Compared to many of the world’s major cities, the metropolis of San Francisco is relatively young, dating back only a few centuries. In 1906, a devastating earthquake and ensuing fires decimated much of the landscape. There isn’t much left today that harkens back to the early burgeoning days of the city’s establishment.
Situated on the corner of Stockton and Geary Streets, kitty-corner to the city’s Union Square, stands the Neiman Marcus department store. Even this Dallas-based fashion institution only dates back to the 1980’s. However, the space this luxury retailer occupies goes back to the rollicking days when San Francisco was known by the moniker, ‘Baghdad by the Bay.’ This city block once housed an establishment that came to be known as the City of Paris Dry Goods Company, later shortened to simply “the City of Paris.”
Two brothers, Emile and Felix Verdier, arrived in the Bay Area towards the end of the Gold Rush in 1850. They came on a ship, La Ville De Paris (City of Paris), stocked with French luxury items, including fine silk fabrics, wine, champagne, and cognac. They quickly sold out of their stock to the nouveau riche miners, who were eager to impress their wives and girlfriends. It has been rumored that the siblings didn’t even have time to unload their goods, before being offered payment with satchels filled with gold dust.
It didn’t take for the brothers to realize that they had struck gold, so to speak, and quickly returned to France to restock inventory. They would eventually establish a proper business on Kearney Street and christened it with the name of the vessel that brought them fortune, including the motto of Paris, “Fluctuat nec mergitur, meaning: “She is rocked by waves but does not sink.” They were so successful that they opened a new establishment in a Beaux-Arts building in 1896, on the corner of Geary and Stockton streets. This new premises included an ornate four-story rotunda with a large stained glass dome depicting La Ville De Paris.
Disaster struck in the early morning hours of April 18, 1906, when a 7.9 magnitude earthquake rattled the city. Devastation followed as fires engulfed much of the downtown area. Surprisingly, even though the City of Paris department store did suffer extensive damage, the rotunda and glass remained more or less intact. The retailer would continue to do business for another 70 years before closing its doors in 1972. Luckily, preservation societies prevented the wrecking ball from destroying this Gold Rush-era relic when the building was demolished in 1980. The historic structure is now encased in glass in the new Neiman Marcus that stands there today.