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The midcentury-modern spiral garage you may not have noticed

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Union Square structure has been copied many times over

Photo by Brock Keeling

Editor’s note: Originally published in March 2014, this article has been updated with the most recent information.

You may not give much thought to parking garages, but down at Mason and O’Farrell you will find a pretty special one. With an unexpected architectural pedigree, this nine-story midcentury garage has lots of hidden surprises.

The Downtown Center Garage, as it was originally named, was built in 1953 in between Union Square and the then-booming theater districts. It was designed by Oakland-born architect George Applegarth, who studied under Bernard Maybeck. While he may not be the most recognizable name, you definitely know Applegarth work—the Palace of the Legion of Honor and the Spreckels Mansion, to name a few. The classically trained Beaux Arts architect designed the garage as one of his final projects.

April 1955 issue of Architect and Engineer. 
April 1955 issue of Architect and Engineer.
Image via San Francisco Public Library internet archive

In addition to double ramps that extend from the basement to the roof, there’s an extra level of modern flair with tubular steel railings wrapping around the ramps. When it was first built, it also had the fanciest garage lobby in town.

The double spiral ramp seems common in garages now, but it was a big deal at the time—so much so that it landed on the cover of Architect & Engineer magazine.

Today the ground floor has been filled in with retail spaces, but the garage itself looks pretty much the same, with a little more wear and tear brought on by years of use.

Garage lobby back in the 1950s.
Image via San Francisco Public Library internet archive

The structure has since been copied over years in other cities. In 2018, it stands proud with a two other notable San Francisco parking garages with equal acclaim—the abstract-modern garage at 450 South Street, noted for its perforated white aluminum and winner of the 2010 AIA San Francisco Excellence in Architecture Award, and the UCSF Medical Center Parking Structure, a ten-story that received a citation of recognition from AIA San Francisco.

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UCSF Medical Center Parking Structure.
UCSF Medical Center Parking Structure.
Photo by Sergio Ruiz/SPUR