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New Girl in Town

by on January 16, 2014

new-1 Victorian architecture everywhere! I think I stared at this ceiling for a full five minutes. I sure didn’t see such detailed ceilings in L.A. (Image: Amanda Law.)

I moved to San Francisco a little over six months ago. There was a boyfriend in the picture, but other than that, I was a new girl in a new city. The San Francisco I knew was Fisherman’s Wharf, the Golden Gate Bridge, and Macy’s in Union Square (more on Macy’s later!).

There’s no better way to get acquainted with a new city than to dive in. That’s what they say, at least. As for me, I’d rather be in bed with a book. It’s the old lady in me. Then I realized that there are places where old ladies gather and have a good time – historical societies! But the draw was more than my “fellow” senior citizens. I love, love, love looking at old photos. It makes me wonder how things have changed since then. And studying history provides tons of information: the stories of economy, architecture, culture, individuals – which creates a complicated web of cause and effect.

Take I. Magnin’s. I had heard of Magnin’s department store, but I didn’t know that it was one of the first department stores. Ever. That’s what writer Therese Poletti discussed in her San Francisco Historical Society lecture, “Grand Emporiums of San Francisco.” (Grand Emporium is the old term for department store, or a place where various goods are sold. In other words, not a small specialty shop.) Immigrant couple Isaac and Mary Ann Magnin opened a small shop in San Francisco in 1876, selling high-end clothing for children. Next, they added bridal wear. Over time, other departments were added. It grew and grew and grew. Voila! The department store was born.

A couple other things I learned:
1. Small shop owners complained about the new department stores the way that people complain about e-commerce giant Amazon today. What does Amazon know about specialties?

Rotunda dome, Neiman Marcus, 150 Stockton St, San Francisco The City of Paris stained glass ceiling. In the Neiman Marcus building today. (Image: Wikimedia Commons.)

2. Many of the gorgeous old department store interiors have been gutted. But the city required certain elements to be salvaged. The stained glass ceiling in Neiman Marcus is from when the City of Paris occupied the building. Also, the 6th floor women’s restroom in Macy’s is the original. It is the only vestige remaining of I. Magnin’s department store, which was located in the same building. (Macy’s gutted the building after the merger occurred. Goodness knows why. The interior feels like a consumer prison today.)

All of this to say, learning about San Francisco through its history has deepened my understanding of the place. I feel closer to San Francisco after six months of living here than I did to Los Angeles after five years. (Well, L.A. is another beast altogether.)

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