In 1906, a devastating earthquake and subsequent fires decimated San Francisco, destroying more than 28,000 buildings, including the landmark City Hall which had been conceived in 1872 and not fully completed until 1899. To rebuild, city planners embraced the City Beautiful Movement then in vogue that advocated the construction of monumental, classically inspired buildings. Advocates of the philosophy believed that such beautification could promote moral and civic virtue among increasingly diverse populations and create a harmonious social order that would better the quality of life.

To design its City Beautiful plan San Francisco went right to the source - Daniel Burnham of Chicago. Burnham planned and executed the successful World Columbian Exposition in 1893. With a rebuilt City Hall as its centerpiece the Civic Center would gather the San Francisco’s major government and cultural institutions in orderly, symmetrical buildings grouped around open plazas.

It would take three decades for the original plan for the Civic Center to be fully realized. When it was complete, San Francisco boasted one of the most successful renderings of the City Beautiful Movement in the United States. The San Francisco Civic Center was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1987. If you were strolling through the Civic Center 75 years ago you would recognize most of it today so let’s get our tour started and take a look... 

San Francisco City Hall
1 Polk Street between McAllister and Grove streets

Dominated by an ornate dome that is the fifth largest in the world - 19 feet higher than the dome capping the United States Capitol, City Hall has been the centerpiece of Civic Center since its completion in 1915. Its predecessor, crumbled in the 1906 Earthquake and Fire, had actually been a much larger structure. More than 25 years in the making, that City Hall had stood for only seven years. Arthur Brown, Jr. drew up the plans for this Neoclassical landmark, meticulously accounting for every detail, down to the design of the doorknobs and the fonts on the interior signage. The landmark dome, drawing influences from iconic European domes, was constructed on a steel frame, sheeted with copper, coated in lead and given gold highlights. Granite from Madera County was used to face the exterior and Indiana sandstone was employed for the interior spaces. The sculpture group in granite enclosed by the pediment was the work of Henri Crenier, the largest commission in his distinguished career. The female “San Francisco” beckons commerce and navigation.


San Francisco Superior Court
400 McAllister Street at northwest corner of Polk Street

Flanking City Hall to the north, this building houses the San Francisco Superior Court. It is a 1990s creation that came with a price tag of $45 million.


War Memorial Veterans Building
southwest corner of Van Ness Avenue and McAllister Street

A proposal for a cultural center in the vicinity of the new City Hall was first floated in 1918 and in 1920 it was decided to merge the effort with the work of campaigners for a memorial to the veterans of the recently ended World War I. With a $2 million kitty raised by public subscription, land was acquired here starting in 1921 (twice that amount would eventually be needed). A blue ribbon panel of Who’s Who in San Francisco architecture selected twin monumental buildings planned by Arthur Brown, Jr., in tandem with G. Albert Lansburgh. The cornerstone was laid on Armistice Day, November 11, 1931 and dedication of the French Renaissance memorial building took place ten months later. Rising from a granite foundation, the exterior terra cotta walls have been scored to simulate stone blocks. The first floor of the Veterans Building boasts a grand main lobby providing access to the three-story, 916-seat Herbst Theatre. Corridors encircle the auditorium on each floor and open into offices and meeting rooms used for veteran affairs on the outer sides. The fourth floor is similarly organized around a central two-story, sky-lit sculpture court, likewise surrounded by corridors which open into perimeter exhibit and gallery spaces. 

War Memorial Opera House
northwest corner of Van Ness Avenue and Grove Street

The Opera House was designed to be an identical twin to the War Memorial Veterans Building and it opened a year later with its premiere performance on October 15, 1932. The two buildings, each the exact same size, are linked by a formal courtyard enclosed by blue and gold painted ornamental iron fencing. The Opera House was constructed with carriage entrances on the side and a penthouse above the roof in the back for stage equipment but those are the only exterior differences of note to distinguish the two buildings. The landmarks are considered to be the last grand Beaux Arts structures completed in the United States. 

