James Phelan: Banking, insurance honcho
San Francisco's Phelan Building, the 11-story Victorian building on the corner of Market and O'Farrell streets, is a unique historical landmark, the wedge-shaped structure as recognizable as the Transamerica pyramid. It is not the first Phelan Building. The first one, slightly smaller but more ornate, was destroyed by the fire that followed the Great Earthquake of 1906. Two years later, the Phelan family rebuilt their building, the headquarters of a large banking, insurance, and real estate empire. Like the two Phelan buildings, there were two Phelan men, father and son, both named James, titans who had a recognizable impact on San Francisco, California and the nation. James Phelan Sr. was born in 1821 in Ireland and came to the United States at age 6, arriving in Newark, N.J., where his father, John, and two older brothers had previously settled. Phelan attended public schools, but when John's business ventures failed, Phelan abandoned his studies and went to work.