At the turn of the century, San Francisco was already a town known for it’s flamboyant style, stately hotels, ostentatious mansions on Nob Hill, and a thriving arts scene. Union Square, an area originally used for rallies and support for the Union Army during the Civil War, had become a public plaza. By the 1880s, it was a fashionable residential district.
A decade later, America had fallen into hard times. The “Panic of 1893” was one of the worst depressions the United States had ever experienced. San Francisco had few financiers and entrepreneurs willing to take risks. Local sources, such as Wells Fargo, Bank of California, Bank of Italy, Bank of D.O. Mills, Citizens Federal Savings Loan and A.P. Giannini were struggling to keep up with the flood of customers rushing to withdraw their funds.
It was in this setting the concept of the Shreve Building was planned. Just a block North East from Union Square, the notable architect William Curlett (1846-1914) was asked to create the Shreve Building. In place of the four story building that housed Draper’s Tailor, Goodard’s Dentist and wine and liquor importer Albert Arnaud, Curlett would create an eleven-story steel frame building that would rise far above the current San Francisco skyline.
William Curlett was one of San Francisco’s foremost Victorian-era architects and one who made the successful transition to the classically inspired styles at the turn of the century. He was born in Ireland and studied architecture in Dublin before he made his way to San Francisco by 1871. A well-established architect of his day, Curlett designed many of the city’s most prominent buildings, including the Mutual Savings Bank Building (1902).
William would go on to design the Phelan Building (1908) and the Head Building (1909) which is located across the street at 201 Post. He went on to become one of the original members of the State Board of Architecture and was a fellow of the American Institute of Architects.
The Shreve Building was completed in 1905 and in March of 1906, Shreve & Company moved to the ground floor of the building. Pacific Telephone and Telegraph moved into the third and fourth floors in April. Their stay would be interrupted by the earthquake and fire that raged through the heart of San Francisco on April 18, 1906. The fire would go on for three days.
One story mentions loyal Shreve & Company employees rushing to lock away valuable items in the vault, thus protecting the store’s assets from the fire that ravaged downtown. Upon returning to the charred ruins of the store, the employees found the safe intact, but had to wait three weeks before it cooled sufficiently to open. Aside from a few scorched records, everything was unharmed!
In the aftermath of the devastation, the Shreve Building was one of the few buildings still standing in the neighborhood. It was said to have survived the 1906 earthquake because of it’s use of state-of-the-art engineering technology of the time. As to the fire, the USGS reported, “The columns above the second floor were fireproofed with 3-inch hollow tile; those below with concrete. This latter protection, as well as the concrete floors, is in first-class condition.”
By the fall of 1906, the Examiner noted that the Shreve Building was “being rapidly rehabilitated” and the pioneer jeweler had already reoccupied the ground floor. Shortly after the great earthquake, Union Square became San Francisco’s premier shopping district.
In 2015, the landmark Shreve Building became to Harry Winston’s jewelers and continues to stand proudly in the heart of San Francisco’s downtown.