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Photo By: Ed Brodzinsky
Then and Now

Union Square is the heartbeat of San Francisco—ever-changing, eternally celebrating, yet firmly rooted in its rich past. 

In 1847, the City of San Francisco commissioned Jasper O'Farrell to lay out a design for its streets and parks. Union Square was one of two public squares. It was named on the eve of the Civil War (1861-5) as a demonstration of support for the Union.

During the 1880s, the Square had become the center of a fashionable residential district. By the turn of the century, offices and stores dominated the Square, pushing out residences and churches. Then the infamous 1906 San Francisco earthquake shook the city.

After the earthquake, reconstruction began and Union Square became San Francisco’s premiere shopping district. The Square’s present character was inspired by the construction of the Hotel Saint Francis in 1908. It was and remains the tallest structure (13 stories) facing the Square. Over the years, the park was redesigned many times, but always followed the natural topography of the area.

In the 1930s, the Union Square Garage Corporation was formed and lobbied for permission to build the world's first underground parking structure. After a California Supreme Court decision, permission was granted and they broke ground on May 31, 1941.

In 1997, the San Francisco Prize Coalition and the City of San Francisco announced an open competition for the redesign of Union Square Park. Toward a More Perfect Union: An International Design Competition for the Future of Union Square, received 309 entries from 10 countries and 20 states. The winning entry by MD Fotheringham, Landscape Architects entitled "All the Square is a Stage" sought to transform Union Square from an imposing, seldom used urban space into an open, pedestrian-friendly plaza.

A "new" Union Square opened to the public on July 2, 2002. Designed by MD Fotheringham, Landscape Architects in partnership with April Philips Design Works, the $25 million project successfully improved visibility into the Square, making it more inviting and accessible. The redesign included a large central plaza, stage lawn terraces to Geary Street, terraced steps aligned with Maiden Lane, four grand corner entrance plazas, new public art by R.M. Fischer, a ticketing pavilion, and a café with open air seating. The historic Dewey Monument was retained, as were signature palms at the four corner entrances to the Square.

Originally a park surrounded by churches and residences, the Square is now the commercial retail center of the city. It continues to serve as a stage for gatherings of all types, including musical performances, dance, art exhibitions, rallies and spontaneous outbursts of theater, speech, and song.