AKA: Watkins's Yosemite Art Gallery, Financial District, San Francisco, CA

Structure Type: built works - exhibition buildings

Designers: [unspecified]

Dates: constructed 1871

26 Montgomery Street
Financial District, San Francisco, CA 94104


In 1872, the Watkins' [sic] Yo-Semite Art Gallery operated at 26 Montgomery Street across from the Lick House (hotel) entrance. (See San Francisco, California, City Directory, 1872, p. 534.) Watkins advertised his new gallery in Langley's San Francisco City Directories for 1872 and 1873. He managed to maintain it only for about four years, when the terrible economic downturn of the mid-1870s caused him to lose it to creditors.

Building History

The noted photographer Carleton E. Watkins (1829-1916), was born in Oneonta, NY, and became friends with the CT-born Collis P. Huntington (1821-1900), who, along with his brother, Solon, opened a general store in Oneonta in 1842. Watkins and Huntington ventured to California after news of the gold's discovery to secure their fortunes. Huntington would open another store in Sacramento, where he sold supplies to miners. He and his Sacramento business partner, Mark Hopkins, (1813-1878), became wealthy selling general metchandise, and would form the "Big Four" founders of the Central Pacific Railroad, along with Leland Stanford, Sr., and Charles Crocker (1822-1888). All of these railroad titans were either born in NY or lived there during their adult lives.

Watkins initially worked for Huntington's general store in Sacramento, but encountered photographer Robert H. Vance, (1825-1876), who taught him Daguerrotype processes. He worked for Vance for several years before establishing his own studio in 1858, doing portraiture. Watkins heard of the majestic scenery in the Yosemite Valley of California, and decided to visit the region with his bulky camera equipment in 07/1861. His large-format stereo Dauerrotypes of Yo-Semite became very popular and led to him being commissioned by the California Geologic Survey in 1864 to document what would become the first national park on 10/01/1890. His scenes satisfied a contemporary American fascination with the sublime elements of Western landscapes, comparable to scenes painted by Albert Bierstadt, (1830-1902), who also featured Yosemite images. This appetite for images of steep mountain peaks, waterfalls, and luminous lighting was fueled initially by the work of the Hudson River School of painters, with whom Bierstadt associated himself.

Watkins benefitted from this patriotic fervor for American landscape, which enabled him to exhibit his photographs in established galleries, (he had a grand showing of his work at Shanahan's Art Gallery in Portland, OR, in 1868) and to sell portfolios of stereoscopic views to a middle class clientele. In 1871, he opened the Walkins Yo-Semite Gallery, across the street from the Lick House Hotel, the first grandly-scaled, luxury hotel operating in San Francisco. The location of Watkins's gallery was also close to other notable tourist lodgings clustered within a few blocks, including the Palace Hotel #1 and the Occidental Hotel. Well-heeled guests could afford to purchase Watkins's costly, large-scale photographs to adorn the walls of their sizeable residences.

The financial panic of 1873 caused a serious economic downturn in San Francisco in 1874 and 1875, and forced Watkins to forfeit his gallery to two creditors, J.J. Cook, a druggist/hotel keeper from Mariposa County and another photographer, Isaiah West Taber, (1830-1912), who repackaged Watkins's stereoscopic photographs and sold them under his own name. In 1872, Taber had his Photographic Art Gallery located nearby at 12 Montgomery Street. See Langley's San Francisco City Directory for the Year Commencing March 1872, [San Francisco: Henry G. Langley, Publisher, 1872], p. 631.)

The 1870 US Census listed John Jay Cook (born c. 1837 in Dutchess County, NY-d. 06/02/1904 in San Francisco, CA) as a druggist working in Township #3 in Mariposa County, CA. He came to Mariposa County from NY, between 1866 and 1869, and was stable financially in 1870. The census indicated that he owned $3,000 worth of real estate and had $3,000 (See Ancestry.com, Source Citation: Year: 1870; Census Place: Township 3, Mariposa, California; Roll: M593_74; Page: 118B; Family History Library Film: 545573, accessed 05/08/2020.) Cook also may have had medical training, as he was recorded as a physician in the 1860 US Census. (See Ancestry.com, Source Information: Ancestry.com. 1860 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2009. Images reproduced by FamilySearch, accessed 05/08/2020.) In addition to his pharmacy, J.J. Cook also ran a hotel near Yosemite with his brother, during the 1870s in which he sold the photography of Watkins and others. It was probably as an innkeeper that Watkins met Cook snd began their business relationship.

By 1875, Cook was listed in Langley's San Francisco City Directory for the Year Commencing March 1875, (p. 206), as a "clerk for Carleton E. Watkins" who resided at 407 Leavenworth Street. The 1880 US Census had Cook living with wife, four children and a Chinese-born servant at 1722 Bush Street. By 1880, his occupation was recorded both as a photographer (in the census) and as a druggist in San Francisco voter records. As per the census, a "G.M. Wright" also boarded with the Cooks in 1880. who was a fire insurance salesman. Given the flammability of Cook's investment, this may or may not have been a coincidence. (See Ancestry.com, Source Citation: Year: 1880; Census Place: San Francisco, San Francisco, California; Roll: 79; Page: 122A; Enumeration District: 205, accessed 05/08/2020.) Voter records indicated that Cook was again in the hotel business, as a proprietor in San Francisco in 1882, and, six years later, as a hotelkeeper back at Yosemite.

Watkins began to lose his sight during the 1890s, curtailing his activities. The 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire burned his studio on Market Street, destroying his inventory of prints made over forty-five years. This shock, increasing poverty and the deterioration of his eyesight combined to undermine his mental health. His daughter, Julia, attempted to care for him for about one year, but found the task too difficult, and, by 1910, had to send him to the Napa State Hospital, a psychiatric facility opened in 1875, where he passed away in 1916.

PCAD id: 20825