San Francisco History

San Francisco's Foreign Colonies:
No. 5 — The French

By Robert H. Willson.

First One Came to State in 1831 and Started a Vineyard; Shipload Arrived Here in 1849.

The French do not claim to have built the San Francisco city hall, they merely educated the men who made it one of the architectural masterpieces of the new world.

The French nursed the city of San Francisco in its infancy. Young San Francisco was more accustomed to a menu of boullibaise and vol-an-vent than it was to the traditional American baked beans and pumpkin pie. French restaurants were for many years centers of gayer life of San Francisco, and though they have disappeared by the score, there is still a French cuisine hardly excelled by that of Paris, excent in the "vin compris."

The French were on the ground early in California. The first real immigrant recorded is Jean Louis Vignes, who came from Bordeaux and started a vineyard near Los Angeles in 1831. J. J. Vioget came to San Francisco in 1839. When the capital of California was still at Monterey, France was represented by a consul. The French pioneers of San Francisco, 36 in number, arrived on the sailing ship La Maose, in 1849. As early as the Spring of 1850 the French were operating stores, restaurants and hotels on Clay street, in the old business section. In July of the same year, Mr. Dilion arrived as the first French consul in San Francisco. In November, 1850, 131 additional French settlers arrived. There are today French societies in San Francisco which date back almost 75 years. There was a French newspaper, "L'Echo du Pacifique," as early as 1852.

First Railroad.

The French built the original hotel on the present site of the Fairmont. They organized one of those volunteer fire companies, which became famous in the history of the city. The French built the first railroad in San Francisco, a steam line, which ran from the bay to the Mission Dolores.

French citizens were among the first to found a large and successful banking institution, which, however, had a somewhat tragic episode in its history. In 1878, when it had six millions of dollars on deposit, a much larger sum in those days than it would be now, irregularities were discovered in the management, and M. G. Mahe, the founder, committed suicide. The bank, however, was reorganized, and there have always been in San Francisco one or more powerful financial institutions of French origin or influence. Names of the French pioneers in the business of San Francisco are prominent today. They builded substantially and permanently. Daniel Levy exerted a strong influence in early French affairs. The Weill family came early and built enduring monuments in both business and culture. The Verdier family survived the many changes that have taken place.

Great Library Lost.

The French hospital, costing over $300,000, was built in 1894, and the resources of the society are estimated at a million dollars. A French library of 31,600 volumes was burned up in the fire, but has been re-established.

There probably has been no time in the history of San Francisco when, if everything but French places of business, enterprises and activities were completely removed, there would not have remained a complete little city. This is still true, but for the poodle dogs. They have retreated before the mongrel.

"Ici on parle Francaise." The sign is hardly necessary in a San Francisco shop or store. The language trots along close beside the English. Certain French commodities and materials have become so familiar that no one takes the trouble to translate the names.

The French people are conspicuously public spirited. Their efforts have not been directed so much toward amassing individual wealth as toward building up the city and community in which they live. The amounts of money gathered by subscription from the French people in this city for all sorts of public enterprises, when considered as a whole, are little short of astounding.

"How do you expect to profit by this?" one asked of a typical Frenchman, who is enthusiastic over plans for an art gallery, a theater, a library, a museum, or a monument in a public square.

"But no," he replies, with great astonishment, "It is a profit to everyone. It is for education and culture. Of what use is money if it is to be spent only to make more money? A beautiful city is of more pleasure and value than too grand a house."

The French of all peoples are fortunate in being able to enjoy the sense of personal possession in property that belongs to all.

For Citizenship.

The French residents in America have probably less reason to adopt American citizenship than most of the other immigrant nationalities. They have had no yoke to throw off, and not much to gain in the way of liberty. They are, however, among the most ardent advocates of immediate American citizenship. The Lafayette Club, one of the strong and active organizations of the French colony, makes a particular point of educating the French newcomers in all those matters required by the naturalization law. They are propogandists in that line. The French have been slow to demand recognition. They enjoy a voice in public affairs, but are too sincerely democratic to consider themselves anything more than individual voters.

The French consul says he has no accurate figures, but he believes the number of unnaturalized French in California to be very small percentage of the total number.

