Only in San Francisco’s Union Square --A Shopper’s Mecca
The hub of San Francisco’s shopping district is a well-manicured, 2.6 acre plot planted with palms, Irish yews, boxwood and bright flowers.
Like Paris’ Place Vendome, Union Square has a towering, statue-topped shaft at its center and is surrounded by smart stores and fine hotels. It also has something of the same aura of elegance.
Traffic flow on the streets bordering the Square—Geary, Powell, Post and Stockton—bustles. San Francisco’s retail core consistently ranks among the top five in the nation in total sales volume.
Standing at the hub it’s easy to see why. The Square is framed by famous fashion houses offering a wide assortment of luxuries. One will find the most upscale department stores, featuring pret-a-porter and couture fashions from world-renowned international and American designers, and specialty stores known for their impeccable traditional European footwear, luggage and other leather goods. Here, connoisseurs peruse the finest jewelry houses’ exquisite selections. Traditional menswear designers display their stately goods against dark, polished interiors of wood and leather. More adventurous dressers can fulfill their desires in the brightly-colored, upbeat stores of daring Italian designers. Even Francophiles will feel at home, finding everything from French scarves and haute-couture to linens and gifts.
Union Square’s slightly convex surface covers a four-story deep cavity like an imposing pot lid. In 1941 the park was carefully dismantled and earthmovers began burrowing a hole big enough to accommodate more than 1,000 automobiles. The facility was the first of its kind. As many as 2,700 cars a day sweep down its ramps.
The to-and-fro topside is eclectic. Shoppers, strollers, brown baggers, sunbathers, orators, trysters, street entertainers and pigeons use the grassy quad as a shortcut, soapbox, solarium, sidewalk cafe, stage, front porch and bird refuge.
There are 40 hotels in all categories within three blocks of the Square. Flower stands, a San Francisco institution as old as the cable cars, daub almost every corner.
Prior to the Gold Rush of 1849 Union Square was a sandy hillock. A considerable stream coursed down a deep ravine on its west flank where the cable cars now clang.
A California Registered State Landmark plaque at the park’s Geary-Powell entrance records that Union Square was deeded to the public on January 3, 1850 during the administration of John White Geary, the City’s first mayor. Its name derives from a series of violent pro-Union demonstrations staged there on the eve of the Civil War.
The buoyant figure of Victory atop the 97-foot Corinthian column commemorates Commodore George Dewey’s victory over the Spanish fleet at Manila in 1898. It was dedicated by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1903 and withstood the 1906 earthquake.
During the four-day fire that followed, this central plaza became a crowded campsite. Soon after the first shock was felt at 5:12 a.m. April 18, guests of the St. Francis Hotel began streaming into the adjacent park, among them actor John Barrymore. Local lore has it that Barrymore, who’d passed the night in bibulous revelry, was sitting surveying the surrounding confusion when the militia pressed him into service stacking bricks in the Square. The incident prompted his uncle, famed thespian John Drew, to remark, “It took an act of God to get Jack out of bed and the United States government to get him to work.”
The St. Francis was reportedly the first hotel in town to put sheets on its beds. That was in 1853 when the canvas and board original stood at Grant Avenue and Clay.
Its successor went up on the west side of Union Square in 1904. Gutted by the ‘06 fire, the “new” St. Francis was grandly restored in 1907 and expanded to 1,200 rooms with the addition of a 32-story tower in 1972.
The park’s northeast corner is dominated by the 685-room, 36-story Grand Hyatt on Union Square completed in 1973. Its plaza embraces the district’s most endearing artwork—a fountain bubbling with San Franciscana. Sculptor Ruth Asawa has captured the city’s spirit in 41 wraparound bronze friezes. Some 250 San Franciscans ages 3 to 90 collaborated on these bas-reliefs originally molded in bread dough.
A half-block down Stockton Street, Maiden Lane sprouts off the Square. This quiet, two-block mall, closed to vehicles from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., is like an extension of the park.
Before the earthquake, Maiden Lane, then known as Morton Street, was the Barbary Coast’s raunchiest red light district. But the intervening years have turned the bawd into a lady of unquestionable refinement. Fica trees line the sidewalks and turn-of-the-century street standards contribute to the Lane’s carriage trade cachet.
Several top clothiers and jewelers have rear entrances and show-windows on the Lane. But most of its length is occupied by boutiques and art galleries interspersed with small bars and restaurants.
Architecturally, its chief attraction is the distinctive yellow brick structure housing Circle Gallery at 140 Maiden Lane. Designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1949, the building, with its spiral interior ramp, was the prototype for the Guggenheim Museum in New York.
Union Square is an eventful place. During warmer months, it celebrates San Francisco’s rich variety of cultures with several “National Days.” Food, crafts and displays from all over the world.—Argentina, Israel, Italy, Korea, Indonesia, Russia, Brazil, Germany and Central American countries—are enjoyed during day-long festivities.
A uniquely San Franciscan happening, the Cable Car Bell Ringing Competition, is held there in summer. National holiday observances, fashion shows, fund-raisers, political demonstrations, sports rallies, and band concerts are common occurrences. Every winter, between mid-January and late February, the Square is the scene of a colorful Chinese New Year pageant. A huge menorah heralds Hanukkah. The day after Thanksgiving kicks off the Holiday season in Union Square (which may be sunny or rainy but never snowy) with a giant Holiday tree lighting celebration. So...when you hear San Franciscans say, “Well, back to square one,” you know where they’re going.
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