The historic Belli Building is gone. It stood for 145 years in the very heart of San Francisco. A block away from the eastern edge of today's Chinatown, and shadowed from the sun by the tall Transamerica Pyramid, there is now a deep hole in the ground at 722 Montgomery Street where the building once stood.
The building had such incredible stories to tell. It was constructed in 1851 during the height of the California Gold Rush. It saw several of the fires that burned much of the city back then, and it survived the Great Fire of 1906. The Gold Rush began almost literally on the spot were the building had been hastily thrown up on the original shoreline of Yerba Buena Cove. (Nine layers of redwood tree trunk had been put down in the mudflat muck of the cove's beachhead to create a solid foundation on which to build this two story brick structure.) In its beginning days the front of the building looked out onto the boom town's Portsmouth Square...the windows in the back of the building overlooked the many hundreds of sailing ships that lay abandoned in the cove (today's financial district).
It was originally built as a tobacco warehouse, but it soon became the Melodeon Theatre. Dancer, singer, and actress Lotta Crabtree, California's first child star, performed here. Years later, when she had become a national celebrity, she gave San Francisco our beloved Lotta's Fountain, at 3rd and Market. The city's first Masonic Lodge was organized in the building. Oscar Wilde, on a stop in San Francisco during his nationwide tour, visited a friend in one of the apartments on the upper floor. Bret Harte wrote 'The Luck Of Roaring Camp' while he was living here. In the 1960's the building and the Genella Building next door became the offices of the world-renowned attorney Melvin Belli. He owned the building for several decades. During his time in the building, evidence of its location on the original shoreline could be seen from the rise and fall of tidal waters in the elevator shaft.
The Belli Building is gone. A two story tall thin wall of the building's front façade is all that remains. Behind that wall is a deep hole in the ground. A construction crew is now preparing the site, getting it ready to receive a cement foundation for whatever high rise they will eventually put up.
On July 12th I went down to the worksite hoping to meet a workman and ask if he might possibly shovel up some mud, sand, and brick from the sight...maybe even fill my plastic bucket with the rank stuff. I was thinking to perhaps create some new jars with this 'worthless debris' that they're now loading into dump trucks and hauling away. No one was at the site that day and so I decided to jump the 8 foot fence in the back of the site on Hotaling Place. Easy enough. I hit the ground on the other side and the first thing I saw in the worksite was a 7 inch shard of porcelain. The stenciled cobalt blue glaze depicted a castle standing majestically on the side of a lake with weeping willow trees growing on its banks. A knight in armor sat on horseback looking towards the castle walls.
I spent two hours in heaven picking up hundreds more pieces like this. I smelled the bay waters of Gold Rush Yerba Buena Cove. I played like a little kid in the historic mud. I pulled out chunks of the rotted redwood foundation. I cut my finger and gave the holy ground some of my own blood. In my mind I re-visited everything I've read and known and wondered and imagined about this tiny spit of historic land that's been torn up and exposed for a small moment in the middle of a big busy city. I've since gone back three more times.
There are now 15 jars on my front porch filled with mud and gunk...Yerba Buena Cove Shoreline strata that until recently had never known sunlight. There are two wooden wine boxes brimming with hundreds of ceramic and porcelain shards. I've a small pile of beautiful dark redwood pieces that were the foundation on which a small bit of San Francisco's history took place. And I have a story to tell.
© 2006 Ron Henggeler. All rights reserved
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