Where would one go to find the French quarter? That is hard to say, because it is scattered, although there are one or two distinct sections where you may wander about among the maisons, blanchisseries and magasins, and be assured that you will need no word in English if your French is intelligible. There are more than one hundred French hotels in San Francisco, that is to say, hotels conducted by French proprietors. Some of them are distinctively French, and others are merely general hotels under French management. If you desire a hotel that is distinctively French you may find it characterized as a pension. A hotel and restaurant center is to be found along lower Broadway in neighborly relation to the Italian quarter. French stores and business houses are scattered indiscriminately over the city. If you are looking for a French laundry there is one just around the corner. One finds there are something like 200 of them listed in the business directories, and the proprietors have a strong organization. The French Bank Building at 110 Sutter street is a sort of down town headquarters with the consular offices in the building, the French library and offices of a number of associations. Another center has developed around the newspaper offices and social hall at Clay and Fillmore streets.

You will find the Eglise Notre Dame des Victoires on Bush street in the heart of the city. It dates back to the construction of a chapel in 1849.

San Francisco's French Theater "La Gaite Francaise" on Washington street near Hyde makes the city one of the important centers of French culture in the world. It is the only theater outside of France recognized by the French government. Andrew Ferrier came to San Francisco as the leading dramatic tenor of a grand opera company. He was a graduate of the University of Paris and had received a dramatic training at the Sarah Bernhardt Theater. Jeanne Gustin Ferrier was a graduate of a conservatory of music at Nancy and had appeared with a Russian grand opera and the grand opera at Lisbon, Portugal. They liked San Francisco and decided to make it their home. They felt that here was a metropolis which would appreciate a genuine French theater. Those who have looked for an appreciation of art in any field know that it means a lot of hard work, time and patience. M. Ferrier had all of these as well as genuine musical and dramatic talent. The fact that he was not afraid of work made La Gaite Francaise possible. It is now in its fourth season with the encouragement of a continually increasing patronage. Ferrier and his stage director, C. H. L. Fallon, also an actor taking leading roles in the productions, do practically all of the work connected with the theater. They attend to the business, plan and produce the plays, paint the scenery, and train their company.

It is interesting to note that with 8,000 or 10,000 French people living in San Francisco, the French theater depends upon other patronage for about 80 per cent of its revenues. Among its patrons are the leaders in San Francisco society.

Like Day in Paris.

Would you spend a day in Paris without a long voyage? You may take a drive in the Bois de Golden Gate which is not so different from that of Boulogne. Then you will find an interesting exhibition of French art at the Galerie des Artistes Francaise. This has recently been established by Mme. Paul Verdier not as a commercial proposition but in the interest of culture and education and a better understanding between the artists of the two continents. You might lunch at the Cercle Francais de l'Union on Post street, a club composed of leading French citizens with many French-speaking Americans in its membership.

For the afternoon there is the French library close at hand if you would read or a multitude of shops where you may buy Paris goods from French salesmen and even have the prices quoted in francs if you desire.

In spite of the change that has come over San Francisco there is still to be had almost any kind of a French dinner that you would find in gay Paris. There are dozens of little places on the pension order, tucked away in basements or back rooms where the table d'hote is served in family style. The French have been slow to give way before the advance in prices. They know how to produce a better dinner for fifty cents than is to be had elsewhere. It is not entirely a matter of economy that draws a continual trade to the little French restaurants. Rows of luxurious equipages are to be seen nightly drawn up in front of them.

After dinner there is the theater and it may be a Moliere comedy or a light opera, but the performance is certain to be excellent and the evening entertaining. A seat costs but a dollar and as there are but 150 they are equally good. The ambition of Ferrier does not rest here. He is now planning a theater that will seat 500 people with a modern stage on which three or four scenes may be set. That is a great asset when the leading actors must set the stage and attend to the lighting effects, the costuming and all the details. La Gaite Francaise is oeprated without employes and without a payroll.

The Alliance.

The most important and powerful of the French organizations in America is the Alliance Francaise. Its purpose is the dissemination of French art and letters, the encouragement of schools, clubs and societies perpetuating the language and the traditions. The San Francisco section was organized in 1889, and established one of the first classes here for the study of the French language.

