Fluctuat nec mergitur: City of Paris – department stores from San Francisco’s past

Though all that remains of it today is its domed rotunda from 1909, City of Paris is one of those venerable old department stores that everybody from San Francisco seems to remember. From 1850 and the boomtown days of the California gold rush to the early 1970s, the store was an integral part of the culture and economy of the city. Legendary columnist Herb Caen deemed its massive Christmas trees the official Christmas trees of the city, and even people who never bought a thing at City of Paris were very familiar with the store and the high-end French and French-inspired goods that it was known for.

City of Paris dome

City of Paris is gone, but its beaux-arts rotunda and glass dome (which is reminiscent of those at Galeries Lafayette in Paris ca. 1912) live on at the store’s former site on Union Square, now Neiman-Marcus. The glass features the motto and crest of the real city of Paris in France: a ship and the words “Fluctuat nec Mergitur,” Latin for “It floats but does not sink.” This reflects not only the attitude of the business itself, founded by Frenchman Felix Verdier, but also the literal founding of the store. Verdier brought his first load of goods to sell from France on a ship called Ville de Paris. In fact, the story goes that Verdier managed to sell everything from the ship itself thanks to eager men flush with money from their gold rush successes, making the Ville de Paris, in effect, his first storefront.

City of Paris rotunda
City of Paris rotunda

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