The landmark sites of the Hilton San Francisco Financial District and neighboring Portsmouth Square date back to the mid-19th century, before the formal formation of the city. The hotel is just three blocks from North Beach with many wonderful dining options for travelers with a discerning palette. Portsmouth Square, the center of activity for early San Francisco settlers, saw the erection of the first public schoolhouse, post office, and city hall as well as the announcement of gold and notification of California statehood.
The site of the Hilton, meanwhile, progressively transformed from a humble potato patch into a celebrated theater, scandal-ridden City Hall, and imposing Hall of Justice. Today, the Hilton San Francisco Financial District soars proudly into the city skyline, an iconic image marking the junction between the modern-day bustle of the Financial District and the historical import of Portsmouth Square.
In the 1850s, Montgomery Street was the "Wall Street of the West" while Kearny Street had become San Francisco's chief shopping center - the road along which the wealthy and fashionable of the city took their daily promenades. Tom Maguire, an illiterate settler from New York, saw financial opportunity in the parade of wealth and opened the Jenny Lind Theatre in 1850 at the future site of the Hilton. Fire plagued the venue, which burned to the ground in 1851 in one of the city's catastrophic blazes. Its replacement suffered a similar fate, nine days after reopening. Undaunted, Maguire rebuilt the Jenny Lind for the third time in two years. This version was made of stone and included a richly decorated interior and a dramatic stage curtain depicting the Grand Canal of Venice. A plaque dedicating the original site of the Jenny Lind Theatre can be seen on the wall in front of the entrance to the Hilton San Francisco Financial District.
The theater became one of the architectural ornaments of early San Francisco, but Maguire's financial woes compelled him to sell the building to the city in 1852 for $200,000. The outrageous selling price and huge costs associated with converting the theater into the City Hall caused the project to be nicknamed the "Jenny Lind swindle." Corruption and crime were rampant throughout San Francisco. A Vigilante Committee formed a year earlier had held "necktie" (hanging) parties in Portsmouth Square to discourage criminal behavior. Despite the controversy, the new city hall performed well and was demolished 25 years later only due to the city's fast-paced growth.
In 1900, the Hall of Justice was built where the Jenny Lind Theater used to stand. Elaborately built of brick and terra cotta, it became one of the city's "damn finest ruins" six years later when it burned down in the infamous 1906 earthquake. The earthquake and subsequent fires destroyed over 80% of the city, with the damage most keenly felt in the Financial and North Beach districts. Of San Francisco's 400,000 residents, an estimated 250,000 were left homeless, and makeshift tent camps were set up around the city, including at Portsmouth Square.
The rebuilding of San Francisco began immediately, and a new Hall of Justice, constructed with a steel frame and concrete floors and roof, opened in 1912 on the same site as the earlier Hall. This Hall was demolished April 18, 1968 when its replacement was built on 850 Bryant Street.
In 1971, during a period of urban renewal, founding partner Harold "Bud" Moose developed the land at Kearny and Washington Streets into the Holiday Inn Chinatown with the Chinese Cultural Center located on the hotel's third floor. A pedestrian skyway connects the third floor of the hotel directly to Portsmouth Square, making tangible the link that had existed between the two sites for over a century. More than thirty years after the hotel's initial construction, the building underwent a $55 million transformation to become the Hilton San Francisco Financial District, a fresh, contemporary landmark nestled in the historic core of the city.