by Frank Dunnigan
As we just gathered together to celebrate Thanksgiving last week, it is important to remember the many things for which we can all be grateful: families, friends, some level of health and economic security, and even those familiar places we remember when thinking of home. Here are just a handful of San Francisco memories — buildings, modes of transportation, outdoor spaces, culinary spots — many of which have been threatened with extinction over time, but are still present today. They are some of the many things for which we can all be grateful.
CITY HALL — Following the 1906 earthquake and fire, when San Francisco City Hall collapsed decades after its shoddy construction, there was an effort to build a replacement that would reflect a city arising from disaster. Designed by noted architect Arthur Brown, Jr. of Bakewell & Brown, the new structure’s dome rises 42 feet higher than that of the U.S. Capitol, and it covers more than 500,000 square feet of interior space over two full city blocks. Construction began in 1913, and Mayor James Rolph moved into his office during the final week of 1915, with full completion in 1916. Suffering some serious damage in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, a multi-year restoration and earthquake retrofit project was undertaken, with completion in 1999. One of the only obvious changes was the installation of a state-of-the-art LED lighting system around the exterior of the dome and between the vertical columns that can change the nighttime lighting of the building to coordinate with different local, national, and world events.
COIT TOWER — The landmark tower (now 90 years old, having opened in October 1933) was built with a bequest from philanthropist Lillie Hitchcock Coit, who died in 1929 and left a generous sum to San Francisco for a civic beautification project. Despite her fondness for the local volunteer fire department of the city’s early days, the tower (designed by noted City Hall architect Arthur Brown, Jr.) was NOT intended to resemble the nozzle of a fire hose, though that remains a persistent urban legend. Interior murals added in 1934 as part of a federal WPA project were once considered radical, generating considerable controversy at the time. The tower, with its spectacular views, remains an iconic image on the San Francisco skyline.
PALACE OF FINE ARTS — Designed by architect Bernard Maybeck as part of the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in the Marina District, the temporary structure of wood and a burlap-plaster mixture was allowed to remain after the fair ended. As early as the mid-1920s, there were discussions about either saving the Palace or demolishing it for tennis courts, a railroad museum, or some other use — but money proved to be a serious stumbling block to preservation efforts. By the early 1960s, the structure was literally falling apart. San Francisco philanthropist Walter Johnson stepped up and donated $2 million to save the Palace, voters approved a bond issue for another $1.8 million, the State of California kicked in another $2 million, and the city managed to gather the remainder of the overall $7.7 million rebuilding costs. The old structure was demolished in 1964, and a new concrete-and-steel replica was built on the site and dedicated in 1967.
FERRY BUILDING — Opened in 1898 as a replacement for an earlier wooden structure at the site, the Ferry Building was once one of the busiest transit terminals in the world, with a fleet of Southern Pacific and Key System ferries delivering passengers to a continuous stream of San Francisco streetcars at a loop in front of the building’s main entrance. The opening of the Bay Bridge in November 1936 significantly reduced passenger traffic and the streetcar loop in front was eliminated in 1949. By the late 1950s, construction of the Embarcadero Freeway essentially walled the Ferry Building off from the city, making access difficult. A serious fire in 1955 threated the structure, as well as another blaze in 1962. Earthquakes in 1906, 1957, and 1989 caused some damage that was swiftly repaired, but the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake seriously damaged the adjacent Embarcadero Freeway, which was eventually torn down, thus contributing to the revitalization of the Ferry Building into an active downtown marketplace.
CABLE CARS — Invented in San Francisco, cable cars began running on August 2, 1873 and were soon traversing steep hills far better than horse-drawn streetcars. Within 15 years, though, innovations resulted in the emergence of electric-powered streetcars that were better, faster, and cheaper than cable-powered transit lines. By the very early 1900s, San Francisco companies had laid down 53 miles of track stretching from the Ferry Building to the Presidio, Golden Gate Park, the Castro, and the Mission, but much of the infrastructure for cable operations was seriously damaged by the events of 1906. While some lines were rebuilt, new transit lines and some former cable lines were outfitted with electric streetcars. The Castro Cable line was discontinued in 1941, along with others that were eliminated or had their routes shortened, particularly by 1947 when buses were viewed as a better alternative for public transit, with a threat of the entire system being abandoned. Thanks to the efforts of a volunteer advocate, Mrs. Friedel Klussman, the system that remains today is largely the result of her tireless campaign to Save The Cable Cars. A system-wide closure in 1982-84 saw a $60 million upgrade of tracks, powerhouse equipment, and rolling stock. Read more about all the original San Francisco cable car lines and Mrs. Klussman’s volunteer efforts to save the cable cars.
