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The Emporium: Grand Dame of Market Street

by Anne Hitz, City Guides

Many native San Franciscans have fond memories of the “Big E.” It was the place where you got your first grown-up jacket, did your back-to-school shopping, and rode the big slide on the roof or, at Christmas time, the train. Christmas also meant a visit with Santa and a photo. A trip downtown was something special that you dressed up for, and in the 1950s that meant gloves and a hat.

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The jewelry department circa 1898, Courtesy of Louis Capecci

The Emporium aimed for a middle-class clientele, and for over 100 years after its founding in 1897 it not only succeeded but thrived, despite near total destruction in the 1906 earthquake. The Union Square stores — Magnin, the City of Paris, and the White House — catered to the higher classes, looking to Paris for inspiration for their style and merchandising. Only the Emporium was located on the south side of Market Street. Despite the perception that stores “south of the slot" could not be successful, the Emporium built a loyal clientele and was the place to go to shop, hear concerts, have a cup of tea, or visit Santa.

The concerts "under the Dome" were a big draw. A pre-1906 newspaper advertisement described a three-hour Grand Matinee Concert, with a list of the 21 musical compositions being offered that afternoon. The store also provided a trained nurse who oversaw an emergency hospital and a children's nursery. Mothers could leave their little boys in the barber-shop to have their hair cut while they were shopping in other parts of the building.

The Emporium, with its parade and roof carnival, was a big deal at Christmas. A 2012 San Francisco Chronicle article described Santa's arrival at the beginning of the holiday season, "Santa was a complete rock star … in terms of crowd size and fervor, it looked like a cross between a World Series victory parade and a visit by the pope.” Santa always rode in style, whether it was a horse and carriage in the very early years or the Cable Car "Santa-Cade" in the 1940s and 1950s." Parts of Market and Powell were shut down, and packed with tens of thousands of people waiting to see Santa arrive. Every year there was something special to wow the crowds, from 5,000 helium balloons to a baby elephant, miniature horse, ice skating queens, and assorted drummers and buglers.

On the roof, of course, kids could visit with Santa and his elves (often there were two Santas, separated by a screen). The carnival rides included a Ferris wheel, merry-go-round, and a train. At one time the store even had an indoor ice rink. In 1968, the carnival's giant two-humped slide was a big hit, and in the '70s, they offered one of the city's first bouncy houses (the "Astro-Bounce").

The last Christmas carnival was held in 1995, the year the store closed, ending its one hundred years on Market Street. Burdened by significant debt from its too-rapid expansion into the suburbs, the chain was unable to refurbish the stores to keep up with the competition and retailing trends.

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The Emporium’s café and bandstand under the dome, circa 1905, Courtesy of Pam Gibson

The beautiful building sat sadly empty for many years. It was razed in 2003 to make way for the Westfield San Francisco Centre, a $440 million retail-office-entertainment complex that opened in September 2006 after years of negotiations, bureaucratic wrangling, and reconstruction.

When the original Emporium building was demolished, the only two architectural elements preserved were the neoclassical facade and the dome. A custom hydraulic system lifted the 500,000-pound dome to a supporting tower, waiting to be raised to the top of the new building. It sat on the supporting tower for almost a year while the new structure was built underneath it. The famous dome, which is now the centerpiece of a large atrium and colonnade at the Westfield, has over 800 glass panels in the dome and more than 900 lights encased in its structural ribs.

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Ann Hitz is a native San Franciscan and great-great granddaughter of F.W. Dohrmann, one of the founders of the Emporium. She also leads tours of Golden Gate Park for City Guides. Her book on the Emporium will be available from Acadia Press this month. More at:

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