Davies Symphony Hall
southwest corner of Grove Street and Van Ness Avenue

Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall opened in 1980 as the permanent home of the San Francisco Symphony. Designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and Pietro Belluschi along with acoustical consultants Bolt, Beranek and Newman, the hall boasts a “cloud” of movable convex acrylic reflecting panels over the stage that enables the acoustic space to be adjusted to suit the size of the orchestra and audience. The elegant space came with a price tag of $28 million. Henry Spencer Moore, an English artist whose semi-abstract monumental bronze sculptures are located around the world as public art, crafted the “Large Four Piece Reclining Figure” at the corner of Grove Street and Van Ness Avenue. By the end of his career in the 1980s Moore, a towering influence on modern art, was the world’s most successful living artist at auction. 

San Francisco Unified School District Building
135 Van Ness Avenue between Hayes and Fell streets

Architect John Reid Jr. was born in San Francisco and spent his entire 89 years here, save for schooling at UC-Berkeley and the prestigious Ecole de Beaux Arts in Paris, France. He was the brother-in-law of Mayor “Sunny” James Rolph and spent time as City architect which led Reid to design many schools and libraries. This one once carried the name of his predecessor, Newton Tharp. The core of this building was raised in 1910 but the striking Spanish Colonial appearance dates to Reid’s 1926 makeover. Since 1952 the building has done administrative duty.


Naval Hospital Dispensary
50 Fell Street

San Francisco, headquarters of the Twelfth Naval District, hosted more than 100 bases during World War II. The Navy used this Spanish Revival building as an outpatient clinic. 


Western Furniture Exchange and Merchandise Mart
1355 Market Street, between 9th and 10th streets at Fell and Polk streets 

This block-long, 11-story beast is an Art Deco icon constructed in 1937 with close to a half-million square feet of selling space. The first furniture market in California was held on Market Street in 1915 in an event known as Western Home Goods Market Week. In 1920, the tenants of a new building on Montgomery Street formed the San Francisco Exchange Association which moved into this space. Capitol Architects supplied the Mayan-inspired Art Deco detailing. The massive building has long been tenant-challenged but has recently lured Twitter into the old mart.


Department of Public Health Building
101 Grove Street at southwest corner of Polk Street

This U-shaped Italian Renaissance structure of reinforced concrete clad in gray granite joined the Civic Center grid in 1932. The ornamental facades are decorated in two principal horizontal bands above a smooth granite base. The exterior is highlighted by gilded trim and fixtures.


Bill Graham Civic Auditorium
Grove Street between Polk and Larkin streets

Although not on the main fairgrounds of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, this million-dollar event center was constructed for the World’s Fair in 1915 and is the only original Fair building still standing. John Galen Howard drew up the plans in a monumental Beaux Arts style. Through its nearly 100 years the building has hosted such diverse events as the 1920 Democratic National Convention (newspaper editor James Cox of Ohio was nominated and he and his running mate, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, lost to Warren G. Harding) and professional basketball games for a couple of years in the 1960 when the NBA’s San Francisco Warriors led by Wilt Chamberlain played here. In 1992 the auditorium was re-named to honor legendary rock promoter Bill Graham, who was killed in a helicopter accident the previous year. Born Wolodia Grajonca in Berlin in 1931, Graham was among a group of Jewish orphans who was spirited out of Nazi Germany to America; his mother and three of his five sisters were later murdered. In the 1950s Graham became a champion mambo dancer New York City. He came to San Francisco in the 1960s and got into the concert promotion business organizing a benefit concert to help raise funds for the San Francisco Mime Troupe. 


Hotel Whitcomb
1231 Market Street

Architects George Alexander Wright, George Rushforth and Bernard Cahill won the commission for this luxury hotel for the estate of Adolphus Whitcomb, a wealthy lawyer and landowner, in 1910 but the job came with an unusual twist. Before the hotel was going to go into operation the building had to serve as a temporary City Hall so while planning a hotel the architects built a municipal office building. The government stayed until 1915 and an additional $450,000 was required to prep the building for hotel guests. Today you will find all the flourishes inside expected in an upscale hotel - marble balustrades and columns, ceilings carved from fine wood, Austrian crystal chandeliers and Tiffany stained glass. Guests can twirl on one of the largest parquet dance floors in San Francisco. But souvenirs from its days of civic service remain as well - the hotel administrator’s office was once the mayor’s office and downstairs are former jail cells now used for storage.