STAINED GLASS — Architectural use of stained glass has been a prominent feature for houses of worship for centuries. It also gained favor in many businesses, including retail and banking institutions, plus grand homes. Given San Francisco’s sometimes foggy weather, many utilitarian skylights have been built, and were often embellished with the artistry of stained glass. Homes and churches torn down during Western Addition redevelopment projects of the 1950s and 1960s resulted in some losses, but a new wave of preservation is now the norm. See a variety of stained-glass images in the OpenSFHistory archive.
MISSION DOLORES — The mission, founded nearby in 1776, moved to its present site with today’s adobe structure built in 1791, and it remains the oldest San Francisco building still in regular use. Under the city’s Landmark Program, established in 1967, Mission Dolores was designated Landmark #1 (out of the present list of 305 designated sites). The structure appears to be very much unchanged since its early days, though it has survived many disasters, including plagues, earthquakes, fires, and encroaching development. Fortunately, many of the changes have been very subtle and well-planned. The city’s regrading of Dolores Street in the late 1800s resulted in the addition of a short flight of steps leading from the sidewalk level to the entry doors. Although largely undamaged by the 1906 earthquake, the adjacent brick church building, added in 1876, was severely damaged and had to be razed. In 1917, while the replacement parish church was under construction next door, the original mission itself received a thorough strengthening of its roof and walls, with details designed by noted architect Willis Polk. Likewise, following the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake (which the adobe mission also survived remarkably well), a further earthquake retrofit and restoration program was undertaken to ensure the structure’s integrity well into the future. Read more about Mission Dolores in the March 2021 Streetwise column.
OLD MINT — The “Old Mint” at 5th and Mission Streets, designed in a Greek Revival style, opened for business in 1874 after a five-year construction effort. Designed around a central courtyard that contained an active well, the Mint’s self-contained water source saved the building in 1906, making it one of the very few downtown structures to survive the fire. At the time, it contained a full one-third of the country’s gold supply. Quickly back in business, the Mint continued in operation until 1937 when the “New Mint” opened on Duboce Avenue, Hermann, and Market Street. Designated a National Historic Landmark in 1961, the Old Mint was sometimes open to visitors with historic displays. In 2003, the federal government sold the building to the City of San Francisco for $1 (with payment made using a silver dollar coin that was minted at the site in the 1870s). From 2016 to 2019, the building was the site for the annual San Francisco History Days event, with Western Neighborhoods Project as active planners and participants. The Mint is also available as an event venue for public and private gatherings.
RESTAURANTS — Opened in 1949, House of Prime Rib is a classic restaurant representative of an era of subdued fine dining that has long been a hallmark of San Francisco. Sadly, many other establishments are now closed: Grison’s, Poodle Dog, Alfred’s, Jack’s, Alioto’s, Sabella’s, and more. Shown here in 1955, House of Prime Rib later expanded into the building at left, and continues to be known for serving meals that include generous portions of table-mixed salads, prime rib, potatoes, creamed spinach, Yorkshire pudding, and fresh individual loaves of bread, plus an extensive wine list. The scene today includes a relaxed ambiance without any formal dress code requirement for patrons, and there is generally a lengthy waiting list for weekend reservations.
SEE’S CANDIES — Founded in Los Angeles in 1921, the chain had 30 retail stores at the time of the Great Depression, and opened its first San Francisco shop in 1936. The manufacture of certain types of creams was moved north to San Francisco because of the cooler climate, and many people began to associate the company with the city after its strong presence at the 1939-40 World’s Fair on Treasure Island. By the 1950s, there were 124 shops across California, and today there are more than 230 locations across the country, plus direct orders that are processed through a catalog and an online presence. The factory, corporate offices, and a retail store, shown here in 1948 at 1750 Market Street near Octavia (with a lighted, revolving, TV-shaped rooftop sign), moved to an expanded location on El Camino Real in South San Francisco circa 1960.