In 1963, Beverly Willis converted three Victorian buildings into a shopping complex of nine stores and two restaurants. Located at 1980 Union Street, the pioneering adaptive-reuse project met with great architectural acclaim and financial success, inspiring other investors to undertake similar projects. As the buildings of the 1700 to the 2300 block of Union Street were converted to retail, the street became a thriving commercial district: spending a day shopping and eating on Union Street became a popular activity for San Franciscans and tourists alike.
Although the architectural design of the 1980 Union Street Shops serves as the centerpiece of Beverly Willis’s Union Street accomplishments, her contributions to the area did not stop there. She was a key player in the revitalization of Union Street. To make it into a successful regional shopping area, Willis performed a leadership role within the Union Street community. Together with Charles Pynchon, owner of Frederickson Hardware store, she founded the Union Street Merchant Association and served as its director.
As its master architect, Willis designed Beautification Plans for the neighborhood. In addition to providing strategies for improving the aesthetics experience of the street, her plans also proposed practical solutions to problems impacting the quality of life and vitality of business in the district. Commuter and non-patron traffic congestion, inadequate parking, and inconsistent trash removal were addressed in her proposals, and the dismantling of trolley cables (which frequently damaged streetlights) was suggested. Willis also wrote articles about the Union Street shopping neighborhood, which were published in the Urban Land Institute bulletin, Washington Post, and San Francisco Examiner.
Union Street runs from east to west. The five blocks of the shopping district are approximately one and a half miles from San Francisco’s downtown, parallel to and at the foot of the affluent Pacific Heights residential district and five blocks south of the popular Marina district. By the 1960s, the area had fallen on hard times: many buildings were empty, some were deteriorating, and real estate values had hit rock bottom. This attracted developers who bought land inexpensively, bulldozed buildings flat, and built ugly, low-cost, walk-up rental apartments to sell to investors. While there were a few antiques shops scattered along the street in the early 1960s, it was Willis’s design of the 1980 Street Shops that set a new direction for the development of the street.
Willis also designed or provided design services for nine other projects on Union Street, during the nine-year period after designing 1980 Union Street Shops. These included:
- The Cooperage Restaurant and Bar, 1980 Union Street
- The Capricorn, 1846 Union Street
- The Bengal Lancer Restaurant, 2000 Union Street
- John Alioto’s 1863 Union Street Liquor Store
- Bruce Rogers Antiques located at 1840 and the later, 2147 Union Street locations
- Union Street Church, at Union and Fillmore (converted existing space into a children’s play area)
- Herrmann’s Cost Plus Headquarters, 723 Union Street
- Union Street Merchant Association, c/o Fredrickson Hardware, President, Charles Pynchon
Willis furthered her connection to the neighborhood by creating a store, as an owner-merchant. In 1966 she and business partner Bill Oakes opened The Capricorn, a gourmet cookware and country furniture store. Located at 1846 Union Street, the Capricorn served as Willis’s personal design laboratory, demonstrating her professional mastery of industrial and retail design with the motto “Good design sells.” Industrial designers have long been aware that design can give a product—in this case, a store interior—a competitive edge. Design can market products and sell them directly to the customer. The ability to make a product look appealing motivates behavior and leads to a purchase. While this idea is now widely accepted in retail design circles, it was a new idea in the 1960s.
To create the store, the partners each contributed $2,000 and received a $9,000 Government Small Business Loan. Oaks managed the business’ daily operations and Willis planned all of the product purchasing, financing, marketing, and design. The Capricorn projected an authentic rural environment by accentuating original ornamental details and incorporating rustic materials, such as used brick, unfinished barn wood, and recycled wooden nail crates. The rustic architectural vocabulary, together with pine furnishings and a sawdust-covered floor, functioned as an effective marketing tool: The Capricorn was an immediate success, achieving profitability after just six months. The business grew exponentially, doubling sales each year, ultimately forcing Willis to sell so that she could focus exclusively on design.
After Willis stepped down from her position as director of the Union Street Merchant Association, those who followed embraced her preservation efforts. In the early 1970s, buildings within the district were catalogued and design guidelines created to assist new business owners with proposed changes to their storefronts. These guidelines, still in use today, offer suggestions for renovation and restoration, as well as detailed advice on how to preserve the historic nature of these treasured buildings. Project sponsors contemplating changes to a building’s facade need to meet with the Design Review Committee prior to receiving city building permits.
Business diversity that supports a mix of merchants, restaurants, and services became the policy of the association. Small, unique owner-operated businesses are especially encouraged to locate here. Union Street shoppers enjoy quality, sophistication, and convenience through the blend of specialty shops found alongside national chain stores. Due to zoning restrictions, “big box chain stores” are not permitted.
Politically active, the Union Street Merchant Association is involved in civic efforts and small business issues. It lobbies the city and the state for the well-being of its merchants and maintains harmony among neighbors. The association has been successful in its efforts to obtain parking, preserve historic architecture, direct beautification projects, and produce events and activities through membership support.
Together with an ongoing commitment to street cleanliness and good general maintenance, beautification efforts include the addition of colorful street banners, planter boxes, and flowering shrubs to the streetscape.