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San Francisco's 7 most explosive demolitions

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From the demise of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition to the destruction of the Embarcadero Freeway

Editor's Note: This post was originally published in February 2015 and has been updated with the most recent information.

Two years ago, demolition crews rolled into Candlestick Park and took it down piece by piece to clear the site for a massive mixed-use housing and commercial development. The destruction of what many considered to be an iconic structure (it was, after all, once the home of the San Francisco Giants and the 49ers) left a hole in the heart of many.

And while the city is teeming with a bevy of new projects, let us not forget the ‘Stick or the other structures we’ve left behind. Here now is a look back at some of San Francisco's most epic demolitions from the past century.

Embarcadero Freeway demo in 1991.
Embarcadero Freeway in 1991.
Photo courtesy of SF Public Library
Section of the Embarcadero Freeway in front of the Ferry Building during demolition in 1991.
Photo via Wikicommons
The Embarcadero in the 1980s.
Photo via Telstar Logistics
The Ferry Building and Embarcadero in the 1960s.
Photo via Telstar Logistics

↑Embarcadero Freeway demolition

Built in 1958, the elevated 1.2-mile Embarcadero Freeway was originally designed as part of a larger network of proposed highways crisscrossing the city, most of which were never built thanks to San Francisco's famous freeway revolt. There were calls for its demolition in 1986, but voters eventually decided against taking it down over concerns about increased traffic.

The 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake solved this argument, causing so much structural damage that the roadway was considered beyond repair. The freeway was torn down in 1991, opening up the city to the Ferry Building and spurring a renaissance of businesses along the water.

Dome and facade after demolition in the 1990s. Photo via SF City Guides
Dome and facade after demolition. Photos via SF City Guides
Ruins of the Emporium department store after the earthquake and fire of 1906. Photo via a SF Public Library

Ruins of the Emporium department store after the earthquake and fire of 1906.

↑Emporium Building

The Emporium opened at Market and Fifth streets in 1896. It was originally constructed to hold one tenant, but eventually got rented to several individual merchants. Soon it became the location of the already successful Golden Rule Bazaar. All but the front of the building was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake and fire, and the rest was reconstructed two years later.

The store closed permanently in 1996 to be redeveloped as part of the adjacent San Francisco Shopping Center (a.k.a. Westfield), but a historic preservation battle royale ensued. The original construction plans called for preserving the building's facade and historic glass dome, but they failed to retain the front 65 feet of the original structure (the entrances and lobby, mostly) as required. A lawsuit followed, leading to a $2.5 million settlement that is used for preservation grants.

↑Playland at the Beach

In 1923, George and Leo Whitney opened a photofinishing concession booth along the beach, and slowly began buying out the other concessionaires under the name Playland at the Beach. Whitney tore down the Big Dipper roller coaster in the late 1950s, and stopped operating Playland in 1968. Many of the old Playland concessions are now housed at the Musée Mécanique on Fisherman's Wharf.

It was eventually sold to developers in 1971 and torn down on September 4, 1972, to make room for condos.

Letterman Hospital demolition in 2002.
Letterman Hospital demolition in 2002.
Photos via Mister SF

↑Letterman Hospital

Letterman Hospital in the Presidio was originally built in 1898, and served as a West Coast hospital for every US foreign conflict in the 20th century. The original building was demolished in the 1960s for a new modern hospital, but that (supposedly haunted) one was abandoned in 1994 when the Army base was transferred to the National Park Service. It was demolished in 2002 to make room for Lucasfilm to build the Letterman Digital Arts Center in its place.

Photos via SF Public Library


↑Sutro Baths

Adolph Sutro's baths opened in 1896 as the world's largest indoor swimming pool. In 1937 Sutro's grandson converted part of the baths into an ice-skating rink, which was expanded in the early 1950s. But popularity waned and the ice-skating profits couldn't sustain the enormous building. A major fire ripped through the baths in June 1966, under circumstances some people found suspicious. In 1964 developers bought the site and drafted plans to replace the baths with high-rise apartments, but after the fire in 1966, nothing was ever built.

Fall of the Arch of the Rising Sun.
Fall of the Arch of the Rising Sun.
Demolition of Palace of Machinery.
Demolition of Palace of Machinery.
Demolition of the Court of the Universe.
Demolition of the Court of the Universe.
Demolition of Italian Tower.
Demolition of Italian Tower.
Demolition of Italian Tower at entrance to Court of Palms.
Demolition of Italian Tower at entrance to Court of Palms.
Graveyard of the Gods.
Demolition of Panama-Pacific International Exposition.
Demolition of Panama-Pacific International Exposition.
Photos via SF Public Library

↑Panama-Pacific International Exposition

Back in 1915, San Francisco hosted the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, a celebration of the completion of the Panama Canal and a showcase of the rebuilding of the city after the 1906 earthquake. As with many other world's fairs, the physical structures were built to be temporary and most were torn down shortly after the fair closed. The Palace of Fine Arts was the only building spared from demolition at the end of the fair. After years of deterioration, it was restored and rebuilt in the 1960s.

Candlestick Park taken apart piece by piece.
Candlestick Park taken apart piece by piece.
Photos by Patricia Chang
Demolition of Candlestick Park, former home of the 49ers. Photo by Patricia Chang

↑Candlestick Park

No implosions or wrecking balls helped destroy the ‘Stick. To reduce dust, crews dismantled the stadium piece by piece over the course of several months using machinery that will sprayed down the pieces with water. The Giants headed to AT&T Park in South Beach (where they won three World Series titles) and the 49ers headed somewhere outside of the Bay Area altogether (earning the ire and scorn of lifelong fans).

A 500,000-square-foot outdoor mall by Lennar Urban is poised to be part of the old park. The community will be called Candlestick Point and will include thousands of new homes, hundreds of acres of new parks, new office space, and a hotel.