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!
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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
1
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 building proudly wore a new luster when it reopened in 2003 after a major renovation.

Take special note of the information panels near the entry that speak to the building's history and restoration. And, you'll no doubt want to wander the marvelous food hall at your leisure. On certain days there is a great outdoor farmer's market that's not to be missed—Saturday's in particular.

The building is actually the second ferry building on the site. The Ferry House, a wooden structure, served the city from 1875 to 1877. The one you see today was once the second busiest transit terminal in the world behind Charing Cross in London. That changed dramatically with the opening of the Bay Bridge and Golden Gate Bridge in the late 1930's.

During the 1906 earthquake General Frederick Funston led the triage efforts here. Navy and City fireboats sprayed salt water from the Bay onto the building. This allowed the critical transport of supplies and people. The 235-foot sandstone clocktower took a beating and was eventually re-clad in concrete.

Now proceed outside to the historic steps to your left.
Image by Jeremy Keith under Creative Commons License.
2
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 space. Back in the early days passengers would board the ferries from this level. You would have bought your ticket and checked your baggage on the ground floor.

More than 90 percent of the original marble mosaic floor had been covered with linoleum or carpeting or otherwise damaged. The cutting of the rectangular openings you see connected this level with the lower one and provided original tiles for the repair effort. Check out the intricate mosaic rendering of the Great Seal of the State of California.

Great care was taken to use the original historic features whenever possible or to use them as guides for molds and patterns. One example involved using a glass fiber reinforced plastic to emulate the original terra cotta arches at the north end of the Grand Nave: a good example of using new technology to recreate the past.
Image by Daderot under Creative Commons License.
3
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 altered by the Freeway Revolt in the late 50's. The Board of Supervisors voted in 1959 to not proceed with 6 planned freeways including an extension of the Embarcadero monster which would have extended all the way to the Golden Gate Bridge.

But now the area has new light, air, parks, and open space. This grand palm-lined boulevard designed by Roma Design Group was built in 2002. The center of the roadway allowed the beloved F Market street cars to extend their run from the Castro District all the way to Fisherman's Wharf. Most of these cars were designed in 1935 and are painted in the color schemes of the "liveries" of the cities that ran them. Among the fun ones are the Peter Witt cars built in the 1920's—the orange cars from Milan, Italy. Others include a New Orleans "Streetcar Named Desire" and, my favorite for smiles, a topless one: an open boat tram built in 1934 in Blackpool, England.
Image by Bernt Rostad under Creative Commons License.
4
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 renowned landscape architect Lawrence Halprin along with Mario Ciampi as part of the Market Street Beautification Project.

But let's now turn our attention to the Embarcadero Center complex. It was built in an area that was once called the Barbary Coast during the gold rush era. You could be standing above one of the many wharves where some of the hundreds of vessels may have tied up in 1849.

Justin Herman spearheaded a drive to develop this "city within a city." The chosen team of David Rockefeller, John Portman, and Trammel-Crow built the first four towers between 1968 and 1982. The real beauty to me is the ability to wander this 5-block long pedestrian oasis.

We'll talk more about the complex but first, on your way to the Drumm Street Bridge, take note of the flower shaped sculpture called the Tulip with its playful spiral ramp. It was designed by the Center's architect John Portman in 1981. In the background is the Hyatt Regency hotel also by Portman.
Image by moppet65535 under Creative Commons License.
5
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.

The office structures have stepped profiles at the ends to help diminish their bulk but also to give 12 corner offices instead of the usual four. If you're in the city over the Christmas holidays you could see the 17,000 white lights that outline the perimeter of each building—a dramatic sight indeed.

And, even though you are among 30- to 45-story buildings, the use of various forms and shapes of stairways, seating clusters, planting displays, and shading devices gives a very human touch to the pedestrian levels.

Looking to the left, toward Market Street, you can see another one of Arthur Page Brown's designs, the Pacific Gas & Electric building, built in 1925. It's the one with the square arcaded tower on top.

Now, as you head through Three Embarcadero Center and to the Davis Street Bridge take time to admire the 54-foot high black steel sculpture called "Sky Tree" designed by the renowned Louise Nevelson of New York in 1977.
6
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 with by hanging. More modern devices were employed like a real gallows with a trap door located just about where you're standing. So much for even-handed justice. But, not to worry, the practice ceased at the end of that year.

