Friday, January 4, 2013

The City of Paris in San Francisco

the rotunda of a season

In those surreal days between Christmas and New Year's, this season, when everyone rushed back to Union Square to return Christmas gifts or find what they really wanted with their new gift-cards - I walked through revolving, glass doors to gaze upon this magnificent tree, and imagined what the famous rotunda was like over one hundred years, or even forty years, ago. 
Today the City of Paris is Neiman Marcus and still graces the corner of Geary and Stockton streets. Much of the merchandise has changed from the old City of Paris days, but the gorgeous, Louis XVI, circular, dome roof, above the fourth level, was preserved when the original building was remodeled in the 1970s so that a forty foot Christmas tree still welcomes shoppers at the door every Christmas. 

Some people, my mom for one, remember when the aisles in the old City of Paris were filled with goods freshly shipped from France: high quality silks and wool, chic coats and hats, beautiful scarves, shawls and lingerie along with enchanting scents like lavender and rose petal wafting through the quaint departments, which were reminiscent of the charm of Paris markets - complete with festive awnings and flowers.

One aisle was called Normandy Lane where meats roasted on a rotisserie and breads and pastries were baked fresh - sending out a delicious aroma up through the open floors along with the lilting, French romance music of old Montmartre ~ I imagine some seductive, French singer accompanied by an accordion and perhaps a fiddle.
Back then, the City of Paris extended all the way down to O'Farrell Street where, as a child, my mom would browse through children's books and magazines to her heart's content, while my grandmother shopped. I can just imagine the cafe atmosphere and music and the bustle of the 50s and 60s shopping era, when more street cars and cable cars limned through the city streets, women wore hats and gloves and things were a bit more affordable. Although, my sense is that the City of Paris always attracted an exclusive clientele.

Neiman Marcus cosmetics counter today.

Founded in California's Gold Rush days, Felix Verdier, of Paris, started his business on a chartered brig out in the middle of the San Francisco Bay in 1850. He hoisted a flag and the family crest and called his establishment,Ville de Paris. Sailors would paddle out from the docks to buy perfumes and lingerie for their wives and girlfriends. The demand for French sundries was so high that Verdier was soon sending a ship back to France for more goods.
The City of Paris saw several retail spots in San Francisco, mainly in the downtown shopping district, and finally, in 1907, the Verdier family set up shop at Geary and Stockton streets in Union Square.

When you compare the architecture of the two buildings: the old City of Paris vs. today's Nieman Marcus, you can see that there were more windows all around in the old building, providing plenty of light to stream in and light up the aisles.

In the name of progress, a similar thing happened in 2003 when the magical toy store, FAO Schwarz at Stockton and O'Farrell, gave up the ghost, along with its central-escalator, to the likes of Barney's - a transformation that broke my little heart! I'm glad that Neiman Marcus at least left the open dome for the annual Christmas tree!

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