History of Emporium: San Francisco’s Premier High End Department Store April 19 2022
The history Emporium of San Francisco is fascinating, As one of those great old high-end department stores, Emporium has since been lost amongst the Macy’s, Saks, and Bloomingdale’s of today (quite literally, since it was eventually bought by Federated Department Stores, which owns most of those chains). Opened in 1896, the store was situated on Market Street—it closed just a few months shy of its 100th birthday. Built to cater to the middle class, it was built by a German immigrant named Frederick W. Dorhmann. The nine-story building had two floors of retail space and seven floors of offices (and lest you think two floors of retail space is nothing compared to the floors and floors and floors of places like Saks’ flagship store on Fifth Avenue, let me just point out that the footprint of this building was monstrous). In the center was a round bandstand on street level (with concerts every Saturday night), with a two-tiered, free-standing rotunda featuring a restaurant and music store—an orchestra played on the first tier, and the dining area encompassed the top level. The Emporium survived the actual earthquake of 1906, but unfortunately it was caught up in the resulting fire, and it was gutted—only the front wall remained, and it is said that even when they tried to tumble it with dynamite to rebuild, it still stood. Although the building was destroyed, it was reported that the Emporium began selling their wares again just 10 days after the fire—the store developed temporary quarters on Van Ness Avenue behind a private home with signs posted on the building that read “First to Rebuild” and “The Emporium Took the Initiative in Restoring San Francisco.”
Two and a half years later, the high-end department store re-opened in their original location. The new structure had 775,000 square feet of floor space and boasted a glass dome that rose 110 feet above street level. Over the years the store became more and more of a Christmas destination for locals and tourists alike. In the 1940s, the company added rooftop rides to their repertoire for the holiday season—we’re talking a Ferris wheel, and once even an actual cable car weighing six tons that was hoisted up by crane. I came across a newspaper feature from 1949 describing how 63 orphans from the Mt. St. Joseph’s School were guests at the Emporium, and they enjoyed the kids’ carnival on the building’s rooftop, which included a merry-go-round, a Ferris wheel, “roto-cars,” and a Big Dipper ride. So cool! In the years after WWII, the Emporium also opened some suburban branches in shopping malls as the company’s popularity increased. Unfortunately, as the years went on, the rooftop rides became less whimsy and novel and a little more county-fair-ish—complete with a giant super slide by the late 1960s. In the 1980s, the Emporium’s flagship store on Market Street was connected to the San Francisco Shopping Centre (now known as the Westfield San Francisco Centre), which was a nine-story indoor mall. By the 1990s, the store gone through several mergers and acquisitions—finally, in 1995, the chain’s parent company was acquired by Federated Department Stores and renamed as Macy’s. The Emporium’s original Market Street location was re-opened in 2006 as an expansion of the adjoining Westfield San Francisco Centre—the re-opening came after a decade of reconstruction and red tape.