AKA: Pacific Hall, Financial District, San Francisco, CA; City of San Francisco, Public Library, Main Library #1, Financial District, San Francisco, CA

Structure Type: built works - performing arts structures - theatres; built works - public buildings - assembly halls

Designers: Bugbee, S.C., and Son, Architects (firm); Charles Lewis Bugbee (architect); Samuel Charles Bugbee (architect)

Dates: constructed 1868-1869, demolished 1889

2 stories

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414 Bush Street
Financial District, San Francisco, CA 94108

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The California Theatre was located on the north side of Bush Street, between Kearny and Dupont (later renamed Grant) Streets. The State of California, Department of Historic Preservation, listed the address as 430 Bush Street.


Bush Street became the home to two early theatres in San Francisco, the California Theatre #1 opening in 1869, and the Alhambra, located at 325 Bush Street, opening at about the same time. At the time of its opening, there were only a handful of reputable theatres in San Francisco, including the Alhambra, Maguire's Opera House on Washington Street, the Metropolitan Theatre on Montgomery Street, and Wilson's Circus at the intersection of Stockton and Post Streets. Many renowned performers, including actors John McCullough (1832-1885), Helena Modjeska (1840-1909) and Edwin T. Booth (1833-1893), played the California Theatre #1, in operation for 19 years between 1869 and 1888. The renowned Booth was a member of the original stage troupe retained by the theatre.

Building History

Comstock Lode financier William Chapman Ralston (1826-1875) and his Bank of California financed the $250,000 needed to erect the California Theatre #1 on Bush Street in San Francisco, CA. It opened its doors on 01/18/1869 with a performance of Edward Bulwer-Lytton's play, "Money." Ralston hoped to showcase the talents of the well-known, Irish-born actors John Edward McCullough (1832-1885) and Lawrence Barrett (born Lawrence Brannigan, 1838-1891). Both McCullough and Barrett managed California Theatre operations from 1867 to 1870, the theatre's heyday, and the former continued until 1877. While Ralston was alive and his bank was healthy, the California Theatre enjoyed great success, attracting large, lucrative crowds and high-echelon performers, including actor Edwin Booth (McCullough's mentor, 1833–1893), comedian Edwin Adams (1834–1877) and singer Nellie Melba (1861–1931).

By 1876, however, a competing venue for established performers, the Grand Opera House, had opened, and began to affect the California Theatre's financial condition. On 08/20/1877, the celebrated Polish-born actress Madame Helena Modjeska (1840-1909) performed in an English-language presentation of Ernest Legouvé's "Adrienne Lecouvreur" at the California Theatre. Madame Modjeska was the mother of engineer Ralph Modjeski (1861-1940) who would go on to design the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge (1933-1936).

The first California Theatre operated until 08/11/1888 and was razed in 1889. It was replaced with a second, identically-named facility. The unreinforced masonry block that contained the second theatre also accommodated a hotel and was destroyed in the Great Earthquake of 04/18/1906.

As this theatre was on the verge of being razed, the newspaper, the Daily Alta California, published an 1888 article discussing its successive management changes: "In July, 1871, John McCullough became sole manager, but severed his connection with the theater at the close of the eighth season, in 1877, though his name was retained in the directory by his unfortunate successor, Barton Hill, who shortly afterward disposed of his interest to General W.B. Barton and Frank Lawlor, who were succeeded, after a season of mismanagement, by Asa Field and James T. McGuire. J.H. Haverly and Charles McConnell then became the lessees, Fred Bert eventually relieving them of their responsibilities. In December 1884, Al Hayman became the lessee of the California Theatre and continued as such to the present time. He will also be the lessee of the new theatre which will replace the one opened by John McCullough and Lawrence Barrett nearly two decades since." (See "The Mimic World: Reminiscences of an Old Californa Actor and Manager," Daily Alta California, vol. 42, no. 14207, 07/29/1888, p. 2.)

Building Notes

The Pacific Hall occupied a large assembly space on the second floor of the California Theatre facing Bush Street. The first San Francisco Public Library utilized space on the Pacific Hall's second floor beginning in 1879. Albert Hart served as the first City Librarian. Pacific Hall occupied a lot on Bush Street between Kearny and Dupont (later renamed Grant Street) in what is now Chinatown. (See San Francisco Public Library.org, "Timeline," accessed 06/13/2014.) The library remained in Pacific Hall from 1879-1888. The interior of the California Theatre featured murals and stage curtain by DE-born artist Gideon Jacques Denny (1830–1886), who ventured to San Francisco during the Gold Rush. The California Theatre #1 was one of the first theatres on the Pacific Coast to employ calcium lights fitted with parabolic reflectors. Scotsman Thomas Drummond (1797-1840), an Ordnance officer of the Royal Engineers, first developed parabolic calcium lights for a Irish survey expedition in 1825. Within a few years, calcium lights were used for mostly nautical purposes, providing passing ships bright lights with which to signal each other. London's Covent Garden Theatre utilized a variant of Drummond's original calcium light to spotlight performers on its stage in 1837. Subsequently, American inventor Robert Grant refined the oxy-hydrogen jet of Drummond's design by the American Civil War. The Union Army used Grant's light to illuminate battlefields after 1861 and employed it strategically in the Seige of Fort Wagner on Morris Island, SC, in 1863.

At the California Theatre's inaugural night on 01/18/1869, an opening ode written by writer Bret Harte (1836-1903) was read by actor Lawrence Barrett.

Many of the country's most significant performers appeared at the California Theatre. According to the 1888 reminiscence of actor/manager, J.H. McCabe: "The first star to appear at the California was John E. Owens, who played a seven-weeks' engagement, beginning March 15th. Charlotte Thompson followed for forty-four nights, and at the conclusion of this engagement became Mrs. Loraine Rogers. John Brougham, Elsie Holt, and Neil Warner were succeeding stellar attractions." (See "The Mimic World: Reminiscences of an Old Californa Actor and Manager," Daily Alta California, vol. 42, no. 14207, 07/29/1888, p. 2.)

According to theSan Francisco Directory for the Year Commencing March, 1875, (p. 313) the California Theatre was also known as the "German Theatre."

The site of the California Theatre #1 (and #2) was made California Historical Landmark #86on 03/13/1933. The text of the landmark plaque placed at 444 Bush Street read: "NO. 86 CALIFORNIA THEATRE - On this site on January 18, 1869, the California Theatre, built by William C. Ralston, opened with the following stock company: John McCullough, Lawrence Barrett, Harry Edwards, Willie Edouin, E. B. Holmes, William Mastayer, John T. Raymond, W. F. Burroughs, W. H. Sadley Smith, John Wilson, Edward J. Buckley, Mrs. Judah Emelie Melville, Elizabeth Saunders, Annette Ince, Marie E. Gordon, Sophie Edwin, Minnie Walton, and Julia Buckley. Among artists who played here were Charles W. Couldock, Edwin Adams, John Broughan, Edwin Booth, Barton Hill, Walter Montgomery, Mrs. D. P. Bowers, Adelaide Neilson, and Lotta Crabtree. This theater remained a brilliant center of drama until August 11, 1888." (See California Historical Landsmarks.com, "CHL No. 86 California Theatre Site - San Francisco," accessed 07/13/2021.)


The California Theatre #1 was torn down and replaced with a second, less successful, facility in 1889.

California Historical Landmark: 86

PCAD id: 18745