The history of the Merchants Exchange Club is essentially the history of the eponymous Merchants Exchange building, located in the heart of San Francisco’s financial district, which has been a center for the City’s civic, economic, political, and cultural life for over 100 years. The building’s distinctive architecture, history of notable inhabitants, and ideal location have resulted in making it a prominent landmark.
In 1903, Daniel H. Burnham, of Chicago Illinois, was chosen by city business leaders to construct the Merchants Exchange as a central location for businessmen to meet and conduct commerce.
Burnham’s firm had a reputation for designing structures that fused classical styles with a modern infrastructure. His more famous buildings include Union Station in Washington, DC, the Reliance Building in Chicago, and the Flatiron Building in New York City. Burnham also was a well known for his work as a city planner for Chicago, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco.
Burnham collaborated with a youthful and daring architect, Willis Polk, who headed up Burnham’s San Francisco office. Polk was a colorful local figure with an eccentric personality and extravagant tastes, which often were reflected in his buildings.
Polk’s better known San Francisco commissions include the Hallidie Building, Kezar Stadium, and the Pacific Union Club on Nob Hill, which some may remember was featured in Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller, “Vertigo.”
Only four years after work began on the Merchants Exchange, tragedy struck when the Great Earthquake and Fire of 1906 devastated San Francisco. 28,000 buildings were lost, yet the Merchants Exchange Building survived.
Upon completion of repairs, the building provided water and power to neighbors during their reconstruction. Thus, after the disaster, the Merchants Exchange came to serve as both a symbol of hope and a practical example of the City’s remarkable rebirth.
The Merchants Exchange Building was home to two influential men’s clubs for most of the 20th century: the “Commercial Club,” on the 15th floor (now the breathtaking Julia Morgan Ballroom), and the “Merchants Exchange Club” in the building’s basement. Both clubs served as gathering places for the City’s political and financial elite.
“Sunny Jim” Rolph, the Commercial Club’s president at the time of the 1906 Earthquake and Fire, led efforts to rally members to help rebuild San Francisco. Rolph would later go on to serve several terms as the City’s Mayor and as Governor of California.
When San Francisco wanted to show the world its restored glory with the 1915 Panama Pacific Exposition, $4 million ($70 million in today’s money) was required to pay for it. City business leaders held a black-tie fundraiser at the Merchants Exchange and raised the entire amount in less than two hours.
Today, the Merchants Exchange building has reclaimed its place as arguably the most important building in San Francisco, highlighted by an exclusive 2012 visit by President Barack Obama. In addition to boasting a marquee list of office tenants, the lavish Julia Morgan Ballroom and the new Merchants Exchange Club are now hives of activity, hosting high-end weddings, major corporate events and blow-out holiday parties for some of the country’s most prestigious firms, including Disney, Industrial Lights & Magic, Charles Schwab, Hummer Winblad Equity Partners, the Los Angeles Times, TPG Partners, Bank of America, Levi Strauss & Co., Seimens, McKinsey & Co., the Hearst Corporation, Barclays Global Investors, Bain & Company and many, many more. The Ballroom also has a dedicated program geared toward nonprofits, and has hosted some of the city’s greatest organizations driving for social justice in the Bay Area.
More than 100 years after rising near the corner of California and Montgomery streets, the Merchants Exchange is still the place where serious people go when they have something important to say.