Our History

merchants exchange building

Standing tall.

 A San Francisco Icon

The Merchants Exchange Building, located in the heart of San Francisco’s financial district, has been a center for the City’s civic, economic, political, and cultural life for over 100 years. The building’s distinctive architecture, history of notable inhabitants, and ideal location have resulted in making it a prominent landmark.

In 1904, Daniel H. Burnham, of Chicago Illinois, was chosen by city business leaders to construct the Merchants Exchange as a central location for businessmen to meet and conduct commerce.

Burnham’s firm had a reputation for designing structures that fused classical styles with a modern infrastructure. D.H. Burnham & Company’s more famous buildings include Union Station in Washington, DC, the Reliance Building in Chicago, and the Flatiron Building in New York City. Burnham also was a well known for his work as a city planner for Chicago, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco.

Burnham collaborated with a youthful and daring architect, Willis Polk, who headed up Burnham’s San Francisco office. Polk was a colorful local figure with an eccentric personality and extravagant tastes, which often were reflected in his buildings.

Polk’s better known San Francisco commissions include the Hallidie Building, Kezar Stadium, and the Pacific Union Club on Nob Hill, which some may remember was featured in Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller, “Vertigo.”

Only four years after work began on the Merchants Exchange, tragedy struck when the Great Earthquake and Fire of 1906 devastated San Francisco. 28,000 buildings were lost, yet the Merchants Exchange Building survived.

A Symbol of Hope

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Standing tall amid the ruins, 1906 (back right).

Upon completion of repairs, the building provided water and power to neighbors during their reconstruction. Thus, after the disaster, the Merchants Exchange came to serve as both a symbol of hope and a practical example of the City’s remarkable rebirth.

The Merchants Exchange Building was also home to the “Commercial Club” of San Francisco, where city leaders and businessmen met to socialize and address the issues of the day.

“Sunny Jim” Rolph, the club’s president at the time of the 1906 Earthquake and Fire, led efforts to rally members to help rebuild San Francisco. Rolph would later go on to serve several terms as the City’s Mayor and as Governor of California.

When San Francisco wanted to show the world its restored glory with the 1915 Panama Pacific Exposition, $4 million ($70 million in today’s money) was required to pay for it. City business leaders held a black-tie fundraiser at the Merchants Exchange and raised the entire amount in less than two hours.

Whenever people wished to address the top political and business leaders of California, they came to the Commercial Club. President Theodore Roosevelt, Senator William Jennings Bryan and countless industry titans, diplomats and world leaders all made the pilgrimage to the Commercial Club to discuss the important issues of the day.

The Merchants Exchange wasn’t only notable for the important people that came through its doors; it was also celebrated for the important causes that took root and flourished here as well. In the heart of the Great Depression, when the San Francisco Opera was facing financial difficulty, director Gaetano Merola walked over to the Merchants Exchange to appeal for help. The opera was saved. Now more than ever, the Merchants Exchange continues to play a significant role in supporting charitable causes today.

Return to Glory

In 1995, Clint Reilly purchased the Merchant’s Exchange Building and immediately launched an aggressive effort to renovate the iconic building, moving methodically floor-by-floor to update all aspects of the building, creating a legendary “Historic Class-A” property in the process. Under Reilly’s stewardship, this jewel of the Financial District has received countless upgrades and modernizations, including brand new, state-of-the-art elevators, facade improvements and major overhauls to the vast majority of tenant floors.

The highlight of this rejuvenation effort, however, is the restoration of the old Commercial Club to its former glory. Reilly’s investment in the building’s 15th floor — including full renovations to the ballroom, its adjacent bar and lounge, lobby and the 2007 construction of a state-of-the-art commercial kitchen — transformed the historic space into one of the City’s most coveted venues: the Julia Morgan Ballroom.

The Julia Morgan Ballroom & Merchants Exchange Club

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President Obama and Willie Mays at the Ballroom

Re-christened the Julia Morgan Ballroom in honor of one of the Merchants Exchange Building’s most famous tenants, the Ballroom is now one of San Francisco’s most beautiful, technologically advanced and historically unique event venues. In addition to providing the backdrop for some of the City’s most jaw-dropping weddings, the Ballroom has hosted a wide range of luminaries, including Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, Secretaries of State John Kerry, Hillary Clinton and Condoleezza Rice, Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, First Lady Michelle Obama and business luminaries such as Steve Jobs, Michael Dell, Elon Musk and many, many more. Following the same blueprint more than a decade later, Reilly breathed new life into the century-old Merchants Exchange Club in 2013, fully renovating the lower level space as a secondary event facility with a wholly unique look and feel and its own authentic San Francisco history.

Today, the Julia Morgan Ballroom and Merchants Exchange Club host special events of all stripes. From corporate events to nonprofit galas and social celebrations, the Merchants Exchange’s two signature event venues offer unparalleled environments for a broad spectrum of activities.

Past clients have included the Walt Disney Corporation, Oracle, Salesforce, Wells Fargo Bank, Industrial Light and Magic, Charles Schwab, First Republic Bank, Goodby Berlin, numerous IPO launch parties, a range of Silicon Valley firms and countless private affairs. If the event is important, there’s a good chance it happened in the Julia Morgan Ballroom.

History, Happening Here

In addition to our long list of esteemed event guests, a number of A-List organizations call the Merchants Exchange building home. From major corporations to high-profile nonprofits, we are proud of each of our office tenants and the contributions they make to the San Francisco community. Institutions like California Bank and Trust, the Asia Foundation, Long & Levit, Ishiyama Corporation, the Mongolian Consulate and the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame (among many others) have all chosen the Merchants Exchange building for their important work. The building’s location – on the California Street cable car line, at the corner of California Street and Montgomery — place it squarely in the nerve center of the City’s Financial District, often known as the “Wall Street of the West.”

Civic leaders, charities, politicians, and prominent organizations are all drawn to the Merchants Exchange for its historical significance, its ideal downtown location, as well as the state-of-the-art facilities. Consequently, the Merchants Exchange continues to be one of the best places to work and celebrate all that makes San Francisco one of America’s greatest cities.

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