By  on September 6, 2008

Macy's became a coast-to-coast merchant in 1945 when it opened a store at San Francisco’s Union Square, which continues as the retailer’s West Coast flagship and headquarters.

The Northern California store is made up of several 20th-century retail buildings that together cover almost a block, with doors opening on three streets. What shoppers see today is the result of a 1999 renovation that added a glass-front building facing Union Square that tied the structures together to create a 236,000-square-foot retail showcase fi lled with Macy’s higher-end merchandise.

“Now it looks like one complete store,” says store general manager and vice president Lori Randolph.

The Macy’s West Coast expansion started with the O’Connor, Moffatt & Co. department store, which Macy’s purchased in San Francisco at the close of World War II. To this day, the 1929 building’s two 27-foot docks and two wooden freight elevators are the only access for all deliveries and pickups for the store complex—close quarters common in this densely populated city. In addition, only midsize trucks can fit down the narrow, circular driveway that was built for horses.

To keep things rolling—and avoid rush-hour traffic— most deliveries occur after hours, every day. “The building never closes,” Randolph offers, noting that the store also has a U.S. Post Office open daily.

Garbage also is hauled through the docks’ narrow portal, after first being extensively separated and then inspected by fulltime Macy’s recycling “auditors.” The store is the city’s largest recycler with 72 percent of refuse being repurposed, including that from a separate men’s wear unit on Stockton Street, says Robert Dimig, director of operations for Macy’s West.

A more visible slice of San Francisco’s fashion retail past is located at the front of the store on Geary Street between Powell and Stockton Streets along Union Square, the city’s retail heart. Half of the building was once the flagship for I. Magnin, the specialty chain started locally in the late 1880s. (The business was bought in the Eighties by R.H. Macy and was closed in the mid-Nineties by Federated Department Stores Inc.)

The I. Magnin flagship opened in 1948 as one of the last designs by famed San Francisco architect Timothy L. Pfl ueger. The 10-story building—a blank white marble facade interrupted by dark rectangular windows—is distinct from Pflueger’s more fanciful, Art Deco work in the city, such as the Pacific Coast Stock Exchange and the interior of the Top of the Mark at the Mark Hopkins Hotel.

However, inside, Pflueger added some ornamentation that survives, including the fourth-floor women’s bathroom in jade marble, private stalls and ornate pedestal sinks. Also on four, there’s a floral Lalique crystal chandelier. In a nod to this famous fixture, a modern-day Lalique chandelier ($75,000) hangs in the housewares department above an $86,000 Lalique glass table.

Pflueger’s building has been reinforced as part of a seismic retrofit of the entire Macy’s flagship, as well as the men’s wear store nearby. Earthquake-proofing was at the heart of the 1999 storewide renovation and influenced the design of the flagship’s glass-fronted new wing next to the I. Magnin building, says project architect Tom Harry for Patri Merker Architects in San Francisco.

“A scheme was developed to create a new buttress for the whole block tying together the I. Magnin and other buildings,” says Harry, now with HKS Hill Glazier Architects.

The massive buttress is hidden in the ceilings and works with a concrete structure called a “moment frame” that resists ground-shifting forces. The frame, with square openings for windows, is cloaked by a seven-floor glass curtain facade.

The Macy’s West flagship also hosts annual events, such as fanciful Christmas holiday windows on Stockton Street that draw lines of onlookers to see their occupants: kittens and puppies for adoption from the SPCA.

Among its volunteer efforts, the store 25 years ago started its Passport fashion show for AIDS research in the employee cafeteria. The biannual event, now staged in a theater and with a separate showing in Los Angeles, has raised $25 million since its inception.

Looking back, the San Francisco store was also where The Cellar started in 1971, as a cutting-edge housewares and food department where shoppers could pick up lunch, the latest gourmet gadget or watch a visiting chef at work. It was a concept launched by then-chief executive officer Edward Finkelstein, who transformed a basement for marked-down apparel into a culinary shopping destination.

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