From the ground, shoppers may not realize that the downtown San Francisco Macy’s West flagship store in Union Square is not just one building, but almost the whole block between Geary, Stockton, O’Farrell, and Powell streets (and that doesn’t even include their standalone Men’s Store).
News broke last week that Macy’s is selling off another huge centerpiece of that block: The former I. Magnin building, the big, white-marble rectangle at Stockton and Geary streets whose ground floor is currently occupied by Louis Vuitton.
This is not a desperation fire sale; Macy’s is a pretty shrewd real-estate owner with plenty of primo downtown properties nationwide, and it’s keenly aware when the real estate market has higher value than the retail market. Macy’s managed to get a whopping $250 million for that hulking slab that is the Men’s Store, and the sale of the I. Magnin building across the street figures to fetch far more.
But what remains of Macy’s will totally change. It will rent out the ground floor on Geary Street facing Union Square to three new retail tenants, and plans to make a few revisions to that all-glass window facade, which, due to the building’s age, had to be reviewed by the Planning Department and the Historic Preservation Commission.
The San Francisco Macy’s is indeed historic. It’s been a department store since 1928, when the “clock corner” at Stockton and O’Farrell streets — now home to the annual SPCA “puppies and kittens” holiday adoption display — was occupied by retailer O’Connor, Moffat & Co. Macy’s took over that company in 1947 and bought up a whole bunch of the Union Square block.
This new, vanguard, late-1940s Macy’s featured an old-school soda fountain called Blum’s on the street-level floor, home to a famous local dish called coffee crunch cake. But even then, Macy’s didn’t own the whole block.
Macy’s biggest retail competitor was I. Magnin & Co. right next door. Known as the “White Marble Palace,” the building was designed by Castro Theater and Pacific Stock Exchange Building architect Timothy Pflueger and considered a great San Francisco landmark at the time.
This was a Mad Men era when a trip to Union Square called for dressing up in suits, fur coats, hats, and white gloves. I. Magnin & Co. was one of the country’s premiere luxury department stores, notably inventing the “Christmas tree wreaths in all the windows” holiday tradition, and provided the first fully air-conditioned building in San Francisco.
Owner Grover Magnin personally greeted shoppers at the door, donning a tuxedo and white carnation. According to surviving relatives, he cheerfully “patted customers on the fanny” to welcome them. These were different times.
The I. Magnin department store was opulently decked out with imported chandeliers, Art Deco frescoes, and marble and bronze fixtures. I. Magnin’s fitting rooms were the size of today’s office conference rooms, and there were no clothing racks as live models were trotted out to show off the apparel.
Maids were constantly on duty to keep the glass cases fingerprint-free and the ashtrays emptied. (Back then, it was kosher to chainsmoke while shopping.) And I. Magnin’s sixth floor was notably home to the most spectacular women’s restroom in town.
“The lavatory itself was walled from floor to ceiling in Vert Issorie marble, and the floor of the same was trimmed in Cremo marble, all imported from Italy,” writes James Thomas Mullane in A Store to Remember, the department store’s definitive biography. “Eleven toilets, separately enclosed by mirrored doors, three washbasins, equipped with gold-plated plumbing and fixtures, and a ceiling of gold leaf completed this lavish setting.”
(We went on a hunt for this ladies’ room, though found that it’s shut down for construction and no longer available to the public. Regrettably, it is housed in one of the buildings Macy’s is now selling off.)
Macy’s bought what we now call the Men’s Store in 1974, and then acquired the whole I. Magnin franchise in the late 1980s before killing off the brand in 1994. This set off a beautiful renovation as Macy’s converted its adjacent buildings into one big flagship store.
Two Geary Street buildings taken over 50 years prior were demolished to build the beautiful, all-glass window facade that currently faces Union Square. It was the centerpiece of the renaissance 1999 Union Square revitalization that featured popular-at-the-time stores like Rolo, Sanrio, Birkenstock, and F.A.O. Schwarz.
Unfortunately for all of them, online retail was about to destroy foot traffic at these brick-and-mortar stores. Construction tearing up Stockton Street in recent years surely hasn’t helped.
Looking ahead, Macy’s will shrink its footprint, but these plans should not affect annual attractions like the holiday neon wreath displays, and SPCA puppies and kittens residency. The Union Square Macy’s will still be the biggest department store in the Bay Area with 700,000 square feet of shopping space.
It won’t be the same Macy’s, especially for those of us who remember the Britex and Betsey Johnson era of Union Square. But Macy’s continues to evolve and survive in the era of digital sales, and as the fifth-largest online retailer in the U.S., it’s surviving.
But it remains to be seen if Union Square survives as the shopping mecca it’s been since the Gold Rush days. It’s constantly evolved, even now as the old flagship Gap store was converted to a Forever 21, and the old Apple Store is being remade as a gigantic T-Mobile shop. Office space is a much more lucrative racket than retail right now, and on that trend, there may be no returns.
Joe Kukura is an SF Weekly contributor.
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