by Frank Dunnigan
San Francisco is a town that once embraced neon light. From the World War I era until the late 1960s—and from downtown Market Street, radiating out through residential neighborhoods—glorious neon shone down on the streets and on the people who were out and about during evening hours.
Most long-time San Franciscans have at least one memory of a neighborhood neon sign radiating out into a foggy evening, often from a local movie theater, corner grocery, or just that ubiquitous cocktail glass above the entrance of a nearby watering hole. Where did all those classic signs go? Read on:
Beginning with BART/MUNI construction along Market Street in the summer of 1967, City government began limiting the size and configuration of business signs and severely downplaying neon, especially in the downtown area, in the name of “beautification”. Also, over the years, many vintage neon signs became prohibitively expensive to maintain, requiring significant work every five years or so. Many of these beauties fell into disrepair or were replaced by signs featuring plastic panels backed with inexpensive fluorescent lighting.
Local historians/authors Al Barna and Randall Ann Homan of San Francisco Neon compiled 200+ classic photos for their book, San Francisco Neon: Survivors and Lost Icons (Giant Orange Press, 2014). This led to a renewed interest in neon on the part of many people, and by 2017, many examples of neon art, beginning in the Tenderloin neighborhood, are now being brought back to life by a City-sponsored restoration program.
Here’s a brief look back at some memorable examples of neon art from the OpenSFHistory collection that once graced the local scene—though only a few are still with us today.
This is the view toward the Ferry Building from Market & Leavenworth in 1959. After BART/MUNI construction began in 1967, there was a trend away from neon lighting on downtown businesses. In addition, many downtown movie houses were closed in subsequent years, resulting in a changed appearance for the renovated Market Street.
The Orpheum at Market & Hyde, circa 1954, featuring Cinerama—a film process with 3 synchronized motion picture images projected onto a large curved screen. The Orpheum now features stage productions and a less showy marquee. The Crystal Palace Market, opposite the Orpheum was an enormous multi-merchant retail space featuring groceries, produce, gourmet items, and household goods from 1923-1959. It was then demolished to make way for Del Webb’s TowneHouse, an upscale, multi-story motel. That motel was later converted to apartments and ultimately demolished to make way for a much larger, high-rise residential project at the site, which opened in this millennium.
Taken from the roof of the Hibernia Bank at #1 Jones Street, this June 1960 image shows the widespread use of neon signage on many Market Street businesses, large and small. Crocker-Anglo Bank was a descendant of Woolworth National Bank which was renamed Crocker Woolworth National Bank, when acquired by the Crocker family. Later, it became Crocker-Anglo Bank, Crocker-Citizens National Bank, then Crocker First National Bank and finally Crocker Bank. The institution was sold to British-based Midland Bank in 1981, but after a series of financial losses it was acquired by and merged into Wells Fargo Bank in 1986. The building now houses a check cashing service and other tenants.
Washington Street near Grant Avenue in Chinatown shows a variety of multi-lingual neon signage on several businesses, circa 1956. Decades later, a new restaurant, Golden Dragon, opened in this location and in a sad footnote to history, became the scene of a 1977 massacre and closed a few years later. Today, other restaurants and retail stores occupy these buildings, though most of the old neon signage is gone.
Carl’s Pastry Shop at 18th & Guerrero, circa 1980. Carl’s was founded in 1950 by a German couple, Carl and Mabel Reichmann. It passed through other hands before it was finally sold to partners Charles Walter and Roman Michno in the early 1990s, who operated it successfully for nearly a decade, but they closed the business in 1998 due to fewer customers, rising rent, and competition from supermarket bakeries. Since 2002, a new bakery, specializing in bread, has operated at this location, though sans the neon.
Goodman Lumber was an independent, family-owned business on Bayshore Boulevard that was founded in the years after World War II and prospered for decades. According to news reports at the turn of the millennium, a family dispute among the founder’s 3 adult children forced its closure. The site is now home to a big-box home improvement store.
Hoffman’s Grill opened in 1891 near the SW corner of 2nd and Market Streets, and by the 1980s, it was one of the few remaining full-service restaurants located on Market Street in the Financial District. It closed in 1984 to make way for a high-rise, but the restaurant’s brick façade was preserved and incorporated into the new structure.
The Noe was among the last pre-World War II theatres built in San Francisco, and one of the first to close down and be demolished in the post-War era. Built in 1937, it stopped showing films in 1952, and was briefly used as a church before the 1,000-seat auditorium was demolished. The site has since been home to a number of different grocery stores.
The corner of 17th Street & Guerrero has been home to the 500 Club and its iconic cocktail glass neon sign ever since the 1950s. Shown here in 1980, the corner has changed very little, and although closed during the pandemic, the owners have announced that its reopening is imminent.
The Ocean Park, known as San Francisco’s first motel, began operations in 1937 to accommodate visitors who attended the dedication of the Golden Gate Bridge. Tucked away near the western end of Sloat Boulevard, and operated by Marc and Vicki Duffett, it is still a quiet spot for visiting guests, with a classic neon sign glowing in the foggy mists.
From the time of construction in the early 1920s, the old Castro-Market Branch of Bank of America sported an enormous rooftop neon sign that greeted passersby. As part of the Market Street beautification project that accompanied construction of MUNI Metro, the bank replaced the large sign by the mid-1970s with a smaller version that wrapped around the building’s façade. By the mid-1990s, following the acquisition of Hibernia Bank, the Bank of America branch relocated to Hibernia’s classic bank building one block away at 18th Street & Castro, while this building was transformed into a variety of other commercial uses. The Castro Theatre sign at left continues to cast its warm red glow over the scene.
Kilpatrick’s Bakery was in business at this Folsom Street site prior to World War II, though its neon signage was added in the post-War era. Following the bakery’s closure and removal of the sign, Joseph Schmidt chocolates were produced at the facility before that company was acquired and production ceased. With new residential construction nearby, this site has many new possible uses in the offing.