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Fireproof in SF

by Dan Tussey

Six fires between 1849 and 1851 destroyed large parts of rapidly growing San Francisco. Clearly fires were a significant hazard for a town filled with structures made of wood. Local attorney (and future Chief of Staff of Lincoln's armies) Henry Wager Halleck felt that public confidence needed to be bolstered by building a structure that would be impenetrable to fire or flood. A civil engineer trained at West Point military academy, Halleck was very able to guide the development of San Francisco's first fireproof building, the Montgomery Block, located at 628 Montgomery Street at Washington Street.

A new style of architecture for office buildings inspired by the fires featured block-like structures with thick walls, deep-set windows, and iron shutters and doors, like the fortresses with which Halleck was familiar. Halleck hired architect Gordon P. Cummings, who had recently designed the Parrott Block at California and Montgomery, to work on the structure that was to become the tallest and grandest building west of Chicago. After 14 months of careful construction, the name Washington Block was prominently placed on the front of the building, along with a bust of George Washington. Almost immediately, however, everyone referred to it as the Montgomery Block, and the name stuck. The housewarming of the Block was held two days before Christmas 1853.

During its construction the project was known as "Halleck's folly." The extravagant four-story building spread across a city block. People must have thought Halleck daft when they learned that the $3 million building was built upon a raft of redwood logs 122x138 feet bolted together with iron. Those along with a layer of 12x12 foot ship's planking from abandoned ships in the harbor formed the foundation that was sunk into the sand and mud to a depth of 22 feet by hundreds of Chinese laborers. It is challenging for one to remember that Montgomery Street ran along the city's shoreline at that time.

Halleck had that last laugh, however, when the building filled quickly with lawyers, engineers, scientists, and business and professional men who paid approximately $1,000 per month for the prestigious address. Their names read like a Who's Who of California history and include such famed attorneys as Hall McAllister, George Peachey, Frederick Billings, and Halleck himself. These men were chiefly engaged in settling the nearly irresolvable disputes before the land claims court following the War with Mexico that had ended in 1848. The building was also home to stock speculators who became the "silver kings" during the Comstock era.

Perhaps the most famous street shooting of the city's early history occurred in front of the Montgomery Block on May 14, 1856. James King of William, editor of the Daily Evening Bulletin, had just left his office in the Block when he was shot by City Supervisor James Casey for revealing that Casey had been imprisoned in Sing Sing back East. Mortally wounded, King was taken back into the Block, where he died six days later. Public outrage at the crime led to the formation of the Second Committee of Vigilance, which quickly tried, sentenced, and publicly hanged Casey, along with Charles Cora, who had shot a U.S. Marshal.

Bars were important places in the post-Gold Rush days, and the Bank Exchange, located in a corner of the Montgomery's Block ground floor, was a popular gathering place for lawyers and politicians. It is credited for inventing Pisco Punch, a drink made with Peruvian brandy. The concoction was so potent that proprietor Duncan Nicol allowed only two drinks per customer. After consuming his two glasses, one customer said, "I felt that I could face smallpox, all the fevers known to the faculty, and the Asiatic cholera combined, if need be." The Bank Exchange, with its Wedgwood porcelain beer pumps, black and white checkered floor, overstuffed cowhide chairs, and mahogany bar, existed until 1919, when it was closed during the prohibition era.

Endearing Emperor Norton, who had named himself "Emperor of these United States" and later "Protector of Mexico," chose the lobby of the building to call a public meeting to renounce his protectorship of Mexico because Maximilian had made his territory impossible to govern. Mark Twain spent time in the Montgomery Block, where he met and befriended a fireman named Tom Sawyer whose name he used for a novel some years later. A.P. Giannini started the Bank of Italy in the building in 1904 and moved it next door to 550 Montgomery in 1908.

The Montgomery Block survived the 1906 earthquake and fire, largely due to Oliver P. Stidger, an attorney who managed the building for more than 50 years. When the flames of the fire were moving up Montgomery Street, Stidger narrowly persuaded a military officer not to dynamite the Block, pointing out that the building with its yard-thick, brick-filled walls was a good firebreak.

Some say the Monkey Block, as it was often called, was the most important literary site of the 19th and 20th centuries. It became headquarters for the San Francisco Argonaut. Writers Robert Louis Stevenson, Ambrose Bierce, Jack London, Charles Norris, and George Sterling found their way into the building. In the 1930s, as many as 75 artists and writers, attracted by rents as low as $5 per week, had studios or apartments there. In one of the Montgomery Block's rooms, architect Willis Polk and artist Bruce Porter designed the memorial to Robert Louis Stevenson that stands today in Portsmouth Square. They first drew the plan on a tablecloth while lunching at the Palace Hotel and then took the tablecloth with them to Porter's studio to finish the design.

In 1959, the Montgomery Block was demolished to create a parking lot. To avoid public complaints, the wreckers planned to make quick work of the demolition, but they found it rough going. The building's iron framework and massive brick walls resisted, and the demolition process lasted many weeks and produced a mass of historic used brick. The plaque naming it an historic location is now found in the lobby of the Transamerica Building which was built on the site in 1972. A replica of the Bank Exchange bar existed in the pyramid in 1974. Redwood Park behind the building provides a lasting memory of Halleck's redwood log foundation for the Montgomery Block building.

Those desiring a detailed account of the Montgomery Block's 100-year existence should read Ark of Empire by Idwal Jones, available in the SF Public Library. Additional sources: --Historic Walks in San Francisco by Rand Richards

--Suddenly San Francisco: The Early Years of an Instant City by Charles Lockwood

--National Trust Guide, San Francisco by Peter Booth Wiley

--The building file folder offered by the History Center of the San Francisco Public Library -- 2000/sfentries (interesting pictures and details on both the building and Halleck)

Historic photos reprinted with permission, SF History Center, SF Public Library

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The Montgomery Block in 1880

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In 1955, Oliver P. Stidger, who had saved the Monkey Block from dynamiting in 1906, unveiled a plaque naming the building an historic site.

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