At the turn of the century, San Francisco was already a town known for it's flamboyant style, stately hotels, ostentatious mansions on Nob Hill, and a thriving arts scene. Union Square, an area originally used for rallies and support for the Union Army during the Civil War, had become a public plaza. By the 1880s, it was a fashionable residential district.

A decade later, America had fallen into hard times. The "Panic of 1893" was one of the worst depressions the United States had ever experienced. San Francisco had few financiers and entrepreneurs willing to take risks. Local sources, such as Wells Fargo, Bank of California, Bank of Italy, Bank of D.O. Mills, Citizens Federal Savings Loan and A.P. Giannini were struggling to keep up with the flood of customers rushing to withdraw their funds.

It was in this setting the concept of the Shreve Building was planned. Just a block North East from Union Square, the notable architect William Curlett (1846-1914) was asked to create the Shreve Building. In place of the four story building that housed Draper's Tailor, Goodard's Dentist and wine and liquor importer Albert Arnaud, Curlett would create an eleven-story steel frame building that would rise far above the current San Francisco skyline.

William Curlett was one of San Francisco's foremost Victorian-era architects and one who made the successful transition to the classically inspired styles at the turn of the century. He was born in Ireland and studied architecture in Dublin before he made his way to San Francisco by 1871. A well-established architect of his day, Curlett designed many of the city's most prominent buildings, including the Mutual Savings Bank Building (1902).