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How the City of Paris Department Store Once Embodied 'All Things French' for San Franciscans

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A large stained glass ceiling in ambers and gold depicting a sailing ship
Ornate stained glass ceiling of the Rotunda at Neiman Marcus, in Union Square, formerly the location of City of Paris. (Photo via SmithCollection/Gado/Getty Images)

Read a transcript of this episode. 

Perhaps it was the original location, at the corner of Stockton & Geary, that made City of Paris an icon. Or it might have been their unique approach to customer service, fine imported products, and over-the-top environments and celebrations. City of Paris was one of the earliest residents on Union Square, and a piece of their store remains there more than 40 years after its closure.

La Ville De Paris

When California struck gold, word spread across the planet with lightning speed. From far off places travelers arrived in the new US state of California in search of wealth, and opportunity. What they found was a San Francisco at the very infancy of a population boom that would continue, with little interruption, for the next 170 years.

Two French brothers, Emile & Félix Verdier, ran a silk stocking business in France, and when they heard of this new emerging market in San Francisco, they had an idea.

“The people who made real money made it off the miners,” said Anne Evers Hitz, author of Lost Department Stores of San Francisco, “not by finding gold.” The nouveau riche residents of San Francisco were who the Verdiers had in mind when they loaded up La Ville De Paris, a three-masted schooner, and set sail for San Francisco.

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The Verdiers arrived in a crowded San Francisco Bay in 1850. Having completed the arduous Isthmus of Panama crossing, the brothers were eager to unload their precious cargo and find a place to open up shop. As the legend goes, they were unable to get a berth to dock, but the Verdiers were soon greeted by rowboats full of paying customers ready to purchase their fine French clothing, liqueurs, and wines, directly from the boat.

They never had to unload the ship, as these eager customers cleaned out their stock before the even made landfall. The Verdiers immediately sent back for a restock, and opened City of Paris Dry Goods Co. in 1850.

The Center of Everything

San Francisco’s downtown has moved around over the years, as did City of Paris. But in 1850 the store was located right in the heart of the bustling gold rush town near Portsmouth Square. The market enthusiasm the Verdiers experienced upon arriving in San Francisco would continue as the new crop of wealthy San Franciscans kept fine French goods in fashion.

“Anything French was considered higher class,” said Evers Hitz. “It was kind of aimed above the middle class,” she added, “but suddenly [San Francisco] was just one ship’s length away from Paris. It was a growing city, so their goods were in demand.”

In those earliest days, the store would have specialized in fine imported French goods. Things like lingerie, liqueurs, and wine. As success found the Verdiers and their business partners, the store moved a number of times until settling on its final home in 1896.

Black and white image of the corner of an ornate city building, six stories high.
A postcard featuring the City of Paris department store in 1909. (Unknown)

Union Square Beckons

Union Square began its life as a large sand dune, and became a place where San Franciscans gathered for pro-Union rallies during the American Civil War. That earned Union Square its nickname, but it was retail that solidified its long standing reputation. One of the earliest stores to open on Union Square was City of Paris Dry Goods Co.

In 1890, the Verdiers hired San Francisco architect Clinton Day to design the company a flagship store on the newly trendy Union Square. The store Day designed would open in 1896, just 10 years before the largest earthquake in San Francisco history.

On April 18, 1906 just before dawn, the ground began to shake in San Francisco. For almost a minute the city shook as a massive earthquake rocked the region. The quake, and subsequent fire destroyed more than 28,000 buildings in the city and left more than half of all San Franciscans homeless. Union Square was reduced to rubble.

While the Verdiers were able to move some of their more rare goods out of the store before the fire, much of their merchandise and infrastructure was lost. Only the street facing facades survived, and while the store moved to the Hobart Mansion on Van Ness Avenue at Washington Street, crews set to work building a modified store inside the original walls of City of Paris.

The Rebirth of City Of Paris

The Verdiers hired noted San Francisco architect Arthur Brown Jr, whose firm Bakewell & Brown was behind City Hall, the Opera House, Coit Tower and others to redesign their now destroyed store.

The biggest change that would come to City of Paris when it reopened in 1909 was the addition of a grand, four-story rotunda topped with a stained glass dome. The stained glass depicts the ship the Verdiers sailed in on, Le Ville De Paris, with the store’s motto below in Latin “Fluctuat nec mergitur.” This is also the motto of the actual city of Paris, France, and translates to “She is rocked, but never sunk.”