There are French societies of almost every kind and deescription in San Francisco—social, religious, fraternal, patriotic and philanthropic. Alsace-Lorraine is so far represented as to have a club of its own, meeting twice a month in the Druids' Temple on Page street.

There is also a society of veterans of the world war maintaining a placement bureau and in other ways providing for the welfare of members. As a feature of its work among the young, the church, Notre Dame des Victoires, maintains a troop of Boy Scouts, affiliated with the general organization.

Among the fraternal socities represented by the French lodges here are the Foresters, the Masons, the Druids, the Red Men and the Odd Fellows. The Ligue Henri IV is another mutual benefit order found only in the French colony.

Jeanne d'Arc, youngest of the saints, has been especially honored by the French of San Francisco. There is an Eglise Jeanne d'Arc in South San Francisco and in connection with it, an Ecole Jeanne d'Arc. A Club Jeanne d'Arc is maintained by the church of Notre Dame on Bush street for its young people. The clubrooms are equipped with bowling alleys, billiard tables, a gymnasium and a basketball court.

Build Hospital.

Conspicuous among the philanthropic and charitable organizations is the Societe Francaise de Bienfaisance Mutuelle. Its most enduring and important work has been the building, equipment and maintenance of La Maison de Sante, or French Hospital, on Geary street, in the Richmond district. The membership of this organization is now over 8,000. The late M. Raphael Weill, a much loved citizen, was one of its most active supporters.

The French hospital had its beginning here as early as 1852, when the city was a camp of adventurers, fortune seekers and people of many nationalities with but few steps taken toward permanent organization. The French were among the first to realize the necessity for an insititution where the sick might be cared for. A few of them got together, formed a society and established a small hospital at the corner of Jackson and Mason streets. In the following year they built a small hospital at Bush and Taylor streets. In 1855, the society, under its present name, was organized as an outgrowth of the early movement to secure a hospital. In 1858, a larger hospital was built on Bryant street. This soon came to be one of the leading hospitals on the Pacific Coast. In 1894, the patients were removed to the present hospital buildings.

The Ligue Nationale Francaise is another important organization among the French, its work having been largely devoted to the support and relief  of those who suffered in the various French wars. In addition to its activities, there is now a club devoted especially to relief of the war orphans. Frequent entertainments and benefits are held in the French colony to secure contributions for these objects. La Maison Claire de Californie is another society found for war work which has been an active agency.

Acclaim Heroes.

The French national holiday, July 14, serves to illustrate the solidarity of the French colony in San Francisco, probably more than any other occasion, unless it might be the visit of a war hero like Marechals Foch and Joffre or General Giraud. It requires a building of no less capacity than the Civic Auditorium, where San Francisco celebrates the fourth of July, to accomodate the annual French holiday crowds. The governor of the State, mayor of the city and other distinguished citizens are accustomed to participate in the celebrations of this day. The tricolor is a more familiar flag in San Francisco than any other save the stars and stripes.

Politically, the French colony is represented chiefly by the Lafayette Club, of which E. Autard is president. The primary object of this club is to prepare French residents for citizenship. It has, however, engaged in local politics so far as to endorse a ticket in the city and county elections, which is recommended to its members. President Antard says, however, that its purpose is to remain free from any political affiliations. Its headquarters are in the B'nai B'rith building on Eddy street. The society of La Gauloise organized originally as a musical association, has been changed to a society for mutual benefit, but still fosters musical activities.

San Francisco is often referred to as "The Paris of America." The French people have certainly left a noticeable and enduring impress upon its first century of history. The French population is not increasing now as rapidly as that of other nationalities. There have been established, however, a sympathy and a sentiment between the two great cities that will always make the Parisian particularly at home in San Francisco, and the San Franciscan a most happy and appreciative guest on the boulevards and in the homes of Paris.

Source: San Francisco Examiner. 16 December 1923. K3. Pictures not included: Scene from a Moliere comedy at the La Gaiete Francaise, Andre Ferrier and Ch. Dillon, and a drawing of the L'Englise Notre Dame de Victoires.

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