Civic Center and City Hall in San Francisco

February 26, 2015 | By | Reply More

800px-San_Francisco_City_Hall_September_2013_panorama_3San Francisco’s City Hall calls to mind the old romance of Beauty and the Beast.

Whatever else it may be – symbol of the local government, headquarters of the city’s housekeeper, stronghold the myth says “you can buck,” and home of the 9-copy memo “buck sheet” – City Hall is a beautiful statement. In the words civic leader Tom Magee used in 1909, farseeing San Franciscans intended Civic Center to say “This is the modern city beautiful and the modern city useful.

Postcard of pre-earthquake San Francisco City Hall, circa 1900

Postcard of pre-earthquake San Francisco City Hall, circa 1900

Two international authorities, Christopher Tunnard and Henry Hope Reed, have called it, “The grandest Civic Center in the country.” Another author, Mel Scott, described it as a physical demonstration “that a city is its people, that community character and of place and faith in the future can transcend the greatest calamity, that the spirit is unquenchable . . .”

These are heady words. If they seem too sweet compared to the three national magazines have described San Francisco as “a myth, narcissistic, and on the skids,” come with open eyes and the scorecard to take a walk around Civic Center.

San_Francisco_City_Hall_EveningBegin at Fulton and Market, the focal point from which City Hall’s elegant French Renaissance splendor, was designed to be viewed. Walk west on Fulton, which the first Civic Center plan of 1911 intended as a grassy tree – lined mall.

The handsome old Federal Building, placing national close to local government, was designed in 1936 by Bakcwell and Brown, the architects of City Hall. On the south side of the street the theater mimics the concave Federal Building setback in clever, high flown contrast to the flyblown flytraps raveling out of Market.

Postcard of pre-earthquake San Francisco City Hall, Hall of Records and Mechanics Pavilion from McAllister Street and City Hall Avenue (Polk Street, now Dr. Carlton B. Goodlett Place). circa 1900

Postcard of pre-earthquake San Francisco City Hall, Hall of Records and Mechanics Pavilion from McAllister Street and City Hall Avenue (Polk Street, now Dr. Carlton B. Goodlett Place). circa 1900

Fulton widens pleasantly at Hyde. it takes a sharp eye to discern that the stately Library, designed by George Kelham in 1915, has a bite missing out of the northeast corner. Budget was the biter, as it was on Brooks hole, under the plaza.

Windy Civic Center Plaza has two “leaky” corners, to use a phrase planners invented to describe a breakdown in design continuity. Ugliest is the contemporary haybin at McAIlister and Polk. In more gracious days stables and smithies were hid on back alleys. This corner belongs to the city and, according to Civic Center plans of 1911 and 1957, should be the site of an office building to house fire, water and civil service departments overflowing City Hall.

Oppressing the plaza as you walk west (dodging Old Faceful, the fountain that looks like a sewage aeration pond) is another monolithic monument to monumental government, the dull, too-tall block of the new Federal Building. In contrast, the State Office Building seems refreshing, but it isn’t as handsome as the Civic Auditorium, the work of John G. Howard, Fred Meyer and John Reid, Jr., and built in 1913, contemporary with City Hall.

220px-SFCityHallInteriorStairsAt City Hall entrance, look back toward Market Street which should be a commanding sweep. It is not. The flags are great when they are up. The signs are blatant. They’re never down.

The dome, rotunda, staircase, colonnade and other details of City Hall are a joy forever. Once out the other door at the tragedy that is Van Ness, the walker meets a barricade, not a promenade. One must detour to cross and inspect the Opera House and Veterans’ Building, mall and pretty golden picket wicket.

Seattle and Philadelphia (whose governmental homes excel) notwithstanding, Civic Center may be unfinished, but it is still a beauty. The beast, politics, could turn out to be a  handsome prince after all. The scenery is appropriate to romance.

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Category: Fog City - City of Fog, History

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