Pre-Earthquake and Fire San Francisco in Early 20th Century Postcards

San Francisco is a great postcard city:  dramatic views of the Bay and hills, the Golden Gate, old and new buildings. And so it’s not surprising to find a bunch of San Francisco images in a collection of early 20th century postcards. This particular postcard collection was produced by the Detroit Publishing Co. and are housed in the amazing Digital Collections at the New York Public Library. In this post, I’ll share three postcards of pre-1906 San Francisco.

Pre-Earthquake and Fire San Francisco

The first postcard is a view of San Francisco from the Fairmont on Nob Hill from 1905, looking towards Yerba Buena Island (note the Ferry Building in the background on the right). I am guessing that the wide street on the right is California Street.  Nearly ready to open, the Fairmont was heavily damaged by the fire, and architect Julia Morgan oversaw the restoration, which was completed in 1907. Most of what is shown on the postcard was destroyed by the earthquake and fire.

San Francisco Bay from Fairmont Hotel 1905 nypl.digitalcollections.510d47d9-a329-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99.001.w-1
San Francisco Bay from the Fairmont, NYPL Digital Collections

The next postcard shows San Francisco’s City Hall. Amazingly, “April 19, 1905” is written on the card, a date that is just 364 days before the 1906 earthquake of April 18, 1906. City Hall was destroyed by the earthquake and fire (more on this below).

San Francisco City Hall 1905
San Francisco’s City Hall, 1905, NYPL Digital Collections

The final city view is a street scene from Market Street near Kearney. The title is “Lotta Fountain and Palace Hotel.” Lotta Fountain is the golden object in the foreground, a gift from Lotta Crabtree and dedicated in 1875. After the earthquake and fire, it served as a meeting point for survivors.  The Palace Hotel is the large building behind the fountain. It was under construction at the time of the earthquake and was destroyed in the post-earthquake fire. In the years after the earthquake, the hotel was rebuilt and is currently one of Market Street’s grand old hotels (with a spectacular garden courtyard restaurant and interesting historical displays in the lobby areas).

Lotta Fountain and Palace Hotel
Lotta Fountain and the Palace Hotel, pre-1096, NYPL Digital Collections

Post-Earthquake and Fire San Francisco

The fire burned for several days and destroyed much of the area around Market Street, as the map below shows.  Civic Center, Nob Hill, the Tenderloin, the Financial District, South of Market (what did they call it in 1906?) were all gutted by the out of control fires.

Map of burned areas from History of San Francisco Earthquake p 119
Map of burned areas after 1906 earthquake, from A History of the Earthquake and Fire in San Francisco by Aitken and Hilton

City Hall was one of the casualties:

At the City Hall hundreds of tons of brickwork had crashed to earth ; in a moment the once imposing building had been stripped of all its pretense and its seeming strength. Half the building was in ruins. The great bronze dome, three hundred and thirty-five feet in height, rose airily out of the huge piles of brick that had been its walls and columns, its frame seeming strangely slight in the absence of the brick work which had surrounded it and lay in monumental ruin below. A group of massive columns, with their gigantic cornice, crashing into an apartment house across Larkin street, brought down its whole front wall. (p. 24, A History of the Earthquake and Fire in San Francisco by Aitken and Hilton)

After the cataclysm was over, City Hall was but a shell of its former glory:

Burned City Hall from History of San Francisco Earthquake p15
City Hall After the Earthquake, from A History of the Earthquake and Fire in San Francisco by Aitken and Hilton

City Hall was rebuilt, of course, with completion in 1915, and is now one of the gems of San Francisco (and often thematically lit to commemorate notable events, most recently blue and gold for the Golden State Warriors and purple for Prince). The 2008 photo below is one view of its current appearance.

San Francisco City Hall
City Hall, 2008 with the Slow Food Victory Gardens in the foreground. From the author’s Flickr Collection

Image Credits
Postcard images from The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1898 – 1931.  Links to the image pages at the NYPL:

Map of San Francisco fire and photo of damaged City Hall from A History of the Earthquake and Fire in San Francisco; an Account of the Disaster of April 18, 1906 and Its Immediate Results, by Aitken, Frank W; Hilton, Edward, The E. Hilton Co. (San Francisco), 1906. Public domain. Full text available at

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