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A New Guide Points to Buildings That Unlock SF's Secret Past

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No one knows San Francisco like John King, the San Francisco Chronicle's Urban Design Critic for the last 14 years. Not only has he covered the massive changes brought about by development, he's written his second guidebook to SF's architecture. Cityscapes2: Reading the Architecture of San Francisco is a must for anyone who loves design, architecture, and history. Our favorite section is Clues, a chapter that looks at buildings that carry information about the city's past. "The longer you do a column like mine, looking at individual slices of the city, the more you see," says King. "The links between buildings aren't necessarily related to size or style or age, but the marks left by cultural trends or even the way that old building reveals different aspects as the neighbors around it change."

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1. Vaillancourt Fountain

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Justin Herman Plaza
San Francisco, CA 94102
(415) 831-2700

In the book, King notes this sculpture has caused more public uproar than any other. In fact, when it was new, architectural critic Allan Temko likened it to the waste of "a concrete dog with square intestines." King says that a structure this overwrought might be designed to distract attention from something even larger — and in this case, that something is the long-gone Embarcadero Freeway (which was demolished after the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989).

2. 573 South Van Ness Avenue

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573 South Van Ness Avenue
San Francisco, CA 94110

King looks at this lone Victorian (sandwiched between a paint store and a gas station) as a marker of the city's past. Back in 1900, when this resplendent home was built by brewer Peter Windler, it was one of many Painted Ladies that lined the block. Fifty of those homes survived the 1906 earthquake; but only one, this one, survived the forces of development after the area was rezoned for commercial use in the 1930s.

3. Park Lane Apartments

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1100 Sacramento Street
San Francisco, CA 94108

In his book, King says this building is a reminder that booms and busts are nothing new in San Francisco. When the lower, unornamented part of this apartment building was constructed atop Nob Hill, it was a staid affair. Five years later, in order to cash in on good economic times, developers added the top three floors with an elaborate, some would say ostentatious, facade. "When there’s a boom, developers will try to capitalize on it — in this case by adding several floors to a building that already existed," says King. "But the joke was on them, because the gaudy top floors opened just as Wall Street crashed."

4. 400 Grant Avenue

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400 Grant Avenue
San Francisco, CA 94108

King calls the unmistakable look of San Francisco's Chinatown an act of community self preservation. After the 1906 earthquake, civic leaders attempted to move the ethnic community to the far southern reaches of the city. In order to hang on to their valuable land, owners of the destroyed properties rebuilt as fast as possible while adding unmistakable flair. Their goal was to turn the area into a destination while preserving the ethnic character. Even the surviving buildings were remade with pagodas, Fu dogs, and the like. This lodging house was recast as the Mandarin, and it was advertised as "the most elaborately decorated restaurant in America with strictly Chinese and Oriental motifs." The restaurant is gone, but the aesthetic lives on. Wade through the throngs of tourists in today's Chinatown, and you can see the overall design strategy worked.

5. Palace of Fine Arts

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3301 Lyon St
San Francisco, CA 94123
(415) 563-6504
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Bernard Maybeck's Palace of Fine Arts is the lone survivor of this city's 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition—a World's Fair that celebrated the rebirth of the city after the 1906 quake. Maybeck designed it with a melancholy theme: It represents the point when sadness turns to contentment. Back then, it was a papier-mâché cover for a wooden stage. In 1967 is was redone in concrete and updated further in 2011. King writes: "What endures is the aura of an immense and otherworldly realm."

6. Holy Virgin Cathedral

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6210 Geary Boulevard
San Francisco, CA 94121

This cathedral sited on the far reaches of Geary is graced with five golden onion domes. It distinguishes the area as a long-time enclave of Russian immigrants. King says that, when viewing it, "You realize that every district of a city has veins of diversity that run deep."

7. Marquard's Little Cigar Store

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201 O'Farrell Street
San Francisco, CA 94102

Look at the sign on Marquard's and you almost feel like you are seeing into the past, to a time when newsstands populated many street corners. That's what this place was—a place that sold newspapers, magazines, and (obviously) cigars and cigarettes. In 2005, it was replaced by a company that sells baseball caps, but city planners said the marquee should stay, as witness to "signage of a bygone era." King says: "We all love physical relics and remnants of past times. But when the neon newsstand sign glows above a franchised baseball cap shop, is this preservation — or civic self-delusion?"

8. 255 Hyde Street

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255 Hyde Street
San Francisco, CA 94102

This tragedy mask is stationed near his happier twin, the comedy mask, on the building at 255 Hyde Street. Back in the day, it was where reels of film where stored. Such a repository was needed, as there were more than 100 movie houses in the years before television took hold. Due to the need for climate control, the building is made of concrete. Today, it houses a homeless clinic.

9. 290 Lombard Street

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290 Lombard Street
San Francisco, CA 94133

King says that if you see a building that's much taller than those around it, it is likely because neighbors pitched a fit when it went went up. That's the case with this seven-story apartment building on Telegraph Hill. A member of the Ghirardelli family had it built, and many in the neighborhood were so incensed they, as King says, made sure there was no sequel. He points out that the disgruntled neighbors may have won the building code battle, but the residents in 290 Lombard are the ultimate victors: They needn't worry that another tall building will block their views.

10. Embarcadero Substation

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401 Folsom Street
San Francisco, CA 94105

The now-demolished Embarcadero Freeway used to hide this utilitarian PG&E transformer station. But when the roadway went down and condo and apartment towers started to rise, it came into full view. King writes that the substation tells of a time when downtown SF was a place to work, not live.

