Money changes everything, they say. That was certainly true of the California Gold Rush, which shaped California and, particularly, the city of San Francisco. The Gold Rush made San Francisco the major banking and financial center of the West. Although other West Coast cities have become financial players (think Seattle and Los Angeles), San Francisco’s Financial District “still got game.” Its proximity to Silicon Valley and its long-established ties to companies in Pacific Rim countries help to keep San Francisco a national financial leader. The Financial District is generally defined as the area that stretches from The Embarcadero west to Chinatown and north to North Beach. While Market Street is an oft-named “border” to the south (the 12th District office of the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank is located at 101 Market Street, for example), some newer companies, such as Adobe, have offices “south of the slot” (Market Street’s old-time moniker). By-and-large, though, exploring the Financial District means walking up Montgomery Street (dubbed the “Wall Street of the West”) and strolling amid the towering high-rises and the few preserved older buildings where the business of the day is business.

Jackson Square

The Jackson Square Historic District’s 19th century scale and architectural style—typically three story, under 40 foot tall brick buildings on narrow tree-lined streets—contrasts with most of the Financial District. There are over twenty individually designated historic landmarks in the Jackson Square Historic District including Sherman’s Bank, pictured to the left and the Hotaling Building on the right. While a few buildings in the Jackson Square area survived the 1906 earthquake and fire, the Financial District was in ruins after the disaster and was rebuilt during the 20th Century. In the latter part of the century that meant building UP, as the district acquired its distinctive skyscraper-filled skyline.

Buried Ships

The Gold Rush created some of the San Francisco’s Financial District prime real estate. Many ships in San Francisco Bay were left to rot in their berths or in the harbor when their crews jumped ship to get rich in the gold fields. Time and neglect turned some of these hulls into landfill. View a map of the original shoreline in the Financial District with the location and history of buried ships including the General Harrison. A plaque at Clay and Sansome Streets recounts the tale of the Niantic, which became a storeship and then a hotel. The story of how the Niantic was converted from a whaling vessel to a passenger ship in order to transport passengers from Panama to San Francisco and its subsequent conversion to a storehouse are detailed in a well researched thesis project by then Humbolt State University student Ilza M. Hakenen about Ephraim Burr, an early San Francisco mayor and successful businessman.

Bank of Italy Building

Nearby, at the intersection of Montgomery and Clay Streets, another plaque identifies the landing place of Captain John B. Montgomery from The Sloop-of-War “U.S.S. Portsmouth” to raise the Stars and Stripes for the first time in California (view plaque on my Chinatown page). The plaque is at the base of A.P. Giannini’s Bank of Italy Building (built in 1908, now a National Historic Landmark). Giannini founded the Bank of Italy (later Bank of America) in 1904 to service “the little fellow” when other banks would not. Giannini developed branch banking and many other innovations and was instrumental in financing the Golden Gate Bridge and the California motion picture industry. Bank of Italy became Bank of America and Giannini started TransAmerica Corp. to manage his various businesses.

Bank of America Building and Transamerica Pyramid

The Financial District’s two best-known skyscrapers are the 52-floor Bank of America building (555 California Street), which was the tallest building west of the Mississippi River from 1969 to 1972, and the nearby Transamerica Pyramid (600 Montgomery Street), which held the West’s tallest building honor from 1972 until 1974 when it was surpassed by a Southern California structure. The Transamerica Pyramid was built on the site of the historic Montgomery Block, a four story building that was the tallest building west of the Mississippi River when completed in 1853. A large black granite sculpture stands in A.P. Giannini Plaza on the north side of the BofA building. Created by Japanese artist Masayuki Nagare, the piece’s actual title is “Transcendence,” but locals call it the “Banker’s Heart.”

The Pacific Coast Stock Exchange

A Financial District building notable for both its history and art—the Stock Exchange building at 310 Pine Street (at Sansome), designed by Timothy Pflueger with stately Doric columns—opened in 1923. Two monumental sculptures, carved on site in Yosemite granite, by Ralph Stackpole were completed in 1932. The San Francisco Stock and Bond Exchange, second oldest in the U.S. after New York, became the Pacific Coast Stock Exchange in 1957.
The building now houses Equinox Fitness and The City Club with Diego Rivera’s first U.S. commission. Allegory of California, a fresco on the wall and ceiling of the grand stairwell, features several of the periods notable personalities including tennis-great Helen Wills Moody, horticulturist Luther Burbank and Stackpole’s son Peter.

Wells Fargo Museum

Another major financial services company that began and is still headquartered in San Francisco is Wells Fargo & Company. This banking and express delivery company was formed because of the Gold Rush, and helped to shape and build much of the West. The Wells Fargo Museum (420 Montgomery Street)—located on the site where this financial institution began in 1852—features a wonderful collection of letters from and to 49ers seeking their fortunes as well as artifacts and gold dust from California’s Gold Country. And yes, of course, there is a stagecoach. Admission is free.

Embarcadero Center

If shopping is your game Embarcadero Center in San Francisco’s Financial District is worth noting. The Embarcadero Center consists of five office towers that were built between 1968 and 1983. The center provides office space for many businesses as well as over 120 shops and restaurants and the Hyatt Regency San Francisco. The Hyatt Regency Hotel and the Park Hyatt San Francisco are good places to stay in San Francisco’s Financial District. For eight or nine weeks starting in early November, the Embarcadero Center installs and operates an outdoor ice rink for winter wonderland-type fun, California-style.