History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

11 August 2008

A Slice of Recent History

I know we usually post about pre-1900 history here on the History Hoydens blog, but with last week's Romance Writers of America conference being held here in my beloved home town of San Francisco, I thought I'd share a little local history today.

I'm lucky enough to have a private office in San Francisco, which doubles as a writing space and my primary work location for Loose Id (some of you may not know that I'm one of the founders and the CFO). The Flood Building todayTomorrow my office is moving to an historic building here in San Francisco with the somewhat ominous sounding name "The Flood Building". (Actually, it's named in honor of the builder's father, James Clair Flood, who passed away shortly before the building was completed in 1904). Those of you who were at the RWA conference last week could see the building right across Market street, on the triangular block bounded by Market Street, Powell Street, and Ellis Street. It's such a major landmark that mail addressed simply to "The Flood Building" will reach its recipient.

The site that the Flood Building rests on was once the home of the historic Baldwin Hotel & Theater, built by notorious womanizer and colorful gold rush multi-millionaire Elias J. "Lucky" Baldwin. Once the West Coast's grandest hotel, the Baldwin building was destroyed by fire in 1898.

In 1902, James L. Flood purchased the plot of land where the rubble of the Baldwin Hotel lay and hired renowned architect Albert Pissis to build an enormous office building in honor of his late father, James Clair Flood. When the modern steel-frame building was completed in 1904, it was the largest building in San Francisco -- twelve stories high and 293,837 square feet. The cost of raising the building was $1,500,000.

Union Square after the 1906 FireWithin two years, the tragic event native San Franciscans refer to as "The Fire" occurred. Very few structures survived the disaster; today the Flood Building is in an elite category of "Splendid Survivors" -- buildings that stood through the 1906 earthquake and the devastating fire that followed. The photo at left shows the damage in Union Square; dozens of other steel frame structures were obliterated, leaving the skeletons of their steel frames. It's comforting to know that my office is in a Splendid Survivor. Those steel frames and brick curtain walls, covered by California Colusa sandstone and slabs of marble from the Stanislaw river, withstood a 7.9 magnitude quake and a fire that destroyed over 500 blocks of the city. I'm pretty confident, should the worst happen -- again -- I'll make it down from the twelfth floor in one piece.

There's an interesting literary legacy to the Flood Building as well. Dashiell Hammett fans believe the Flood Building was the site of Hammett's Continental Detective Agency. Hammett lived nearby, and his descriptions of the Continental Detective Agency appear to be a thinly veiled representation of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, which had its offices in number 314 of the Flood Building.

John's GrillHammett often ducked out the Ellis Street entrance of the Flood Building to grab a bite at John's Grill, a restaurant right next door. In the Maltese Falcon, John's Grill is where Sam Spade asks the waiter to "hurry his order of chops, baked potato and sliced tomatoes" (because he's in a rush to go rescue Brigid O'Shaughnessy). The restaurant appears in Hammett's books with such regularity that Friends of Libraries, USA has designated the restaurant a national literary landmark. And they still have Sam Spade's pork chops on the menu, complete with baked potato and sliced tomatoes.

The stairs outside my new officeThe interior of the Flood Building is gorgeous, with an old world elegance and a wholly urban feel. It's been used in the filming of several major motion pictures, including 1978's Invasion of the Body Snatchers and the original filming of The Maltese Falcon. They even have a Maltese Falcon in the lobby, behind glass (there's one in John's Grill, too, in an upstairs dining room.

Thanks for letting me take this time to chat about a slice of San Francisco history that's near and dear to me. If you have any local bits of history you'd like to share from your home town, or any musings on other literary landmarks, I'd love to hear them.



Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Great post Doreen. I passed John's Grill on my way to dinner one night, and had no idea of the history until I read my Access San Francisco guide later on. I'm sorry I missed the chance to have dinner there.

A friend of mine just told me about a house in the village, on W. 10th where Mark Twain once lived that is incredibly haunted. Apparently 22 murders or sudden deaths occurred in the house over the years since it was built.

