Building with brick in San Francisco

The first brick building in San Francisco was most likely built at the corner of Montgomery and Clay in September of 1848, but the first to be erected on beachfront property, on ground that today would be called fill, was the American Theater on the south side of Sansome Street between California and Sacramento. This was a large structure built over the summer of 1851. When it opened on October 20th of that year a crowd of about two thousand spectators jammed into the hall. The added weight of all these people caused the entire structure to sink nearly two inches and caused many fears as to the safety of any building constructed on what then was termed made ground.

American Theater

But the sinking was regular and soon stopped. Since the theater continued to stand level, confidence was restored. In a short time the foundations of other brick structures were laid. Before the end of 1852 the section of the city closest to the bay as well as the lower portions of the nearby high ground was filled with new, substantial brick buildings that not only stood as barriers to the recurrence of the disastrous fires that had swept the city in 1850 and 1851 but brought a great deal of beauty to San Francisco as well.

Sacramento brickyard ad, 1850s

Brickyards were established around the city, wherever suitable clay could be found, to satisfy the demand for this new material, but in some cases more substantial or decorative materials were needed. The new Jenny Lind Theater that later became city hall was made of a finely dressed yellow limestone imported from Australia while the most important business house of the day known as Parrott鈥檚 Granite Block, occupied by Adams & Co. and Page, Bacon & Co. and standing on the corner of Montgomery and California Streets, was made of granite blocks from China. Several other large granite buildings were erected but the general trend now in San Francisco was to build in brick.

Parrotts Granite Block, San Francisco

Adams office @ Parrotts Granite Block, San Francisco

Hard driving historical fiction by John Rose Putnam


  1. But would they meet today’s earthquake standards John? Sadly no. Yet another thoroughly researched post. congratulations. 馃檪

    • You hit the nail on the head, Jack. Those brick buildings were a terrible problem in the Loma Prieta earthquake and the building standards were updated. It is an on going process however. The football stadium here at the University of California is just now being retrofitted for earthquake safety and general modernization. It sits directly atop the Hayward fault, one of the most dangerous in the area.

  2. Harold Grice says

    Much ‘made ground’ in those days was placed with wagons and skip shovels, i.e.,dragged buckets, and stabilized by running sheep over the new ground as it was placed. While this would compact the materials to some degree it never reduced it to a density sufficient to preclude post-construction settlement. Fortunately, as in this case, settlement was generally even.

    • Some of this “made ground” didn’t do well in the Loma Prietta quake. The Bay Bridge on the eastern side was replaced because it was resting on redwood pylons that were reportedly driven into the mud at the bottom of the bay and never hit anything solid. That part of the bridge fell in the quake.

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