Belvederes: The View from the Top

Belvederes are little houses that were put on top of buildings near the San Francisco waterfront prior to the 1930s.    Before radio communication, belvederes  were used to provide a vantage point for tracking ships.  Only one of the belvederes  in San Francisco was actually used for this purpose; the others added as decorative elements.  The name belvedere comes from the Italian  bello vedere  meaning beautiful view.  

Matson Building
Matson Building, 215 Market St. 

This little jewel of a belevedere sits like a crown on top of this beautiful beaux arts building, completed in 1923.  Matson is a shipping company that was started to bring sugar from Hawaii to San Francisco.  They later became known for luxury cruise ships around the Pacific.  Their cruise business ended in the 1970s when air travel took over, but today Matson is still a leader in cargo transport throughout the Pacific.  Matson moved its headquarters to the Port of Oakland, and the Market Street Building was taken over by PG&E to expand their headquarters building next door.

Southern Pacific Building
Southern Pacific Building, One Market Street

This 1916 building was built for the Southern Pacific Railroad. According to the building's manager, this belvedere originally hid a water tower, which was removed in the 1940s when the city's water system was upgraded.  It may have been used at one time as an office by someone who didn't like meetings, since the only access is by a ladder stairway. The belevede is empty inside now, but still adds a touch of waterfront character to the building.



Merchant Exchange Building, 465 California Street

Willis Polk was still working for Daniel Burnham when he designed this building in 1904.  You have to climb up California Street past Grant Avenue to get a look at this belvedere which at one time was actually used to view the bay and Telegraph Hill.   News of incoming ships was brought down to the trading floor (now occupied by the California Bank and Trust Co.) where the cargos were sold off even before the ship docked.  The building survived the 1906 earthquake, and although the interior was damaged by the fire that destroyed the rest of downtown, it was one of the first buildings to reopen.   Julia Morgan had her office in this building and the Julia Morgan Ballroom is on the 15th floor.   Five murals by renowned maritime artist William Coulter were added between 1909 and 1920.

Merchant Exchange (right) with Southern Pacific in distance

Bank of America, 315 Montgomery Street

This 1923 building by George Kelham shares the block with the mammoth  Bank of America tower, built in 1969.   It mimics the style and size of the older Merchant's Exchange building.  

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