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Streetwise: Happy Birthday Stonestown

by Frank Dunnigan
July 2017

Frank Dunnigan, WNP member and columnist. -

Light the birthday candles for dear old Stonestown! This is the year that the local shopping center turns 65 and it is also the thirtieth anniversary of its 1987 re-birth as a “Galleria.”

First opened in 1952, Stonestown Mall was the brain-child of the Stoneson Brothers, Henry (1895-1958) and Ellis (1893-1952), who were born in Canada, the sons of Icelandic immigrants. Arriving in San Francisco in the 1920s, they began constructing homes at about the same time as other builders such as Henry Doelger, Ray Galli, and Chris McKeon.

Stonestown Shopping Center under construction. View From Park Merced towards Mt. Davidson, circa 1952 -

Just as the Great Depression was ending and prior to the U.S. involvement in World War II, the Stoneston Brothers embarked on construction of homes in the new Lakeside neighborhood, a narrow strip of land located between Junipero Serra Boulevard and 19th Avenue, south of Sloat Boulevard. Their goal was to create a “city within a city” and their homes enjoyed the services of nearby businesses along Ocean Avenue in the Stoneson-developed “Lakeside Village” shopping area.

Following World War II, the Stoneson Brothers developed a larger vision for the western side of San Francisco. “Shopping centers” were just coming into vogue, and as the small vegetable farms scattered throughout the area were being plowed under to provide an expanded neighborhood of homes in nearby Lakeshore Park and Country Club Acres, the Stoneson brothers conceived a plan for a brand-new neighborhood adjacent to their existing Lakeside development.

Recognizing that their Lakeside contained only single-family homes (and rather large ones at that), the Stoneson Development Company set out to create an adjacent apartment community. Along with an expanding Parkmerced, the new Stonestown Apartments would serve singles, couples, and smaller families, including many returning GIs who were then setting up their own homes. The heart of this new community would also include a large number of retail stores, clustered around a landscaped outdoor area, and the stores were all built with generous architectural overhangs above the entrances in order to provide shelter from the elements on foggy/drizzly days. In addition to serving the nearby neighborhoods, “Stonestown” would clearly be a shopping destination for many other San Francisco residents, too.

Plans called for construction of an anchor store—none other than the iconic Emporium’s very first branch beyond Market Street—along with an office building dedicated to medical-dental services. There was also a modern grocery store initially named Stonestown Market (later operated by Quality Foods, Inc.—QFI—and still later by Petrini’s), plus a chain drugstore with a lunch counter (Walgreens), as well as an upscale auto dealer (Fazackerly Cadillac) opposite the medical building where there was also an underground Cadillac service facility. A few years later, a large Chevron station was built adjacent to 19th Avenue in the grocery store parking area, and a subterranean health club opened—first operated by Vic Tanny and later by Claire and Ray Stern.

Aerial view of Stonestown Shopping Center and Apartments, 1957, Mar 30, 1957 - WNP Collection

The new development covered 65 acres, including four apartment towers as well as dozens of low-rise apartment buildings that opened in 1950 along Buckingham Way. A planned theater, now known as the UA Stonestown Twin Cinemas, eventually opened at the back of the property as a single screen in November 1970 and was twinned a few years later.

The Stonestown branch of the iconic Market Street retailer, The Emporium, opened with great fanfare on July 15, 1952. Originally 258,000 square feet, the store was expanded in the 1960s when the footprint of the upper level was expanded, thus removing the outdoor space once allocated to Christmas-time “roof rides”—a amenity that continued until the 1970s at the store’s Market Street location.

Construction continued on dozens of smaller stores, and the completed Stonestown Mall became San Francisco’s first modern shopping center, officially dedicated on November 6, 1952, in the proverbial nick of time for the holiday shopping season. Early stores included two anchors: Emporium and also Butler Brothers (a lower-cost department store), plus 40 other retailers, including Gallenkamp Shoes, Singer Sewing Center, Woolworth—which sold everything from pet birds and fish to sewing notions and those ubiquitous 88-cent orange-and-black cans of “No Moth.”