Orpheum Theatre
1192 Market Street at Hyde Street

Born on the Greek island of Andros, Alexander Pantages spent his twenties digging the Panama Canal, boxing in San Francisco and prospecting for gold in the Yukon Territory. He began his career as a show business exhibitor in Dawson City, Yukon as a partner to saloon and brothel-keeper “Klondike Kate” Rockwell, operating a small, but highly successful vaudeville and burlesque theatre, the Orpheum. In 1902, at the age of 27, he was in Seattle opening the Crystal Theater and launching a chain of theaters across the West in Canada and the United States. His go-to architect was B. Marcus Priteca, a Scot, who designed 22 theaters for Pantages and another 128 for other theater owners. Here Priteca created the Orpheum in 1926 with a facade patterned after a 12th century French cathedral. The building has received periodical makeovers, the latest a $20 million renovation in 1998.

Strand Theatre
1127 Market Street

The Strand opened on October 27, 1917 as part of the Grauman chain. In the near 100 years since the theater has followed a familiar arc for downtown urban entertainment venues. It enjoyed a burst of great popularity in its infancy and then struggled with the competition from television and the flight to suburbia. It suffered occasional intermissions of vacancy and did duty as a revival house and porn palace. But it has dodged the wrecking ball after its glory days and is currently the target of multi-million dollar renovation, courtesy of San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater.

Renoir Hotel
45 McAllister Street at Jones and Market streets

Esteemed classical architect Albert Pissis created an ornate six-story triangular office building in this space in 1900. The earthquake and fire brought down that structure, called the Callaghan Building, and when it rose again on the same foundations it only went up two stories. In 1927 architect H.A. Minton designed a five-story addition in a complete makeover and the building began life again as the Shaw Hotel, an upscale guest house in the heart of San Francisco’s pulsing theater district. Another renovation in the 1990s brought back some of the original Neoclassical flavor and a new name.

Hibernia Bank
1 Jones Street at Market and McAllister streets

This is another classical creation from the pen of Albert Pissis in 1892. It is considered the oldest of the banking temples that proliferated in San Francisco at the turn of the 20th century. Hibernia Bank was founded in 1859 as the Hibernia Savings and Loan Society. It was a branch of Hibernia Bank, in San Francisco’s Sunset District, that Symbionese Liberation Army and Patty Hearst robbed in 1974. The bank disappeared after 129 years in 1988 when it was acquired by Security Pacific which was swallowed four years later by the Bank of America. But there is no bank here now so the original “Hibernia Bank” name remains emblazoned on on the City’s best banking halls.  


100 McAllister Street Building/Hastings College of Law
100 McAllister Street

Are you looking for a good place to invest your money? How about this idea. You sell off a bunch of churches and pool the assets to build one mammoth “superchurch.” And you use the leftover space as a hotel. No booze will served, however; it will a be a dry guest house. That was the thinking behind the genesis of this 28-story tower in 1920. The scheme was Walter John Sherman’s and he merged four of the largest Methodist Episcopal congregations in San Francisco to realize a stake of $800,000. Timothy L. Pflueger, the go-to architect for Art Deco-inspired work in San Francisco was chosen as designer in 1925. Pflueger delivered a Gothic-inspired, 308-foot tower with setbacks at the top that had been pioneered a few years earlier in a contest to design the Tribune Tower in Chicago. There was a Great Hall, a large worship area located within the second, third and fourth floors capable of seating 1,500 churchgoers. Some 500 guest rooms and 32 tower apartments were expected to provide a steady flow of cash. Before the church/hotel could open in 1930 Pflueger was fired and Lewis Hobart retained as his replacement. Hobart did little in changing the design, so little, in fact that Pflueger sued and won $38,000 in a court decision. The new Temple Methodist Episcopal Church congregation was greatly pleased with their new mega-church but the hotel-within-a-church idea never caught on. Final construction costs eventually approached $3 million and there were never enough Depression-era hotel guests to pay the bond. The church closed in 1936 and a new enterprise opened as the Empire Hotel two years later. The former church space was used to park cars. Its Sky Room Lounge was deemed to have no equal outside New York City. The United States government rented space here for several decades and since 1978 the property, for many years the tallest hotel on the West Coast, has been owned by the University of California, Hastings College of the Law which uses it to house students and their families. 

