clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

On City Hall's Centennial, Looking Back on the Birth of San Francisco's Grande Dome

New, 4 comments

San Francisco City Hall, the crown jewel of Civic Center and a beacon of everything San Francisco, officially joins the centenarian club this year as it turns 100. Constructed between 1913 and 1915 with a design by Arthur Brown Jr., the City Hall building has become an icon of the city, not to mention a city landmark and one of the institutions making up the Civic Center National Historic Landmark. A birthday party is planned for tonight, so let's honor our big domed beauty with a look back at her first 100 years.

Before our existing City Hall was built, another building dominated the skyline and people's attention. Old City Hall took more than 25 years to build thanks to some shady city government corruption of the time, with construction starting in 1872. It sat on the location of the new main library. Taking up more than two city blocks, it was the considered the largest building in the west. The building was huge, with a giant dome over the entrance, and an extension wing holding the Hall of Records with a second, shorter dome. The Pioneer Monument, now located between the Asian Art Museum and the main library, was sited in front of the main entrance.

As with much of the city, the building was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake and fire. Sadly, all the pre-1906 records housed within it were also lost. The ruins sat for three years while officials debated whether to rebuild on the same site or somewhere else, eventually settling on the current site of City Hall a few blocks away.

Bakewell and Brown proposal, 1914, via UC Berkeley Environmental Design Archives Exhibitions

Bakewell (left) and Brown (right), 1914, via UC Berkeley, Bancroft Library
Brown's French Renaissance design was influenced by his studies at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. It's chockablock with classical design elements like the portico and Doric colonnades. The huge gilded dome, which forms the famous and spectacular interior rotunda, was inspired by the Dôme des Invalides in Paris.

Dôme des Invalides in Paris
City Hall wasn't designed as just a pretty face. As with much of the classical-inspired civic architecture built at the turn of the last century, it symbolized something much greater:

Even though most of the work was done by October 1915, the new City Hall was publicly dedicated on December 28, 1915. The cost of the building was just shy of $4 million, which is about $93 million in today's dollars. The timing matched up perfectly with the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition down near the Marina, which was no coincidence. The Exposition Company funded its construction as part of the Civic Center—tying the PPIE to the city's efforts to rebuild in a unified way after the 1906 earthquake and fire. The Bill Graham Civic Auditorium was the first structure completed in Civic Center in time for the fair, but City Hall was a close second.

Civic Center continued to grow as a nod to Beaux Arts planning. Though not the first civic center design for the city (that honor goes to Daniel Burnham's super-rad plan from 1904, which was destroyed in the old city hall's Hall of Records and never revisited), the idea started back in 1899. Cartographer Bernard J.S. Cahill lobbied then-mayor Phelan for a new civic center with monumental structures set off against new open spaces. Even though Burnham's plan was well liked by the public, Cahill's plan reused existing city-owned lands. Both plans channeled the then-popular "City Beautiful" movement, which emphasized formal design on a monumental scale and neoclassical buildings with plazas and boulevards. In the end, a hybrid of the plans (PDF) was developed. The remainder of the buildings (the main library/Asian Art Museum, State Building, Public Health Building, Old Federal Building, Opera House, and Veterans Building) was constructed over the next few decades and wrapped up by 1933. The San Francisco Civic Center was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1987.

The city is planning a big party tonight—after all, you only turn 100 once. Starting at 6 p.m. there'll be live music with bands playing SF hits from 1915 through today, a silent disco, a Ferris wheel, a cabaret, loads of decorations around Civic Center Plaza, and a light show at 9:30 p.m. · San Francisco City Hall Competition [Building and Industrial News—July 16, 1912]
· Old City Hall: Corruption & Racism in 19th Century San Francisco [Shaping San Francisco]
· San Francisco Landmark #21—City Hall [SF Planning]
· Previous Coverage of the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition [Curbed SF]
· Daniel Burnham's San Francisco Plan [Curbed SF]
· San Francisco Civic Center Historic District Cultural Landscape Inventory [MIG via SF Planning]
· National Historic Landmark San Francisco Civic Center [NPS]
· San Francisco City Hall Centennial Celebration [City and County of San Francisco]

San Francisco City Hall

1 Doctor Carlton B Goodlett Place, , CA 94102 Visit Website