Built in 1882, Mechanics’ Pavilion was a large barn-like structure that stood in Civic Center at Grove and Larkin. With a seating capacity of nearly 11,000, the building was originally set up for concerts, political conventions, circuses, and religious assemblies, but within a few years, was best known for holding major prizefights. John L Sullivan became the first of several world champions to appear there, staging a number of exhibition bouts in 1884, and returning in 1886 to knockout Paddy Ryan in three rounds. Mechanics’ Pavilion’s most controversial fight took place on December 2, 1896, when Bob Fitzsimmons faced Tom Sharkey in a major heavyweight contest. Both competitors were dissatisfied with the list of possible referees, and the job ended up being handed to famed lawman Wyatt Earp. With a sellout crowd looking on, Fitzsimmons appeared the victor after sending Sharkey to the canvas in the eighth round, but was as surprised as anyone when Earp declared Sharkey the winner due to a foul. Whether Earp’s actions were sincere, or part of a betting coupe, has never been determined.
In 1901, the State of New York temporarily banned professional prizefights, making San Francisco the epicenter of boxing for the next several years. James Jeffries, the heavyweight champion of that time, defended his title four times in the City, three of those bouts taking place at Mechanics’ Pavilion. Jeffries’ match with Jim Corbett, on August 14th 1903, became the most financially successful fight in San Francisco history up to that time, as 10,600 patrons paid over $60,000 to watch Jeffries defeat “Gentleman Jim” in ten rounds.
It was 5:12 am on April 18, 1906 when San Francisco was hit with a 7.9 magnitude earthquake. Although Mechanics’ Pavilion survived the impact, nearby Central Emergency Hospital was not as lucky, much of it turning to instant rubble. By 5:30 am, patients from the hospital, along with people injured in the quake were brought into the arena, whose doors had been forced open. By mid-morning, Mechanics’ Pavilion had become both hospital and morgue, as beds from neighboring hotels were being brought in by the hour. Unfortunately, by 1 pm, flames from the Hayes Valley fire reached the roof of Mechanics’ Pavilion, and chief surgeon Dr Charles Miller ordered the building evacuated. Within hours, Mechanics’ Pavilion was gone.
Now the site of the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, the 62,000 square foot block has continued its role as a San Francisco major entertainment spot, now totaling almost 130 years.