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Transamerican Pyramid

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The Transamerica Pyramid used to be a cool artists’ colony—for, like, a hundred years

Before being replaced by San Francisco’s pointed skyline signifier, 628 Montgomery Street stood as the literary and artistic capital of the West

It’s gone now, but for almost a century, 628 Montgomery Street was the center of the San Francisco art world. It was also the heart of the underground political world, the early LGBT community, SF’s first cheap-eats foodies, Gold Rush-era cocktail aficionados, ancient hipsters, seminal drag queens, and 49er-time indie magazines.

Frida Kahlo hung out there when she was in San Francisco, for example. Mark Twain, who worked at a newspaper in 628, met a fireman in the basement steam room who told him incredible stories—the fireman’s name was Tom Sawyer.

The first lesbian bar in the U.S., Mona’s 440, started when teenage Mona Sargent got a loan from her neighbors down the hall in this same building.

Pisco Punch was invented in the ground-floor Bank Exchange Saloon.

A lot of the painters of the Coit Tower frescoes lived at 628. Famous anarchist Emma Goldman visited her partner Alexander Berkman’s radical magazine The Blast there. Writers including Robert Louis Stevenson, Jack London, Ambrose “The Devil’s Dictionary” Bierce, and California Poet Laureate Ina Coolbrith worked there. It was called the Montgomery Block.

Today, it’s the Transamerica Pyramid.

In 1853, Henry Halleck built the Montgomery Block, the first fireproof and earthquake-proof building in the city and the tallest building west of the Mississippi at four whole stories; its footprint was the same as the Pyramid’s, but back then, it was on the waterfront. At first, it was mostly lawyers’ offices and a high society party space, especially the velvet-lined billiard hall on the second floor.

But soon, the financial center of the city moved to Market Street, and Montgomery Block rents fell. It was close to the then-Bohemianizing North Beach District with its cafes and cheap food, so naturally, artists and other low-overhead types moved in.

Poet Kenneth Rexroth was one of them, and in the 1930s he and his friends called it the “Monkey Block.” Communists and other agitators helped plan the incredible (but also mostly forgotten) General Strike of 1934 during which the working class took a mini vacation, with children rollerskating in the streets, while the rich overran the railroad ticket offices and got out of town.

San Francisco’s most famous poet, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, owner of City Light Books and knower of everything, mentioned the building in his address when he was made the city’s Poet Laureate in the late 1990s. “The classic old Montgomery Block building was the most famous literary and artistic structure in the West until it was replaced by the Transamerica Pyramid,” said the noted poet.

Today, we take San Francisco for what it is, or what it’s been until recently: A liberal bastion, a city of murals, a multicultural city, the gayest city in the world, a book-reading city, and a city that would love to get a drink with you sometime. All of that and more got started in the Montgomery Block, plain and simple.

Montgomery Block, circa 1856.
Montgomery Block, circa 1856.
Photo by G. R. Fardon, courtesy of Google Art Project

In its warren of tiny rooms in the top three floors, multiple communities formed and grew, mainly out of the crucial San Francisco idea of “Bohemianism,” which was often an umbrella term, broad code for any activity outside the Puritanical, money-focused mainstream of society, such as creativity, innovation, shamelessness, introspection, musicality, and, especially, resistance to heteronormativity. (Also, a thing for picnics.)

All those queer behaviors were alive and well in the Montgomery Block for roughly the first half of the twentieth century. It was demolished in 1959 as part of the redevelopment mania for paving things and building freeways that gripped the country and often bulldozed healthy working-class communities of color, or in this case, a good-sized art colony.

But while it stood, the building housed, employed, sheltered, and inspired an even wider cross-section of deeply San Franciscan elements, from the incredibly strong, hardworking Chinese immigrants who dug its foundation out of the bay sludge in the first place and soon founded Chinatown, to San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen, who eulogized it.

“You won't miss the Montgomery Block, felled for a garage?” Caen wrote in 1960. “You should, for it was part of San Francisco from its earliest days, and without it, the city will never be the same again.”

Hiya Swanhuyser was born on the ninth floor of UCSF, earned her MFA from USF, and has lived in the city for 14 years this time. Her work has appeared in SF Weekly, San Francisco Magazine, 7x7 Magazine, and her Backstage Heroes column runs on the KQED Arts website. She is reading Gray Brechin's Imperial San Francisco and is about halfway done with a book about the Montgomery Block.

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