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  • Time and Place in San Francisco: Some Thoughts for the Urban Wanderer
  • Larry Ford (bio)

If a city has to be destroyed in some disaster like an earthquake and a fire, it helps if it happens toward the end of a really good architectural era so that beautiful and picturesque buildings can be (re)built with the very latest in infrastructure improvements. This is exactly what happened in San Francisco, and it is one of the reasons the city is known for its grace and charm. Much of San Francisco was destroyed in 1906 and was rebuilt quickly over the next few years.

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Figure 1.

The Great San Francisco Earthquake in 1906.

This meant that the city retained a late Victorian charm with highly detailed and intricate façades but also with 20th-century (albeit early) plumbing, heating, and electricity. The landscape of San Francisco, at least in the northeastern quadrant, is thus both old-fashioned and reasonably modern. It shares many characteristics with European cities such as London and Paris, which were rebuilt in larger but still-traditional styles during the 19th and early 20th centuries in situ since public transit [End Page 231] and an historical connection to the center remained strong. Even though there has been a lot of rebuilding over the past century and the downtown now bristles with skyscraping office towers and hotels, San Francisco has worked hard to maintain at least some of the “style” long associated with the gracious urbanity of the early 20th century. Older hotels, office buildings, theaters, Victorian row houses, and restaurants (often with curtained booths) give the city much of its identity.

In addition, the city was rebuilt so quickly that there was no time to sluice down the hills or drastically change the street pattern. As in 17th-century London, there may have been grand plans such as those for the civic center, but in general, getting the city open for business quickly was the highest priority. Had the disaster occurred a decade or two later, it is possible that an auto-oriented street system of winding roads and cul-de-sacs could have overwhelmed the now familiar up-and-down grid of the city. As it was, only one block of Lombard Street became “squiggly.” It is also worth noting that if another earthquake had to hit, it was appropriate that it just happened to occur as it became trendy to tear down outmoded (and ugly) elevated freeways. The Embarcadero Freeway “wall” along the waterfront was removed after the Loma Prieta Earthquake of 1989. It could have been different. In 1954, there was a plan to extend the Embarcadero Freeway all along the north shore (where the Cannery is now) to connect up with the Golden Gate Bridge.

Possible Scenario One: The Under-built City

To illustrate my point, we might take a moment to consider some possible alternative scenarios. If there had been no earthquake and fire, much of central San Francisco would have eased into the 20th century with a variety of shacks and shanties dating back to the Gold Rush. They would have been too small and poorly equipped to merit renovation or preservation, and so would have either been replaced en masse during boom years and periods of urban renewal, or, more typical of American central cities, cleared for surface parking. As it is, only a few small cottages on Telegraph Hill fit the description of tiny, original construction, and most of them are too valued and too inaccessible to be torn down, although many have been greatly remodeled. Of course there were many magnificent buildings around before the fire, especially in the core area around Market and California streets, but they were in the minority. A few, such as the Fairmount Hotel and the Palace Hotel, were under construction or just recently finished when disaster [End Page 232] struck, and they were restored in basically the same style. Having an intense awareness of threats from earthquakes and fires led to an equally intense enthusiasm for earthquake- and fire-proof construction—or at least some steps in that direction.

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pp. 231-248
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