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Considered an “American phoenix,” modern San Francisco rose out of the ashes of the 1906 earthquake. This disaster, the worst in American history, destroyed the majority of the city and left only 303 of its 28,000 buildings standing. One of these lucky few is Mission San Francisco de Asís (aka "Mission Dolores"). The current building, built in 1793, it is the oldest structure in the city and provides a wonderful example of Spanish-colonial architecture with Native-American influences.
Another area with a wealth and span of architectural interest is the Presidio dating from "Yerba Buena’s" earliest days (the old Officers’ Club at the top of the parade grounds is the other "oldest" San Francisco edifice) to 1960s "modern," which preceded the installation’s turnover from the Sixth Army to The City. At its furthest northwest tip, and San Francisco’s, standing guard under the Golden Gate Bridge is Fort Point, dating to the early and mid-1800s. Another well-kept building in the Spanish mission style was long the Officers' Club at the Presidio, and is now its Visitor's Center, which like Mission Dolores is a splendid example of garrison adobe and terra cotta architecture.
The turn of the 20th century brought the City Beautifying Movement to improve urban environments and suburbs with classical and renaissance design. The best examples of the beaux arts style are the City Hall (famous backdrop of many Dirty Harry movies) in the Civic Center and the Palace of Fine Arts – originally built for the Panama-Pacific Exposition in 1915 - located in the Marina District. Yet, if modern design is of interest, check out the SoMa (South of Market District), the controversial Public Library in the Civic Center and, of course, the Transamerica Pyramid.
San Francisco’s subsequent bold expressiveness can be experienced in its contributions to architecture, beginning with the fanciful Palace of Fine Arts (a domed vestige of the virtual city of buildings built for the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition); the Beaux Arts style City Hall; the Palace of the Legion of Honor framing Rodin’s "The Thinker" in its grand courtyard; the modern St. Mary’s Cathedral glowing in a mantle of white marble; the stately Grace Cathedral, reminiscent of European cathedrals and minsters; and a row of colorful Victorian houses, known as the "Painted Ladies", on Steiner Street facing Alamo Square in the Western Addition neighborhood -- some giving wedding cakes a run for their money. On Telegraph Hill, there is Coit Tower, built in 1933, and which may or may not be designed to look like a fire hose nozzle--financed by the heiress Lillie Hitchcock Coit, who was rumored to have a fondness for firemen! Beyond the unique Art Deco-inspired architecture of the structure are its many murals. Some 26 artists created the murals as part of the Public Works Art Project under the "New Deal" federal employment program in the early 1930's.
Across from City Hall, the old Main Library was stunningly remade in 2003 into the Asian Art Museum, one of the few institutions of its kind in the country, boasting one of the most comprehensive collections in the world. Designed by Italian architect Gae Auletti, her adaptive reuse of the former library recalls her work on the Musee d'Orsay in Paris. The new San Francisco Public Library, incidentally, is right next door and mirrors some of the design elements the original building, but is wholly a modern structure.
The dark-colored former Bank of America World Headquarters - San Francisco's once tallest building at 52 stories when first built in 1969, defied The City's then-nickname, "The White City" (so-called for its predominantly white and pastel buildings). It was surpassed in height by the 853-ft Transamerica Pyramid in 1972 (600 Montgomery St). The pyramid's structure defied both classic right-angle design, as well as San Francisco's earthquake potential, with its unusual foundation-on-rollers engineered design. Both buildings defied Herb Caen (1916-1997), the Pulitzer-prize winning columnist beloved by San Franciscans, who liked to publicly ponder whether the large purple stone sculpture in front of the B of A building was really meant to represent a banker's heart. And the pyramid? It earned a VERY special place in the mast head atop his column. Alas, both buildings no longer serve as headquarters for the companies that built them. Bank of America, first founded in San Francisco by A.P. Giannini as the Bank of Italy, was bought by NationsBank, and the headquarters moved to North Carolina. Some recent construction south of Market St (SoMa) has seen the addition of some very tall buildings, such as the 645-ft Millennium Tower (301 Mission St.) and the 600-ft One Rincon Hill South Tower (425 First St), but to date none surpasses the pyramid.
The Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall dazzles passers-by as well as patrons. The dramatic chandeliers of its foyer are shown off by its massive glass facade facing Van Ness Ave. And its concert hall is breathtaking in view as well as acoustics. The Museum of Modern Art is a new city icon, for its design as well as its exhibitions. SFMOMA is the most visited attraction in the City, bringing exciting modern and contemporary art exhibits to tourists, conventioneers, and locals alike. And the new home of the San Francisco Giants at the side of the bay (which has had several corporate monikers in quick succession) impresses passers-by -- landlubbers and boaters -- as well as baseball aficionados. What other ballpark has its own bay inlet ("McCovey Cove") where boaters can vie for homerun balls?
And more recently, the copper-clad M.H. de Young Museum emerged monolithically from the gardens of Golden Gate Park, startling in its size and monotonal exterior, as well as its massive light and airy interior galleries. The museum, if not the structure, is one of San Francisco's oldest and most venerated institutions. The new structure replaces its neo-classical home that had to be razed before an earthquake did it. The critics are circling the new structure, and the juries are just forming. Some simply say this: "It's not your father's de Young."
Then there are those two bridges! The Golden Gate Bridge -- named for the sheltered entry to the bay, not the color of the bridge -- is a marvelous visual and engineering feat whose limits have been tested only once. That was, ironically, the day of its golden anniversary when it was it was closed to vehicle traffic. The weight of nearly 600,000 celebrants, who filled it shoulder-to-shoulder, end-to-end, unexpectedly flattened the span -- prompting engineers to do some "real-time" calculations. More recently, the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake tested the limits of the cantilevered (eastern) span of the Oakland-San Francisco Bay Bridge, and it was decided that that section should be replaced. Controversy arose, which delayed bids and construction because East Bay politicians believed the eastern span should be as inspiring as the western side span that leads to San Francisco. They rejected the more utilitarian design from engineers of Caltrans, the state's Department of Transportation and a design competition was held. Another controversy arose once the construction began, which held up work for months before it was resolved and the state Department of Transportation allowed to rebid and start anew. For trivia fans, the full name of the bridge is the Sunny Jim Rolph Oakland-San Francisco Bay Bridge. You'll find that plaque on the Sterling Street on-ramp to the bridge in San Francisco. Who was he? One of San Francisco's past mayors.