Heart of Old San Francisco 1
Image by Elelicht under Creative Commons License.

California, San Francisco Guide (A): Heart of Old San Francisco 1

San Francisco's early beginnings as a port city are now buried many feet below what is now the financial and architectural heart—mostly built on land fill. Come along and explore the fascinating stories behind the ferry building, skyscrapers, and colorful places and figures from the past. You'll get a true feeling for the evolution of this vibrant city. So come along and walk where the past is very much alive!
This article is featured in the app "GPSmyCity: Walks in 1K+ Cities" on iTunes App Store and Google Play. You can download the app to your mobile device to read the article offline and create a self-guided walking tour to visit the attractions featured in this article. The app turns your mobile device into a personal tour guide and it works offline, so no data plan is needed when traveling abroad.

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Walk Route

Guide Name: Heart of Old San Francisco 1
Guide Location: USA » San Francisco
Guide Type: Self-guided Walking Tour (Article (A))
# of Attractions: 11
Tour Duration: 1.0 hour(s)
Travel Distance: 1.0 km
Sight(s) featured in this guide: Ferry Building   Ferry Building: Grand Nave   Embarcadero Boulevard   Four Embarcadero Center   Drumm Street Bridge   Davis Street Bridge   Front Street Bridge   Old Federal Reserve Building   Commercial & Sansome Intersection   343 Sansome Street   Leidesdorf Street  
Author: Jackson Fahnestock
Author Bio: I am an architect (now retired) and urban planner with over 35 years in these fields. My career travels to projects across the globe have made me a shameless observer and critic of the design of urban places. It has been my good fortune to live in San Francisco for over 25 years and my affection for it only grows stronger with time.
Author Website: http://www.jacksonfahnestock.com
Ferry Building

1) Ferry Building

Hello! Welcome to the Ferry Building. The late Herb Caen, San Francisco's beloved newspaper columnist called the Ferry Building "A famous city's most famous landmark." It was designed in 1892 by Arthur Page Brown who trained with McKim Mead & White, architects of the grand Pennsylvania Station in New York.

A series of misguided office renovations during the 1950's badly compromised the beauty and function of Brown's neoclassical Beaux Arts design. But the...
Image by Jeremy Keith under Creative Commons License.
Ferry Building: Grand Nave

2) Ferry Building: Grand Nave

Please go up the historic stairs to the second level where you will have a special view of the Grand Nave. If you need an elevator there's one to your left in the Office Lobby. When upstairs, just be sure to stay between the glass railings and you won't get scolded by the guard.

This wonderful space with its steel roof trusses and 660-foot long skylight has been exquisitely restored. That misguided work in the 1950's added a third floor that all but obliterated any sense of the...
Image by Daderot under Creative Commons License.
Embarcadero Boulevard

3) Embarcadero Boulevard

Had you been standing here in 1958 you would be in a heavy shadow from the 70-foot high double deck Embarcadero Freeway. And, if you were here in this spot in 1989 during the Loma Prieta earthquake you would be standing under a shower of concrete chunks. But the brighter side of that tremor was that, after much debate, the eyesore was pulled down after being declared structurally unsound.

And, fortunately, the city's earlier master plan that showed "freeways gone wild" was...
Image by Bernt Rostad under Creative Commons License.
Four Embarcadero Center

4) Four Embarcadero Center

Make sure you've climbed the curvy steps to the second level and then look out over Justin Herman Plaza. Mr. Herman was a former Redevelopment Director. The fountain is named after the French Canadian designer Armand Vaillancourt. It has its fans and its detractors. The late Allan Temko, the Pulitzer Prize winning architectural critic for the San Francisco Chronicle once likened the pile to "a deposit made by a dog with square intestines."

The plaza itself was designed by the...
Image by moppet65535 under Creative Commons License.
Drumm Street Bridge

5) Drumm Street Bridge

The 5 million square feet in the Embarcadero Center complex is nicely set off with 200,000 square feet of landscaped public open space including seating and sculptures. In fact, this has every thing to do with the restful nature of its many levels. The buildings are aligned along the north side to permit maximum sunlight into the areas on the south. But I've been told that the first building, 1 Embarcadero Center that you see ahead, was built in 1971 before that enlightenment came.

Davis Street Bridge

6) Davis Street Bridge

In the late 1850's and early 1860's this area called Barbary Coast became known as a freewheeling area for prostitution, dance halls, and thievery. So I guess it was no great surprise that, in 1856, in a two-story liquor warehouse on this corner, the command post was set up for the Second Committee of Vigilance. Leading businessmen of the times formed these committees to try to deal with the hoodlums. And deal they did.

The guilty parties were marched onto a plank bridge and dealt...
Front Street Bridge

7) Front Street Bridge

If you look to the north on this third level you will see the Alcoa Office Building which is part of the Maritime Plaza. It was designed in 1964 by the architectural firm of Skidmore Owings & Merrill and was the first to incorporate an x-braced seismic structural system into the esthetics of a building. Although otherwise somewhat isolated from the surrounding streets it has a nice sculpture garden at the terrace level.

Looking ahead you'll recognize the iconic Transamerica Tower as...
Old Federal Reserve Building

8) Old Federal Reserve Building

On our left we are now looking at the Old Federal Reserve Building dating to 1924. Just beyond it is the 34-story Embarcadero West office building completed in 1989. The two properties form the final expansion of the Embarcadero Center complex.

The Federal Reserve system was created by Congress in 1913 to reform monetary policy. The building here served as the western U.S. headquarters until it moved its operations to the 100-block of Market in 1983.

And, once again history lies just below...
Image by Stephen Colebourne under Creative Commons License.
Commercial & Sansome Intersection

9) Commercial & Sansome Intersection

Now that you've descended the gradual ramped steps from the Battery Street Bridge you will encounter a softer side to the city in the middle of the bustling Financial District. At this corner of Sansome and Commercial Streets you see the Fugazi Building with its classic dental sign that hints at an era before teeth whiteners and sonic-guided tooth brushes. The shameless pitch of being "personalized" and "comfortable" is a nice touch.

The buildings' scale allows...
343 Sansome Street

10) 343 Sansome Street

On your way to 343 Sansome you probably noticed the older building to the left of the newer one. The older one dates to 1908 and was designed by John Galen Howard, the founder of Berkeley's School of Architecture. Originally an eight story structure of brick and terra cotta in the Neoclassical Revival style, it got an extra five floors in 1929, morphing into the Art Deco or Moderne style you now see.

Its cousin, the new tower next door, dates to 1990 and was designed by the architects...
Leidesdorf Street

11) Leidesdorf Street

By now you've found your way along Sacramento to the alley-street called Leidesdorff. This is one of the oldest streets in San Francisco. It only runs from Clay to Pine but consists of varying widths. Some think this comes from its beginnings at the original shoreline of Yerba Buena Cove or as an old Indian trail.

William Leidesdorff, a prominent citizen of early San Francisco, was of African American descent and grew up in the West Indies. His various travels as a ship captain...

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