Forgotten History

Nescire autem quid ante quam natus sis acciderit, id est semper esse puerum. Quid enim est aetas hominis, nisi ea memoria rerum veterum cum superiorum aetate contexitur?

To be ignorant of what happened before you were born is to be ever a child. For what is man’s lifetime unless the memory of past events is woven with those of earlier times?

–Marcus Tullius Cicero

Source: San Francisco History Center, SF Public Library

Mason and Market, 1905. Center left is the third incarnation of the Tivoli Opera House in the reconfigured Panorama Building at Eddy and Mason, across from the mansard-roofed Golden State Hotel and Spider Kelly’s saloon. In the distance, near the center of the skyline, is the Fairmont Hotel atop Nob Hill.

It is not hyperbole to say that I have indulged in a passionate love affair with midtown San Francisco ever since it became my home turf in February 2001. Following years of overwhelming loss and misery, I was ready to make a fresh start by embarking on a course of personal reinvention. The long-neglected central city embraced me as one of its own.

I loved living amidst the cadenced visual harmony of the district’s hive-like, century-old architecture. Memories of the neighborhood from earlier, kinder times gave me an historical perspective of my surroundings. Realizing early on that many familiar, old signs and structures would soon either change or disappear, I began documenting the central city landscape near the end of 2002. It seemed appropriate at the time to call my work the Hotel Project. It was in the fall of 2005, while preparing for an exhibit of my photographs at San Francisco City Hall, that I took my first, faltering steps towards developing an historical narrative for my images. A blog seemed promising as a platform for experimentation and feedback, and thus I created The Hotel Project on Blogger.

I worked hard to develop my writing skills. Having no formal training, I learned the rudiments of historical research the same way I learned about computers and photographic software: the time-honored “hard way,” through trial and error. In 2007-8, I had the great pleasure and privilege of working with architectural historian Michael Corbett* on an extensive survey of Tenderloin architecture that conclusively defined the extent of the Uptown Tenderloin Historic District and nominated it to the National Register of Historic Places, a sanction that was officially bestowed by the National Park Service in 2009. Photographing the district’s distinctive architecture most effectively demanded a deeper understanding of what I was seeing, so I applied myself to learning the language and symbolism of Classical Revival architecture. I also learned some things about proper historical research, thanks in large part to Michael’s patient willingness to answer all my questions. When my work on the survey was finished, during an abecedarian plunge into self-publishing in September 2008, I moved the Hotel Project blog to WordPress, where it soon metamorphosed into this very personal ongoing history of San Francisco’s central city, Up From The Deep.

*author of Splendid Survivors and Port City, two of the best books ever written about San Francisco’s architectural heritage.

My Personal History explains in detail my intimate and idiosyncratic relationship with the central city. An overview of this project and the story of its genesis are contained within the Project History. Central city history has been divided into three photo essays corresponding to the vicinities that comprise it: Sixth Street, Mid-Market, and The Tenderloin. In the Blog section you will find the histories of numbered blocks and individual buildings illustrated with my own photography and, where possible, historical images and clippings from various Bay Area archives. There, too, are narratives and anecdotes about characters both famous and infamous, as well as news of current neighborhood events and exhibits. Of course, there is also a search engine to help you navigate. Museum quality prints of my photographs can be purchased via the Prints page.

The underlying spirit of my historical exploration is best explained by way of anecdote. I have found that, as a general rule, people rarely look upward past eye level. They are most often surprised when their attention is directed above to something they have passed by without seeing, perhaps for years.Oasis-Arcade- One friend of mine had lived for a long time in a Central Towers apartment, across Turk Street from the old YMCA Hotel (now the Oasis Apartments). When he first saw one of my photographs of the Oasis, he asked me where the building was located. He was shocked to learn it was the same building his balcony window had opened onto all those years, for he had never noticed what was right before his eyes. He later told me that when out and about, he had begun to look upward and had discovered many beautiful and pleasing aspects of his city he had never before appreciated, which of course delighted me no end. Cast your gaze aloft every now and then just to see what is there . . . you might be surprised or better yet, inspired to do some documentation and research of your own.


