Rediscovering the Drawings That Captured San Francisco Just Before the 1906 Earthquake

In late March 1906, less than a month before San Francisco would be rocked by a massive earthquake, artist Vernon Howe Bailey visited the city to make pencil sketches of notable buildings and urban landscapes.  These drawings, now mostly forgotten, captured scenes that soon would be jarringly altered.

Bailey’s arrival on March 28 was of sufficient local interest that the next morning the San Francisco Call ran an article reporting that “the famous artist of the east arrived.” He was dispatched by Everybody’s magazine, as part of a series, “American Cities in Pencil,” that he was doing for the monthly publication.  He completed his work and moved on to other locations by early April.

The earthquake struck at 5:13 AM on Wednesday, April 18, 1906 and shook the city for nearly a minute. Besides structural damage to many buildings, it also ruptured many gas lines and water mains.  Soon, fires were raging throughout the city and water was in short supply.  The fires lasted for over three days and by then 3,000 people had died and it is estimated that more than half of the city’s population was made homeless.

We present here the eight drawings by Bailey, drawn in his beautifully expressive style, that were published in the June 1906 issue of Everybody’s. We also look at what happened to these sites during the earthquake and afterward.

1. Market Street and the Call Building

All Vernon Howe Bailey drawings, Everybody’s, June 1906, via Google Books

One of Bailey’s strengths as an artist was capturing both the beauty of architecture and the vitality of urban street life. Market Street was, and still remains, a key downtown thoroughfare, bustling with activity. The bustle of the street was also famously captured in a video from 1906, showing the risk to life and limb while traversing it. Market Street was home to the Spreckels Building, San Francisco’s tallest structure when built in 1898.  Also known as the Call Building, for the newspaper located there, it was a steel frame building with a sandstone exterior topped by a dome with many ornate details.

“The Fire on Market Street” (1906) via Library of Congress

The Call Building remained standing after the earthquake, but like so many buildings it caught on fire. Although the fire damage was extensive, the buidling was repaired and reopened.

“San Francisco Call Building (1906)” via Wikimedia Commons

Ironically, the building that survived the calamity of 1906 underwent a total makeover in the 1930s that completely changed its appearance. The dome was removed and the sandstone was replaced by a light pink granite Art Deco facade. It is now known as Central Tower.

Central Tower (originally Call Building). Photo by Philar, via Flickr Creative Commons

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