Streetwise: Signs of the Times
by Frank Dunnigan
Frank Dunnigan, WNP member and columnist. -
Over the years, many local businesses have displayed iconic signs at their locations. It’s still possible to see them in the mind’s eye, even though many have been gone for decades. This month, we dip into the photo archive to recall some memorable examples of local signage in the western neighborhoods – only a few of which remain part of the landscape today.
View east on Geary Boulevard from 19th Avenue, 1956 - Courtesy of Jack Tillmany.
ALEXANDRIA — The Alexandria opened with an Egyptian motif 100 years ago in 1923. It was remodeled in the Moderne style in 1941, just before World War II, and the massive vertical sign was added at that time. The theatre was converted to a triplex in November 1976, and it closed in 2004. Although housing was built on the site of the adjacent 18th Avenue parking lot, plans for the theatre building itself remain unfulfilled. During the heavy rainstorms in January 2023, parts of the sign were damaged, leading to a city order for the removal of the entire sign as a safety hazard.
Baronial Bakery, circa 1954 - Courtesy of Cathy Nabbefeld Crain.
BARONIAL – A row of bright lights and blue neon lettering on the overhead sign marked this location of Baronial Bakery at 1033 Taraval Street. A neighborhood fixture for decades, Baronial closed when the owners, Mr. and Mrs. Nabbefeld, took a well-deserved retirement in the early 1970s. The site has since been home to a variety of small, local dining spots.
Beep's Burgers, 2002 - Courtesy of Woody LaBounty.
BEEP’S — Beep’s Burgers on Ocean Avenue, near City College, opened in 1962 during the dawn of the Space Age. The original owners retired in the early 1970s and the business passed through a series of new owners. Since 2014, the eatery and its classic sign have been refurbished by the present owner, Samantha Wong, and Beep’s is still dispensing exceptional hamburgers, fries, and shakes more than 60 years after its opening. Read the history of this Legacy Business and see more vintage photos of the Ocean Avenue location
View northwest across Geary Boulevard at Masonic Avenue, January 9, 1949 - Photo by L.L. Bonney / Courtesy of a Private Collector.
BEKINS STORAGE — This landmark brick building has occupied the summit of Geary near Masonic since the late 1920s, with its orange neon sign visible in many neighborhoods across San Francisco. The building has been operated by Public Storage for many years now.
Colonial Savings & Loan Association on northwest corner of Vicente Street and West Portal, circa 1950s - Courtesy of a Private Collector.
COLONIAL SAVINGS — This building at the corner of West Portal Avenue and Vicente Street originally housed a drug store with an adjacent Bank of Italy (later Bank of America) branch dating back to the 1920s. It became the Colonial Savings and Loan Association by the 1950s. The building was later demolished for a more modern structure with underground parking that opened as Home Savings in 1977. That new building now houses a branch of Chase Bank. Read more about the mosaic at the entrance to the new building in the May 2022 Streetwise
Doggie Diner at Sloat Boulevard and 46th Avenue, December 1983 - Photo by Jim Cassedy.
DOGGIE DINER — The popular hot dog chain operated in up to 30 Bay Area locations from 1948 until 1986. The company logo was a 7-foot-tall head of a dachshund. After the chain’s closure, a refurbished head was installed in the median on Sloat Boulevard in 2001, near one of the diner’s final locations. Five years later, the doggie head became an official San Francisco landmark. Read more about the history of this icon in Arnold Woods’s article
from July 2001.
Emporium department store and parking lot at Stonestown shopping center before grand opening in 1952 - Photo by Martin Reinsch.
EMPORIUM STONESTOWN — The enormous scripted red letter “E” was an icon to passersby along 19th Avenue from the store’s 1952 opening until its eventual closure in 1995, giving rise to the store’s nickname, the BIG E. Macy’s then took over the space for 20-plus years until March 2018. The location has been converted into a multiplex theatre and shops. The parking lots in the foreground are now being considered as possible sites for new multi-story housing units. Read more about the proposal.
First Gap Store at Ocean Avenue and Fairfield Way - Courtesy of Gap Public Relations.
THE GAP — The Gap, founded in 1969 by San Franciscans Donald and Doris Fisher, opened its first store on Ocean Avenue, adjacent to the El Rey Theatre. The firm’s name was a subtle reference to the “generation gap” and the chain catered to those on the younger side of that gap who sought trendier clothing and music. Anyone else remember the five-note theme song? FALL—INTO—THE GAP.
Owner Marc Duffett standing in front of the Ocean Park Motel at 46th Avenue and Wawona, July 1995 - Richmond Review Newspaper Collection / Courtesy of Paul Kozakiewicz, Richmond Review.
OCEAN PARK MOTEL — Opening in April 1937, to coincide with the May dedication of the Golden Gate Bridge, the Ocean Park was San Francisco’s first motel. It was originally surrounded by open space and sand dunes. Today, it is a quiet Streamline Moderne spot in a built-up neighborhood of homes. Offering comfortable accommodations and a modern-day hot tub, it has been operated by owners Vicki and Marc Duffet since the 1970s. Learn more about the Ocean Park Motel in this 2013 Outside Lands Podcast
View south across Taraval near 33rd Avenue to Ring's Market, 1951 - SF Assessors Office Negatives / WNP Collection.
RING’S MARKET — Ring’s Market operated at 33rd Avenue and Taraval with a “tower of rings” sign from the early 1950s through the early 1970s. It was replaced by a local Social Security office and later by an insurance agency, still with the parking lot shown at left. Note the hand-painted window advertisements that were generally prepared weekly, with wording in colors of black or blue and prices in red. The iconic tower sign is long gone, and as of December 2022, the 7,000-square-foot building was listed for sale.
The tipped sign of Tippy's Bar on the northwest corner of 10th Avenue and Geary Boulevard, circa 1980s.
TIPPY’S — This bar, a decades-long neighborhood institution, was located on the northwest corner of 10th Avenue and Geary Boulevard. It was conveniently kitty-corner from the McAvoy-O’Hara mortuary – a frequent alignment of businesses in old San Francisco. When streetcars were removed from Geary in late 1956 and a third lane of vehicular traffic added, the old sign extended a bit too far for the new configuration. Rather than remove it, the owners simply “tipped” it upward a bit to comply with local ordinances. Tippy’s is long-gone, and for many years now, the adjacent Boudin Bakery has occupied Tippy’s old space. Read more about Tippy’s and other west side watering holes in the August 2015 Streetwise
Zim's Broiled Hamburgers, southwest corner of 19th Avenue and Taraval Street, September 1957 - San Francisco Examiner.
ZIM’S — The Zim’s chain, founded by San Franciscan Art Zimmerman in the early years after World War II, opened one of its most popular locations at the southwest corner of 19th Avenue and Taraval in 1957. It was the neighborhood go-to place from early morning to late night. Sadly, the chain folded in 1995, closing dozens of locations throughout the Bay Area. Since then, multiple newer dining spots have occupied the space. Read San Francisco Chronicle columnist Steve Rubenstein’s history of Zim's
One of the saddest sign removal scenes in local history took place on New Year’s Eve, 2020. Read the San Francisco Chronicle’s obituary
for a beloved piece of local history – the iconic Cliff House sign.
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