In addition to the ornate Beaux-Arts décor, and stained glass of the main store, the basement level was designed to look as if shoppers had been transported to a Parisian street.

“They had uneven floors, and booths and awnings,” said Evers Hitz of Normandy Lane.

There were shops dedicated to glassware, wine, appetizers, Champagne, a bar, buffet, book shop and photo studio all located in an immersive, themed atmosphere right below street level.

Mannequins in a window display dressed in sleek black dresses, heels and elbow length gloves. Also in the display is a large painting of French can-can dancers.
A window display at the City of Paris department store in Union Square. (San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library)

Holiday Magic

Generations of San Franciscans passed underneath the City of Paris dome. But never more than at Christmas time. Starting in 1909, City of Paris was best known for it’s 35-foot Christmas tree.

“It was decorated with everything from little Santa clauses to sleds and all sorts of things.” said Hitz, saying it was really the environment that made City of Paris so memorable during the holiday season, adding, “I don’t think people remember the goods so much.”

“Putting up the tree was fun,” recalls former City of Paris employee Ken Sturmer, “as soon as the store closed, they took out the doors on Geary Street.” The live tree would be trucked in, Sturmer said, “and was shoved through the door, hooked up to the pulleys and lifted up.” Crews would make a party out of decorating the tree Sturmer recalls, “By one in the morning everybody was either drunk or stoned.”

Black and white image of two people decorating a 35-foot Christmas tree. Every part of the tree is covered in glittering lights and ornaments, with an enormous star on top.
Workers on scaffolding put the finishing touches on the City of Paris Christmas tree in 1970. (Photo by Jerry Telfer/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)

Changing Times

City of Paris would open satellite stores around the Bay Area in places like Stonestown, Vallejo, San Mateo and Marin but the flagship store remained in Union Square. Over time, white flight, women moving into the workforce, and the rise of the shopping mall would change things for the retail world in San Francisco and beyond.

Independent department stores began failing and closing up shop. By 1972 the Verdier family had seen the writing on the wall, and released a letter that read:

January 25, 1972
A message to the many good customers, friends, and business associates of City of Paris and to all its devoted employees.
The descendants of Felix Verdier, the founder of City of Paris, sadly announce that after 122 years of catering to the good tastes and elegant requirements of San Franciscans, City of Paris will close its doors in the early spring of 1972.
The time has now come when this Verdier-Family-owned quality store must leave the San Francisco scene, which it dominated for more than a century.
We are solvent. No one can force us to go out of business, we are doing it voluntarily. There will be no bankruptcy or receivership. We shall honor all of our obligations, as we have in the past, and bow out in a dignified and honorable manner befitting our San Francisco tradition.
Just like the motto on our crest, just beneath the original City of Paris sailing ship–”Fluctuat nec Mergitur” (it may rock but it never sinks)–City of Paris will not sink but will retire with grace, leaving in it’s wave 122 years of San Francisco tradition and memories.
Thank you, and Au Revoir.

City of Paris closed its doors in 1972 and the building was soon acquired by Dallas-based luxury brand Neiman Marcus. When Neiman Marcus decided to construct a flagship store inside the City of Paris building, they quickly discovered that the building needed substantial earthquake upgrades, and more sales space.

A plan was announced to replace the building with a modernist structure designed by architect Phillip Johnson. Preservationists gathered more that 60,000 signatures, but ultimately Neiman Marcus and their attorney — future San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown — won the right to have the building taken down.

Black and white aerial photo of a half demolished department store.
Aug. 18, 1980: The City of Paris department store in San Francisco gets demolished. Neiman Marcus opened two years later. (Photo by Eric Luse/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)

In 1980 the City of Paris department store was officially demolished, with one beautiful exception. City of Paris’ iconic four-story rotunda, and its stained glass dome depicting La Ville De Paris are now encased in glass as the centerpiece of the Neiman Marcus store, a glowing tribute to an early department store pioneer. You can visit the rotunda to this day, at the corner of Stockton and Geary.

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City of Paris was all things French to San Franciscans for 122 years, helping to establish, and maintain an era when the beauty, wealth and culture of this booming new city earned her the reputation, “The Paris of the Pacific.”

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