1. Vaillancourt Fountain

Justin Herman Plaza, San Francisco, CA 94102

In the book, King notes this sculpture has caused more public uproar than any other. In fact, when it was new, architectural critic Allan Temko likened it to the waste of "a concrete dog with square intestines." King says that a structure this overwrought might be designed to distract attention from something even larger — and in this case, that something is the long-gone Embarcadero Freeway (which was demolished after the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989).

Justin Herman Plaza
San Francisco, CA 94102

2. 573 South Van Ness Avenue

573 South Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94110

King looks at this lone Victorian (sandwiched between a paint store and a gas station) as a marker of the city's past. Back in 1900, when this resplendent home was built by brewer Peter Windler, it was one of many Painted Ladies that lined the block. Fifty of those homes survived the 1906 earthquake; but only one, this one, survived the forces of development after the area was rezoned for commercial use in the 1930s.

573 South Van Ness Avenue
San Francisco, CA 94110

3. Park Lane Apartments

1100 Sacramento Street, San Francisco, CA 94108

In his book, King says this building is a reminder that booms and busts are nothing new in San Francisco. When the lower, unornamented part of this apartment building was constructed atop Nob Hill, it was a staid affair. Five years later, in order to cash in on good economic times, developers added the top three floors with an elaborate, some would say ostentatious, facade. "When there’s a boom, developers will try to capitalize on it — in this case by adding several floors to a building that already existed," says King. "But the joke was on them, because the gaudy top floors opened just as Wall Street crashed."

1100 Sacramento Street
San Francisco, CA 94108

4. 400 Grant Avenue

400 Grant Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94108

King calls the unmistakable look of San Francisco's Chinatown an act of community self preservation. After the 1906 earthquake, civic leaders attempted to move the ethnic community to the far southern reaches of the city. In order to hang on to their valuable land, owners of the destroyed properties rebuilt as fast as possible while adding unmistakable flair. Their goal was to turn the area into a destination while preserving the ethnic character. Even the surviving buildings were remade with pagodas, Fu dogs, and the like. This lodging house was recast as the Mandarin, and it was advertised as "the most elaborately decorated restaurant in America with strictly Chinese and Oriental motifs." The restaurant is gone, but the aesthetic lives on. Wade through the throngs of tourists in today's Chinatown, and you can see the overall design strategy worked.

400 Grant Avenue
San Francisco, CA 94108

5. Palace of Fine Arts

3301 Lyon St, San Francisco, CA 94123

Bernard Maybeck's Palace of Fine Arts is the lone survivor of this city's 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition—a World's Fair that celebrated the rebirth of the city after the 1906 quake. Maybeck designed it with a melancholy theme: It represents the point when sadness turns to contentment. Back then, it was a papier-mâché cover for a wooden stage. In 1967 is was redone in concrete and updated further in 2011. King writes: "What endures is the aura of an immense and otherworldly realm."

3301 Lyon St
San Francisco, CA 94123

6. Holy Virgin Cathedral

6210 Geary Boulevard, San Francisco, CA 94121

This cathedral sited on the far reaches of Geary is graced with five golden onion domes. It distinguishes the area as a long-time enclave of Russian immigrants. King says that, when viewing it, "You realize that every district of a city has veins of diversity that run deep."

6210 Geary Boulevard
San Francisco, CA 94121

7. Marquard's Little Cigar Store

201 O'Farrell Street, San Francisco, CA 94102

Look at the sign on Marquard's and you almost feel like you are seeing into the past, to a time when newsstands populated many street corners. That's what this place was—a place that sold newspapers, magazines, and (obviously) cigars and cigarettes. In 2005, it was replaced by a company that sells baseball caps, but city planners said the marquee should stay, as witness to "signage of a bygone era." King says: "We all love physical relics and remnants of past times. But when the neon newsstand sign glows above a franchised baseball cap shop, is this preservation — or civic self-delusion?"

201 O'Farrell Street
San Francisco, CA 94102

8. 255 Hyde Street

255 Hyde Street, San Francisco, CA 94102

This tragedy mask is stationed near his happier twin, the comedy mask, on the building at 255 Hyde Street. Back in the day, it was where reels of film where stored. Such a repository was needed, as there were more than 100 movie houses in the years before television took hold. Due to the need for climate control, the building is made of concrete. Today, it houses a homeless clinic.

255 Hyde Street
San Francisco, CA 94102

9. 290 Lombard Street

290 Lombard Street, San Francisco, CA 94133

King says that if you see a building that's much taller than those around it, it is likely because neighbors pitched a fit when it went went up. That's the case with this seven-story apartment building on Telegraph Hill. A member of the Ghirardelli family had it built, and many in the neighborhood were so incensed they, as King says, made sure there was no sequel. He points out that the disgruntled neighbors may have won the building code battle, but the residents in 290 Lombard are the ultimate victors: They needn't worry that another tall building will block their views.

290 Lombard Street
San Francisco, CA 94133

10. Embarcadero Substation

401 Folsom Street, San Francisco, CA 94105

The now-demolished Embarcadero Freeway used to hide this utilitarian PG&E transformer station. But when the roadway went down and condo and apartment towers started to rise, it came into full view. King writes that the substation tells of a time when downtown SF was a place to work, not live.

401 Folsom Street
San Francisco, CA 94105