5:36 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

Oooo, I love the Flood Building. It’s amazingly beautiful (and now I have an excuse to go inside! And it’s close enough to my office for lunches. Yea!!! I work in a beautiful 1916 building with the most amazing murals in the main public area (which is not where my office is, sadly). But my windows open, and that has to be a bonus.

My favorite bit of local history is the Sutro Baths. I’ll write something up about them for next Monday (I needed a topic anyway, LOL!).

8:50 AM  
Blogger Doreen DeSalvo said...

Thanks, Elizabeth. I'm sure I'll be eating at John's Grill a lot after my office moves. It's too close to resist.

I'd never heard of the haunted Mark Twain house. I'll definitely add that to my list of places to see.

Kalen, you're on for lunch. John's Grill has great seafood. I do love all of the Depression-era murals we have in town. Some of my favorites are the subversive/socialist ones in Coit tower.

9:48 AM  
Blogger Lynna Banning said...

Fascinating post, Doreen! My town's only claim to history is the Roaring Camp Railroad, in Felton (at the base of the Santa Cruz Mountains). It's the site of an old logging road and features steam trains that chug down through the redwoods to the Santa Cruz Boardwalk and back...

It's also the site of the American Civil War Association's annual Memorial Day re-enactment, fought
realistically in the meadows around the train tracks... the
train is used to transport troops both blue and gray.

Roaring Camp is located about 1 mile from my house and each Memorial Day I can hear the cannons firing from my back deck. I attended the re-enactment battle only once and was overwhelmed at the realism--soldiers running, falling with puffs of "bullet" smoke over their bodies, surgeons
inspecting the field of the fallen,
even "water" women in period costume wandering among the wounded with a bucket of water and a dipper.

It was so real, so wrenching that I cried. (And I've never attended another one.)

11:13 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

***Roaring Camp Railroad, in Felton***

OMG, we used to go there all the time when I was a kid. I loved that place!!!

12:22 PM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Wow, Doreen. Very cool. I will definately go inside the flood building next time I'm the city!

And Lynna, I've never attended a re-enactment, but I heard others who have express similar sentiments. Someday, maybe, I'll get up the nerve. They are huge on the battlefields around my home in Northwest Arkansas.

8:34 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

It's such a beautiful building, Doreen! Very cool about John's Grill ("The Maltese Falcon" was my dad's favorite movie). When I was growing up, my maternal grandparents lived in an apartment building that was converted from a house that had gone through the 1906 earthquake. It even has a stained glass window that had survived intact. My paternal grandmother later moved to the same building and was there during the 1989 earthquake. Which will all found reassuring in the aftermath of the earthquake, when we couldn't reach her by phone right away.

9:57 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Looking forward to lunches at John's Grill and hanging out at the Flood Building.

Though actually, it's the seedier old San Francisco office buildings (anything with a business name neatly lettered in gold on the frosted window of a old battered oak office door) that conjure up Hammett for me. What a strange man -- what a mysteriously great and original writer...

10:41 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Fabulous post, Doreen! I love SF, though I haven't been there since I was a teen. I was hoping to get to RWA, but time and budget didn't permit. I know I would have wanted to spend at least as much time wandering the streets of SF as at the conference!

I'm a huge Hammett fan and love the Hammett/Flood Building history you posited.

The photo of that building, with its triangular structure, reminds me of the 1902 Flatiron building located on 23rd Street at the intersection of Broadway and Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. For a brief space of time, at 285 feet, it was considered NYC's first "skyscraper."

I love old office buildings; my father worked in one, next door to the Woolworth Bldg. when I was a little girl, and I loved to visit because of the "old building smell" that just can't be described -- of lives lived, business conducted, partners swindled, clandestine office romances ... we would visit the Woolwoorth Building because that's where his bank branch was located, and I would marvel at the incredible lobby. My dentist's office is exactly halfway up the Empire State Building, and the lore of the location always gives me a better reason to get my checkups!

6:38 AM  
Blogger Lynna Banning said...

Your home town is in northwest Arkansas and (I read elsewhere) you were raised in Heidelburg?
Tell! Tell!

10:33 AM  

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