Emporium department store and parking lot at Stonestown shopping center before grand opening in 1952., circa 1952 - Photograph by Martin Reinsch.

Food service ran the gamut of taste, cost, and chicness with everything from Walgreens' lunch counter and Foster’s Cafeteria to Maison Gourmet (home of “Pizza Puppies”—a slice of cheese pizza wrapped around a hot dog) in the supermarket, the Red Chimney restaurant (including a fireplace and a full bar) near the Emporium, and Blum’s (bakery/candy/soda fountain) on the west side, mid-mall. In keeping with the practices of the time, all the stores were closed on Sundays until the late 1960s.

The complex itself originally contained 777,000 square feet of retail space and it was soon expanded to include a new Joseph Magnin store at the northwest corner of 20th Avenue and Winston Drive, plus several newer shops, including Portals to Music and Bruce Bary. These new stores managed to draw hundreds of San Francisco high school students after school and on Saturday afternoons in the 1950s and 1960s, thus making “going to the mall” a new way of life for many.

There were changes over the years, particularly at the south end of the mall, which was originally separated from the other stores by a surface-level Winston Drive. This factor proved to be a severe impediment for easy pedestrian access to the Butler Brothers store by mall shoppers. Butler Brothers eventually closed in 1960, and was replaced by a branch of City of Paris. That entire chain was shut down in 1972, but re-emerged in 1973 as City of Paris by Liberty House. Although Liberty House remained open in its downtown location from 1974-1984, the Stonestown store closed after a year or so and remained vacant for some time. A few years later, Southern California-based Bullock’s acquired the site and demolished the old building, constructing a brand new store and adjacent parking structure that opened in the fall of 1977. Bullock’s overcame the traffic obstacle by extending their new building above Winston Drive and adding an escalator that could literally scoop mall shoppers up to their second level, thus avoiding auto traffic on Winston Drive. Bullock’s closed in 1983, and that building also remained vacant for several years. After undergoing extensive remodeling, it re-opened with its present-day tenant, Nordstrom, in April of 1988.

Stonestown Shopping Center sign, Merced Heights, Brooks Park in background, May 1966 -

In the late 1960s, Joseph Magnin, a very popular store for women’s clothing and accessories, found that its location at 20th Avenue and Winston was too small for the expanding volume of business. In the fall of 1968, the chain opened a new two-story building just north of the Emporium at the southwest corner of 20th Avenue and Buckingham Way, opposite the medical building. This also remained a busy location for years, but the chain was eventually closed in 1984, and the building then remained vacant until 1988 when it was remodeled and occupied by The Good Guys electronics store and also by a branch of Tower Records. The Good Guys was later replaced by a short-lived computer store in 2003, and in 2005, the entire building became a health club to replace the long-gone original that was once located beneath the mall.

By the 1980s, the original outdoor Stonestown Mall was starting to look run down, with a number of empty storefronts, including the Bullock’s building as its southern anchor, the empty two-story Joseph Magnin building adjacent to the Emporium, plus other vacancies among the smaller mall shops. Ambitious plans were developed to increase the number of stores by building a second floor of retail space and enclosing the entire complex under a glass skylight ceiling to provide better protection from all that foggy weather. A food court and other restaurants were included in the mix, and additional parking was added to the level beneath the mall.

Demolition began in 1985 at the north end of the mall, and a completely rebuilt section opened for business in the fall of 1986, as the anchor Emporium building remained in place, essentially unchanged throughout the process. Demolition continued on the south end, and one year later, the entire complex was completed, with a grand reopening held in October 1987. There was a new, smoother link to Nordstrom (then being readied for an April 1988 opening), since Winston Drive was remodeled into a vehicular underpass beneath the shopping level. The mall then rebranded itself “Stonestown Galleria.”

