and you can still hear the ghost cows rushing down the alley if the conditions are right.
You can find Hotaling Place in the alley between Sansome, Montgomery, Washington, and Jackson Streets. It’s at the base of the Transamerica Pyramid in San Francisco’s Financial District.