A.P. Giannini: The Man Who Saved San Francisco

Advection fog at the Golden Gate Bridge, San F...

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A.P. Giannini

The man who saved San Francisco

One of the more heroic figures in the great San Francisco earthquake was the son of Italian immigrants from the North Beach neighborhood named A.P. Giannini. As much as anyone he was responsible for the survival of one of the world’s great metropolitan centers. This is his story:

The Great Quake: Early in the morning on April 18th, 1906, at 5:12 a.m., local time, a shock was felt widely throughout the San Francisco Bay area. The great earthquake occurred approximately 25 seconds later. Scientists have constructed models of the slip distribution on the fault plane in 1906. Based on the amount of slip, these models suggest a moment-magnitude (Mw) of 7.9. (usgs.gov).

The quake hit was so massive that it flattened numerous buildings including crowded rooming houses, the working class area south of Market street was particularly hard-hit. A good portion of downtown was severely damaged in the actual quake and much of what survived burned later. In fact, the fires that burned out of control after the quake destroyed much more property than the quake itself:

“Fires broke out in many parts of town, some initially fueled by natural gas mains broken by the quake. As water mains were also broken, the city fire department had few resources with which to fight the fires. Several fires in the downtown area merged to become one giant inferno. The Army, lacking water to fight the flames, resorted to blowing up buildings to create a firebreak, but this ended up spreading the firestorm. And some homeowners purposely set fire to their quake-damaged houses, which were insured against fires but not earthquake. The fire ultimately destroyed over 500 city blocks of the downtown core from Van Ness Avenue, an arterial thoroughfare that bisects the center of the city, to the docks at the San Francisco Bay.” (Wikepedia)

A.P. Giannini felt the great shock early that morning of April 18. Quick to react he headed for his bank — the Bank of Italy — in the North Beach neighborhood. Upon arrival he loaded $2 million onto a produce wagon, covered the money with vegetables and headed home.

In those hectic few weeks following the earthquake Giannini took a controversial stance; rather than shut down, as most other area bankers did, Giannini instead opened for business in North Beach. Over a plank and barrels he began accepting deposits, extending credit and authorizing loans vital to San Franciscans‘ early efforts to rebuild their city and lives. In short, A.P. bankrolled confidence in a time of extreme anxiety.

Giannini’s actions were crucial to San Francisco’s survival in those early tragic days following the great quake of 1906 but his influence in California and beyond continues to this day; to start, A.P. founded the Bank of America and the Transamerica Corporation and…

“He helped the California wine industry get started, then bankrolled Hollywood at a time when the movie industry was anything but proven. In 1923 he created a motion-picture loan division (at his Bank of America) and helped Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and D.W. Griffith start United Artists. When Walt Disney ran $2 million over budget on Snow White, Giannini stepped in with a loan. And he provided much of the seed money to get the Golden Gate Bridge project off the ground.” (www.time.com/time/time100/profile/giannini.html)

Hmmm– B of A, United Artists, Golden Gate Bridge, saved San Francisco after the quake– I can’t think of too many other people with such an important American legacy. Yet when he died in his late 70s “his estate was worth less than $500,000. It was purely by choice. He could have been a billionaire but disdained great wealth, believing it would make him lose touch with the people he wanted to serve. For years he accepted virtually no pay, and upon being granted a surprise $1.5 million bonus one year promptly gave it all to the University of California. “Money itch is a bad thing,” he once said. “I never had that trouble.” (www.time.com/time/time100/profile/giannini.html)

Cites:

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/theymadeamerica/whomade/giannini_hi.html

http://www.time.com/time/time100/profile/giannini.html

www. wikipedia.com

Be seeing you…

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