Federal Office Building
50 United Nations Plaza at the southeast corner of Hyde and McAllister streets

The construction of the Federal Building between 1934 and 1936 marked the completion of the decades-long San Francisco Civic Center. Another design by Arthur Brown, Jr., The Federal Building is an excellent example of Second Renaissance Revival architecture, displaying style-defining features such as distinct horizontal divisions, a rusticated granite base (the walls are brick with a granite veneer), and classical ornamentation including columns on the exterior elevations. The upper story looking out over U.N. Plaza features a Doric colonnade of columns and pilasters. 


Simón Bolivar Statue/U.N. Plaza
west end of U.N. Plaza

U.N. Plaza is a 1975 creation of landscape architect Lawrence Halprin intended as a remembrance to the creation of the United Nations 30 years earlier in the Veterans Building. The equestrian statue at the head of the Plaza is a rendering of South American freedom fighter Simón Bolivar. The statue was gift from the government of Venezuela to the city of San Francisco in 1981, cast by Victor Hugo Barrenchea-Villegas after a 19th century original by Adamo Tadolina. Many believe, mistakenly, that artists of equestrian statues must adhere to a code whereby a subject who dies in battle is represented by a horse with two hooves off the ground, one hoof off the ground means the person died from war injuries and a rider helming a horse with all four feet on the ground died of causes unrelated to battle. There are plenty of examples where this “rule” is violated, such as this one. Bolivar did not die in battle but from tuberculosis at the age of 47.


Asian Art Museum of San Francisco
200 Larkin Street at southeast corner of McAllister Street 

This elaborate Beaux Arts confection was constructed in 1917 as the main library from plans drawn by George Kelham. In a 1980s plan to re-vitalize Civic Center a new library was proposed and this building was retrofitted - to the tune of $160 million - to house one of the most comprehensive collections of Asian art in the world. Chicago millionaire Avery Brundage, best known as the long-time president of the International Olympic Committee, donated almost 8,000 pieces works of art and artifacts from his personal collection - almost half of the museum’s collection - in 1959. The museum opened in 1966 as a wing of the M. H. de Young Memorial Museum in Golden Gate Park. 


San Francisco Public Library
00 Larkin Street at northeast corner of Grove Street

The first books were lent in San Francisco in 1879 after which the library has had several homes, the most prominent of which was next door for 70 years in the current Asian Art Museum. This building opened in 1996 with a price tag of some $140 million. The new library was more than twice as big as its predecessor and library visits doubled from 1.1 million to 2.1 million in its first year of operation. 


Civic Center Powerhouse
northeast corner of McAllister and Larkin streets

Constructed in 1915, this small concrete structure provided the entire Civic Center with steam heat. Despite its utilitarian role the building was still decorated with some classical detailing.


Earl Warren Building (California State Building)
350 McAllister Street between Polk Street and Larkin Street

This was one of the final projects for Walter Danforth Bliss and William Baker Faville, who designed many of San Francisco’s most elegant buildings in a long partnership. Bliss and Faville chose granite and terra cotta masonry to dress this six-story Classical Revival building whose main tenant is the California Supreme Court. The building was completed in 1922 and the first oral argument was heard the following year. After repairs following the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake the building was renamed for Earl Warren, a former California governor and Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court. The 14-story Hiram Johnson Building looming behind the Warren Building was a 1998 addition to the justice complex. The state Supreme Court is headquartered here but the justices also hold regular sessions in Los Angeles and Sacramento.