Old tenants such as Woolworth, Walgreens, Singer Sewing Center, Bruce Bary prep clothing store, Wok Shop, the cozy Red Chimney restaurant, and several others did not return. New tenants of the enclosed Galleria included businesses such as Williams-Sonoma, Hold Everything, Brentano’s Books, and a Boudin bakery-coffee shop. A much-expanded Courting’s Stationers was one of the few returning businesses from the early days. The rebuilt complex boasted nearly 100,000 additional square feet of retail space, and the new Galleria did well for many years, also becoming a year-round destination for many seniors who favored “mall walking” as exercise.

Interior of Rickey's Red Chimney at Stonestown. Postcard image possibly from the 1960s., 1960 -

Over time, though, certain corporate changes came about that impacted Stonestown businesses. Long-time men’s clothing store Roos-Atkins and women’s clothing chain Livingston’s both went out of business as the old mall was in decline. As Bank of America’s customers became more acquainted with ATMs in the 1980s, the original 1952 Stonestown branch (which once held an enormous photo-mural of western San Francisco on its long interior wall) moved to smaller quarters in the old Walgreens space in the spring of 1988. Petrini’s was later sold to new owners who closed the Stonestown store in 1991, much to the distress of thousands of nearby residents.

Corporate mergers in the 1990s led to Brentano’s being acquired by Borders, which relocated its Stonestown store to space at 20th and Winston after the departure of Petrini’s, thus causing Bank of America to move yet again to an even smaller space. Borders eventually filed for bankruptcy and closed in 2011, to be replaced by a short-lived book retailer, ODE—which used some of the existing letters from the old Borders sign. The biggest change came in 1995 when the 99-year-old Emporium chain was acquired by Macy’s, which then rebranded the Stonestown store with its own corporate name in February of 1996—though many of us will forever see the big, red cursive letter “E” on the wall of that building as we drive along 19th Avenue.

Some recent changes in the store line-up have not resonated well with long-time customers—particularly the departure of businesses such as Blue C Sushi (2017), Sports Authority (2016), Ann Taylor (2016), GUESS (2016), J. Crew (2015), Williams-Sonoma (2014), Chevy's Mexican Restaurant (2012), Borders Books (2011), Coach (2011), Disney Store (2008), Pottery Barn (2008), and Hold Everything (2006). A few of these closures occurred because of issues within a particular company, while stores such as Williams-Sonoma and Pottery Barn are still thriving elsewhere, but simply no longer doing business at Stonestown. Other notable changes have involved newer merchants with smaller businesses operating from carts in the center aisle of the mall, some of which are staffed by highly aggressive sales people, and the removal of much of the 1986-87 marble seating. In spite of these alterations, however, the Galleria today is filled to capacity with 160 different retail outlets.

In January of 2017, Macy’s announced the sale of their three-level Stonestown building to Chicago-based General Growth Properties (owner-operator of the Galleria and other malls across the U.S.) for $41 million in order to bolster their own corporate finances. The San Francisco Business Times newspaper reported that Macy’s “will lease back the Stonestown location for an undisclosed amount of time while General Growth, which operates Stonestown, develops plans for the location.” The article quoted a spokesperson for General Growth Properties as saying “that he can’t yet share details on plans for the Stonestown site.”

Like all of us who are reaching this particular milestone birthday, it appears likely that further change is still in store for the 65-year-old Stonestown—so stay tuned for post-birthday developments.

THIS JUST IN: On June 23, 2017, website SFist quoted a San Francisco Business Times article, reporting that General Growth Properties, which bought the Macy’s (formerly Emporium) Stonestown building, has recently developed plans for a massive remodel of the space into a grocery store, restaurants, shops, and a theater. The website posted architectural drawings that also indicate possible removal of a significant portion of the huge wall displaying the current store’s name—formerly the big scripted red letter E—so visible from 19th Avenue. Stay tuned for more updates.

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