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

The I. Magnin Bathroom LIVES: Department stores from San Francisco’s past

When I was in college in the mid-1990s, I shopped at I. Magnin on Union Square. I didn’t buy much – mostly makeup – but I had as good a time as anybody at this bay area institution. I was really thin then, so I could try on the Armani and Chanel and look good in it. More fun than anything, however, was the beautiful bones of the store.

I. Magnin main hall

The sleek marble facade and remaining post-deco interiors from 1948 gave the place an air of sophistication that a brand-new build – no matter how opulent – just couldn’t match. The downstairs “main hall” had several gorgeous painted glass murals by artist Max Ingrand and bronze balustrades reminiscent of a trans-Atlantic ocean liner. In fact, the main floor reminded me an awful lot of the Queen Elizabeth‘s interiors, barely a decade older.

Union Square
I. Magnin marble exterior

When Macy’s – I. Magnin’s parent company – closed the store in 1994, I was gutted. I managed to happen upon the fixture sale in early 1995 and purchased the only remaining piece of I. Magnin I could afford or logically use – a large white flag with the I. Magnin logo (which I still have).

I. Magnin bathroom

Years later, I found a beautiful 1940s vintage lace dress with I. Magnin labels and promptly fell on it. It got me thinking about the store and how much I missed it. Nowadays, everything from the original I. Magnin building, designed by Timothy Pflueger, has been overrun by the Macy’s next door and its boutique lessees downstairs. Well, almost everything. I did discover that one original 1948 interior space remains – a women’s bathroom.

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