Growing by the Bay

Emporium Dome, Westfield Centre (Bloomingdale’s), San Francisco

the historic emporium dome

click any photo for a larger view (via flickr)

Recently I visited the Westfield Centre in downtown San Francisco, mainly to get a look at the historic dome that was saved from the old Emporium department store that occupied the same location. I had a personal reason for checking it out, which I’ll get to in a minute.

The Emporium, founded in 1896 in San Francisco, was once the major competitor to Macy’s (and I. Magnin) in the region. In 1927 the Emporium merged with an Oakland-based store, Capwell’s, to form Emporium – Capwell. In 1995 the store was bought out by Federated Department Stores, the parent company of both Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s (among others).

On the store’s 100th birthday in 1996, the old Emporium flagship across from the Powell Street cable car turnaround on Market Street — which the company had claimed was the largest department store west of Chicago — was closed. It remained sadly vacant until 2006. Then, in September 2006, Federated opened a Bloomingdale’s on the location as the co-anchor (with the previously opened Nordstom’s) of an urban shopping complex pretentiously called the Westfield Centre.

westfield centre

The Westfield Centre is glitzy, soulless urban schlock. As you can see from the photo at left, it houses some movie theaters, which I haven’t visited yet. The Bloomingdale’s is huge, second in size only to theNew York store, and I suppose it serves as a comfort store for transplanted New Yorkers who crave the consumerist outlets of their past.

It’s probably a fine store, but I was mostly interested in the building’s main historic feature, its dome, which is all that was retained from the old Emporium, other than the exterior facade.

Disappointingly, only glimpses of the dome can be caught from lower floors.

On the upper levels, however, the dome and rotunda can be enjoyed from comfortable chairs, which I suppose would be a pleasant enough place to relax on days when the weather drives you inside.

Part of the reason I wanted to check out the dome and see what Federated had done with the old building is that the Emporium was my first employer when I first moved to San Francisco. Back then the Emporium used to host a carnival on its roof at Christmastime, complete with a full-sized ferris wheel and other rides, food venders, and more (one year they hoisted a working cable car up the twelve stories to the roof). My job was a temporary one — I was their Santa Claus Manager: sort of a stage manager for the Christmas schtick. About half of my Santa Clauses were members of the comedy group Duck’s Breath Mystery Theater (not “theatre” as Westfield would no doubt spell it). Some of the better-known roles of members of the group were Randee of the Redwoods (once a regular on MTV), Ian Schoales (who comments on PBS), and Dr. Science (he knows more than you do). Ian Schoales (Merle Kessler) maintains a blog.


Below: Santa Claus material??? Photo of Duck’s Breath Mystery Theater by Manoj Patel.


link: memories of the Emporium


Model Bakery, St. Helena


Burrito Eater


  1. old fart

    I remember the ferris wheel used to go out over Stevenson Alley. That was a scary ride for a little kid!

  2. Nancy

    You’ve said it better than I could – a glitzy, manipulative place full of overpriced garbage. I got really angry as I was forced to go up level after level to get to what I really wanted to see – the dome of the Old Emporium. By the time I got to the top, I was so annoyed that I didn’t enjoy it as much as I wanted to. Westfield certainly lost me as a customer; I will never buy anything there. I’m glad that the old dome has been saved but what’s replaced the Emporium is just another piece of “affluenza,” encouraging people to buy, buy, buy and get deeper and deeper in debt. I remember fondly when there were stores that had merchandise for the ordinary working folk; now all I see are places full of plastic and glitter, with a soundtrack from hell and bored, unhelpful sales people.

  3. tom

    Glad to hear someone feels the same way.

  4. Meredith

    I have a fur coat that has been passed down through my family. It says “The Emporium San Francisco” on the label. I would like to know how much it worth? Its goldish orange in color.

  5. Dave

    I used to visit the roof of the Emporium back in the 1980s. I would have my sandwich seated in the old cable car. It was always deserted and was a nice get-away from the hustle and bustle of Market St. I took a 3D photo of the exterior of the Emporium dome from the roof, in 1987, and have posted it on the FoundSF website.

  6. Thanks, Dave!

  7. Gary Meacham

    Can you give me any info. on the store that was their before it became the Emporium? I understand it was the great I X L dept. store, which was ware my grandfather C. W. Willson used to work.

    Thanks, Gary Meacham

  8. From the time I was a little girl and my mother use to drag me downtown to shop….and until I was 20, I shopped at the Emporium. I bought all my clothes there. That was before there were shopping malls. It was so fun to go there, and then have some carbos at one of the cafeterias nearby. Also loved the big Woolworths across the street. It was like a carnivale. Ahh, the good old days. Makes me smile.

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