Crystal Palace Market Once Stood Where S.F.’s New Whole Foods Will Go

Let us show you come cool sepia-toned history about what shopping at the intersection of Eighth and Market streets was like from 1923 to 1959.

Last week, we learned that San Francisco will get a very large Whole Foods — the city’s eighth and also its biggest — inside Trinity Place, on the southeast corner of Market and Eighth streets. At 55,000 square feet, it’s roughly twice the size of the one on Market and Dolores, it’ll contain the market as well as a brewery when the fourth phase of Trinity Place‘s construction finally opens in 2021. (Don’t panic, more housing is coming along with the food-porn displays, too.)

Del Webb’s TownHouse, the future site of Trinity Place (and Whole Foods). (Flickr)

If you’ve been past that intersection at any point since the twilight of the George W. Bush administration, you know the site has been a work in progress for many years. Before it had that gigantic twisty statue of Venus and the bland residential mid-rises, there was a motor lodge that exuded the exuberant pleasures of midcentury automotive excursions called Del Webb’s Townhouse. Built in 1960 as 400 air-conditioned rooms plus a “Carriage Room” restaurant and newfangled amenities like ice-cube dispensers, it appears to have become low-income housing by the 1970s.

But before that, the corner was the home of the 71,000-square-foot Crystal Palace Market, which stood at the site from 1923 until 1959. In early 21st-century parlance, it would be like if Costco were a food hall, with independently owned and -operated stands throughout. It seems that this corner was always the site of grand public spaces, too. Going back in time even further than the 1920s, the site was previously home to Central Park, a baseball stadium built in 1884 that was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake and fire. Between 1906 and the construction of the market, it was an empty lot where the circus would perform. (Before the ballpark, it was home to the Mechanics Institute Pavilion, which held its own fairs.)

But the Crystal Palace years are the most fascinating era. The San Francisco Public Library has a fascinating trove of photographs of the interior and exterior, and we found a few of the best images, although you should check out all 77 if you can.


My best guess for this angle is that it’s looking at the northeast corner of Mission and Eighth streets, because you can see the Art Deco tower that’s now UC Hastings housing. Look at all those open windows — I bet it got a little sweaty inside.

Found SF paraphrases a memoir by one Gus Lee called China Boy, saying that:

During its 36-year run, the 71,000-square-foot market imported goods from at least 37 countries to provide the most varied offerings in the country. Its 65 shops included four dairy stands – selling 36,000 eggs daily – four poultry stands, six butcher shops, three fish markets, and seven fruit and vegetable stands. It featured a pet shop, a five and dime, two tobacco shops, and a phonograph record store. One stand sold only golden honey. When banks eliminated Saturday hours in 1953, the Crystal Palace Market promptly opened a check cashing service to meet its customers’ needs.


Same ridiculously large parking lot with City Hall and the Hotel Whitcomb in the background. This photo is from 1954.


Look at this ridiculous ad for “awful fresh” MacFarlane Candy, which apart from “TASTE B4U BUY” is very hard to read in terms of what it does to that diagram of a helmeted muscleman with one wimpy leg. “Horse Doovers” are hors d’oeuvres.


Shelled nuts, dried fruit, glacéd fruit. Back to Found SF, we learn that the Crystal Palace had its own Muni service!

The Market featured twenty-two entrances on five different streets: Market, Mission, 8th, Stevenson, and Jessie. Free parking was available in its 55,375-square-foot lot, or for 5¢ shoppers could arrive via the Municipal Railway’s Shoppers Special shuttle that traveled down Market from 2nd Street. Customers came from all walks of life – Queen Mother Nazli of Egypt came to shop there every day when she lived at the Fairmont Hotel.


Next time someone says, “We can’t get rid of guns! They’re just too ingrained in the American psyche,” remind them there was a time when smoking was so common that people routinely purchased gigantic ashtrays.


“Ya done yet? I got 40 more of these to bake. Now make like Lee and press on!”


The bluish tint at the top right makes this look a little fake, but just look at this amazing mechanical egg-packing contrivance.


Kids see Santa, Christmas 1952.


This is the coolest one, because it leaves you wondering what went on in that place with Margie’s no-tax, all-girl rhythm band. And look at the elaborate pattern in the terrazzo floor, damn.

Like its namesake, the Crystal Palace that was built in London’s Hyde Park for the Great Exhibition in 1851 and stood until 1936, San Francisco’s was eventually torn down. (Consider how times have changed when the city now regards a laundromat as a site worthy of investigating for any preservationist merit.) And BART construction began not long after that, along with the suburbanization of big-box retail. But if the Whole Foods opens on schedule, it will basically open a century after the Crystal Palace was built.

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