It was erected in 1853 by Henry Wager Halleck, later general in chief of the Union Army in the Civil War. As locals endearingly refer to it, the Monkey Block was for a hundred years headquarters for many outstanding lawyers, financiers, writers, actors, and artists.
Originally, the four stories Montgomery Block was the tallest building in the West when it was built in 1853. It was designed by architect G.P. Cummings. San Franciscans called it "Halleck's Folly" because it was built on a raft of redwood logs that had been bolted together in a deeply excavated basement on the edge of the bay (which was right at Montgomery St. at that time). Its tenants included artists and writers of all kind and many illustrious visitors, among them Jack London, George Sterling, Lola Montez, Lotta Crabtree, Gelett Burgess, Maynard Dixon, Frank Norris, Ambrose Bierce, Bret Harte, the Booths and Mark Twain.
For a time the largest building west of Mississippi. At a cost of US$3 million it was considered the engineering marvel of its time, the first major structure erected on the marshy sand bordering the east side of Montgomery Street at Washington. Rising from its deep basement, this block-square building boasted two inner courts, masonry walls more than two feet thick, salons, libraries and billiards parlors protected by heavy iron shutters at every window to prevent destruction from fire that ravaged so many American cities in the 19th century. The 'largest and safest' office building on the Coast originally attracted lawyers, engineers, judges, scientists, business and professional men.
The foundation, excavated by Chinese laborers, was built on top of a huge raft of layered redwood logs and a layer of 12 x12 ship's planking. Critics thought it would either sink in the tidal mudflat or be rafted away on a high tide. The building incorporated cement from England, glass from Belgium, France and Germany, iron fittings, beams, doors and balconies brought around the Horn from Philadelphia, and 1,747,800 bricks. It took 14 months to complete and was at first dubbed the "Washington Block."
In its earliest days, newly affluent "Silver Kings" of the Comstock Lode called the Montgomery Block home. Many of the earliest land disputes between Spanish land grant holders and American squatters were resolved by lawyers and judges ensconced in the Montgomery building. Most decisions fell against the Mexican landowners in favor of the Americans. Numerous early California legislators and politicians worked out of the Montgomery Block.
James King of William (his father's first name), editor of the Daily Evening Bulletin, was shot in the street out front, and died in room 207 of the Montgomery Block on May 14, 1856 after being shot by James P. Casey, a city supervisor who felt slighted by King's anti-corruption crusading journalism. Casey was lynched a few days after King's death by a reborn Vigilance committee.
In the 1860s Mark Twain met a San Francisco fireman named Tom Sawyer in the Montgomery Block sauna. It was home in 1911 to exiled Dr. Sun Yat-sen who wrote the Chinese constitution that was later installed after the fall of the Qing Dynasty working with Wong Sam Ark. One of the oldest masonry structures in San Francisco, the building escaped destruction in the fire of 1906. It is claimed, by E Clampus Vitus among others, that the drink Pisco punch was invented in the Bank Exchange Bar in the first floor of the Montgomery block.
From the 1890s to the 1940s it was an important literary bohemian rendezvous possibly because the Montgomery Block provided office space for the San Francisco Argonaut, for which people like Beirce, Harte, Twain and others wrote. Artists filled its galleries and rented cheap studio space after the building became less exclusive in the latter part of the nineteenth century. In the basement, among the many hangouts, was one that went by the name of Coppa's.
During the 1906 earthquake and fire, a tenant named Oliver Perry Stidger, son of pioneers, stood his ground with a pistol and declared he would shoot any man in the demolition squad who came to blow up the building in order to halt the flames. He asked for thirty minutes and a small area of the downtown was saved from the fire.
The Montgomery Block in San Francisco, the heart of America's "Barbary Coast" — was a magnet to artistic souls for decades. In his inaugural speech as Poet Laureate of San Francisco in 1998, Lawrence Ferlinghetti made reference to "the classic old Montgomery Block building, the most famous literary and artistic structure in the West."
The Montgomery Block was demolished in 1959, even though a preservation movement had begun to emerge in San Francisco. It is remembered for its historic importance as a bohemian center of the city. The Monkey Block was replaced by a parking garage and later, the Transamerica Pyramid.