Just about the time I began photographing the architecture of San Francisco’s central city, Serge Echeverria came into my life, offering not only his friendship, but also both encouragement and critical assessment of my work. To him, Up From The Deep is dedicated.

Photo by Theo Rigby

Photo by Theo Rigby

Except where otherwise indicated, text and photos on this site are copyright © 2004-2015, Mark Ellinger. Any use and/or duplication of this material without prior written permission from the author is prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Mark Ellinger and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Creative Commons License

112 responses to “Forgotten History

  1. Jason

    Hi Mark, I hope you’re doing well. When I wrote to you 5 years ago, as a very raw individual who’d just came off drugs, you were immediately friendly and caring, which meant so much to me. So I was concerned to read about your health problems. I hope you’re doing much better now. Your site is so unique, and has brought much joy to me. I feel that your work is very important, as it will always be a reminder of how the beautiful things in life get ruined by uncaring rich people. The city will be thoroughly modern and sterile at some point, a play ground for sterile people. But your photos and essays will live on, with all of the beautiful grit that speaks to the hearts of soulful people.

    • Thanks for your kind words, Jasom. I’m glad you’re doing well. My own health has improved, but I have to admit, what’s happening to San Francisco just breaks my heart.

  2. Hi Mark, I’ve admired your site for several years and have come back to visit it many times. I’m also fascinated with SF history, and have made a few projects of my own that I’d like to show you. I also have a question that brought you to mind: I have a friend who has recently lost his studio apartment, and is on the verge of becoming homeless. He is looking for a hotel or SRO in the Tenderloin or Sixth St. area. Can you recommend any specific places?

    • I can’t recommend any hotels in particular. I would suggest that your friend go to the Central City SRO Collaborative on Turk St. for help in finding a room.

  3. Ter'e Lindsay

    Nothing from you in months. I worry about you…….and have thought about you so many times. I miss your wonderful words and photos. Hell….I miss you. What has happened????

  4. michael daly

    I received my first “blog” from your site thru Hoodline – and the top picture, Market st. at night, circa 1957 just killed me! As a native-born local I grew up 1 block from Market & Castro. Was taken down to Market st. constantly by my Family & then as a torrid Teen roamed Market st. with my pals from Castro down to the Embarcadero; with all its movie houses restaurants, stores, etc. on the 1950’s & ’60’s. What an education! what Memories! and that color nighttime postcard really brings a lot of it back for me – Thank you so much Mark.
    Any chance of somehow getting a copy of that Postcard somewhere? – Cheers, Mike

    • Thanks for sharing your story, Mike. As to the postcard, I found it online, so have no info re: photographer or publisher. It’s exactly the kind of postcard one would have found in the Powell and Market Woolworths till the end of the 60s.

  5. Rob Allen

    Wow! This whole concept and the ideas you present are so enjoyable. Congratulations, Sir! I have been to San Francisco and did get too see some of these areas. It is much like New Orleans or New york in some aspects of the older architecture. I have been lucky enough to live in both of those places and explore. Thank you so much for sharing your wonderfully keen eyesights and these impressions.

  6. Maria La Ganga

    Hello, and would you do me a favor and shoot me an email or your phone number? I am moving back to SF to work for the Guardian, the U.K.-based media outlet/website/newspaper. They are doing s photo project timed for the Super Bowl. It’s basically a San Francisco then and now project. I told them about you — that you’ve been chronicling the Tenderloin and SOMA for years. They would love to get ahold of you and perhaps use some of your work. Also, I’d love to have coffee when I return.

    • Sounds great to me, Maria. The Guardian, by the way, is the only news outlet I read these days. They’re the only one that isn’t just a corporate mouthpiece. Looking forward to seeing you upon your return to San Francisco.

Comments, please! I value your feedback.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s