Finally, around 1911, under Mayor James Rolph, some sanity was restored to the district and by 1920 it became the Produce District. Although it must have been a very alive place with fruit and vegetable vendors, warehouses, and all manner of carts, it too was eventually declared an environmental nuisance. In 1963 it closed down. We are, however, now blessed with that fabulous market at the Ferry Building.

So on to the Front Street Bridge. Just ahead, climb the curving stairs to the third level. On your way through Two Embarcadero Center take time to check out the 64-foot high stainless steel sculpture with its 65 disks of varying shapes and sizes. The artist was Nicholas Schoffer of Hungary and France.
7
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 well as the Le Meridien Hotel, formerly the Park Hyatt. As you move through One Embarcadero Center, you'll pass the Embarcadero Cinema which has five screens and opened on Bastille Day in 1995. This is my favorite small film venue in the city. It primarily shows high-profile independent and foreign language films. I also enjoy the playful neon signage by Debra Nichols.

As I mentioned earlier Embarcadero One—which you see on the left—was built in 1971 and was placed on the south thereby completely shadowing this level. Now we have a sunlight ordinance called Proposition K which was passed in 1989 requiring shadow assessments for new projects. This has generated intense debate.

Let's make our way now to the Battery Street Bridge. The Urban Design Plan for San Francisco banned new bridges over streets in 1971. This was the first one allowed since then. It was justified on the basis that it connected the historic Old Federal Reserve Building as a part of Embarcadero West.
8
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 our feet. This was a bustling 19th century seafront. When excavation began for an armored car entrance for the building on Battery Street the remains of a gold rush ship the Apollo were discovered and preserved.

The Old Federal Reserve is one of those treasures that has lived to see a new life—albeit as a private office building. It was designed by George Kelham who also did the Old Main Library at the Civic Center, now the stunning new Asian Art Museum. The Fed contains a true banking temple typical of public buildings built up to World War II. Unfortunately, because the building is in private hands, your luck will be 50-50 in trying to look into the hall. Since the Sansome Street entrance was the grand entrance to the banking hall the renovation of the Battery Street side added a row of columns and a connecting balcony for balance.

Now descend the curvy stairway and then the ramped stair ahead to come back to street level.
Image by Stephen Colebourne under Creative Commons License.
9
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 the sun to penetrate into Commercial Street where a pedestrian zone allows outdoor eating and relaxing. At some point this zone may be absorbed into some grander real estate scheme but for now it's a treasured asset.

As you make your way along Sansome Street to our next stop at 343 Sansome across the way, take some time to enjoy this side of the Old Federal Reserve. I mentioned that this side served the more elegant function of entry to the banking hall. Visible is the more academic Beaux Arts style used by Kelham on the lower level which then transitions to the more severe Moderne theme at the upper sections. The solid bronze doors and lighting stanchions with the row of federal eagles above the portico make a grand statement that stands up well to more modern gestures in buildings nearby—one more reason to keep this kind of mix in our cities.

Now we'll continue to what I consider to be one of the more harmonious combining of new and old in the city.
10
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 John Burgee and Philip Johnson. The foundation work on the new tower uncovered several artifacts—most likely from a general store that stood on Howison's Wharf. These are now displayed in the side lobby of the old building.

Entering the lobby of 343 note the Art Deco grand touches with the use of Italian and Belgian marble, etched glass wall sconces, and the gilt-enameled elevator doors.

If you're lucky enough to be here during a weekday between the hours of 10-5 you can take the elevator to the 15th floor to enjoy some sunshine and views of the heart of downtown. This is all courtesy of a requirement of the developer, Hines Interests, to build in open space in return for utilizing the entire lot.

When you come back down, turn left and go through the lobby of the new tower and enjoy the hyperactive sculpture of a series of stainless steel balls by the late Pol Bury, a Belgian sculptor.
11
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 ultimately brought him to the tiny Mexican settlement of Yerba Buena, which became San Francisco in 1847. He was the first treasurer of the young city and built the city's first hotel.

A half block north, at the corner of Leidesdorff and Commercial Streets, construction began in 1849 of the Long Wharf, often referred to as the Central or Commercial Wharf. This meant that ships could now dock directly at the city's edge and not have to bring their cargo to shore in lighters. All manner of international vessels tied up here.

You've probably seen the plaque on a nearby wall commemorating the "What Cheer House" that occupied the site from 1849 to 1906. An early hostelrie—and a temperance one at that—operated in a city where the booze flowed freely. It had a library with 2,000 books and a small museum with pickled reptiles, Indian artifacts, and some 700 stuffed birds from around the world.

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