Civic Center of San Francisco – Exposition Auditorium 1915

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Among the Architectural distinctions that belong to San Francisco are those that have been awarded it because of its beautiful Civic Center; it has frequently been noted that the city is the proud possessor of one of the most outstanding group of governmental and cultural structures in the nation, surpassed only, if indeed at all, by the national capitol in Washington.

It is historically appropriate that these buildings, planned as early as 1904, be considered as true examples of the spirit of San Francisco as well as of the resurgence of the city.

Exposition Auditorium – dedicated January 5, 1915

There is an inscription on the cornerstone of this building, occupying the entire block bounded by Grove, Hayes, Larkin, and Polk streets, which requires clarification:

“Erected and Presented to the City of San Francisco by the Panama Pacific International Exposition. Anno Domini, MCMXIV.”

Actually, it would seem that San Francisco’s citizens presented a gift to themselves for, while 51 million was allotted for the auditorium’s construction from a $5 million bond issue in support of the PPIE, this money ultimately came from the citizens themselves.

Additionally, the sum of $322,935 was taken from tax money to face the building with granite to bring its exterior in harmony with the other structures planned for the Civic Center.

Although it was explicitly provided that the PPIE, which opened six weeks after the auditorium’s dedication, should have control of the building during the exposition days, it was stipulated that title to the structure would then revert to the city.

The lot on which the impressively large auditorium stands comprises an area of over 111,437 square feet. Archbishop Joseph Alemany first had title to it in the name of the archdiocese of San Francisco and he sold the property in 1881 to the Mechanics Institute for $175,000.

This organization planned to build there a second Mechanics Pavilion to succeed the earlier one which was on leased land on the southeast corner of Eighth and Market streets extending down to Mission Street.

In 1882, the new pavilion was opened on the recently purchased site and it played an important part in the history of the city until it was destroyed as a result of the “Ham and Eggs” fire of 1906. Its last use was of a humanitarian nature since it served as a receiving hospital for the injured and sick on the fateful morning of April 18, 1906. By the afternoon of that day, it was necessary to evacuate the structure and to watch its wooden walls being consumed by the fiery holocaust.

Since there were already plans to begin a Civic Center, later negotiations between the Mechanics Institute and Mayor James Rolph, Jr. representing the city government, resulted in the acquisition of the site for San Francisco on October 8, 1912. The price was $701,437.

Arthur Brown, Jr., already a distinguished architect and destined to go on to greater eminence for other buildings in the Civic Center complex, was chosen to design the building. Construction was under way in 1913 and, by dedication night, January 5, 1915, San Francisco had a beautiful auditorium which has served the city long and well since then.

The Civic Auditorium is a four-story Class “A” building with reinforced concrete floors. The main hall seats about 4,500 with provision for an additional 4,000 portable seats when extra accommodations are required. The Polk and Larkin halls each seat another thousand, and these can be opened in such a way as to implement the seating arrangements in the main auditorium.

There are also twenty-six other halls of varying sizes and sixteen rooms designed for committee use.

With the memories of 1906 in mind, ample provision was made for wide exits as well as for adequate fire protection. Many notable gatherings have formed part of the history of the Civic Auditorium; outstanding in this regard was the Democratic National Convention of 1920.

In 1964, a thorough renovation of the building was accomplished which added much to its value as the city’s outstanding meeting place.

To this day, San Francisco’s Civic Auditorium remains a notable structure in the impressive area of the Civic Center.

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