Have friends or family in town this summer and no idea what to do with them until it's time to eat again? Convince your parents you do more than just drink beer in Dolores Park by taking them on a tour of historical sites in the Bay Area. Impress visitors with your local knowledge, and maybe even learn a little something along the way. While some may be well-known and full of other wayward tourists (they are famous for a reason, after all), we tried to include a few hidden gems too. Here now is the Curbed SF Quick & Dirty History Tour for Out-of-Towners.Read More
Play Tour Guide and Impress Visitors with Your SF History Skills
Union Iron Works
In 1849 Irish immigrant Peter Donahue and two brothers established the first iron casting foundry in California. Soon known as Union Iron Works, it produced architectural iron work and mining machinery before focusing on large-scale shipbuilding. The company could produce virtually anything needed to build large steel ships in its own shops. The surrounding neighborhoods soon became immigrant enclaves for the Irish, Scottish, and German-born shipbuilders. The Union Iron Works was sold to the Bethlehem Steel Corporation in 1905, where it became one of the biggest producers of ships during World War I and II.
On July 13, 1898, the ferry building opened for public use as a depot. The 235 foot clock tower was modeled after the Giralda of the Cathedral of Seville. he building was hardly touched by the 1906 earthquake, due in part to its formidable reinforced-concrete foundation. Until the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges opened in the late 1930s, Union Ferry Depot served 50 million bay commuters a year.
Bank of Italy
From 1908 to 1921, this building served as headquarters for Bank of Italy, now renamed Bank of America - perhaps you've heard of it? Amadeo Peter Giannini, the son of Italian immigrants, built the tiny bank into one of the largest commercial banks in the world.
The 853 foot tall Transamerica Pyramid was designed by William Pereira. When it was completed in 1972, it was the tallest skyscraper in San Francisco and the eighth tallest building in the world. Ironically, the demolition of block where the Transamerica Pyramid now stands, followed by the demolition of Pennsylvania Station in New York City four years later, was a catalyst for the architectural preservation movement.
City Lights Bookstore
City Lights was founded in 1953 by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Peter D. Martin, and propelled the Beat generation into the global spotlight. Both the store and the publishers became widely known following the obscenity trial of Ferlinghetti for publishing Allen Ginsberg's influential collection Howl and Other Poems.
Cable Car Barn
Now the San Francisco Cable Car Museum, the Washington and Mason Cable Car Barn was constructed from 1885 to 1887. The building at first housed the cable cars and propelling machinery for the Powell Street Railway Company. Power was supplied to the engines from steam boilers until 1906, after which the system was converted to electric motor operation.
House of the Flag
This house became a landmar for its dramatic rescue from the 1906 Earthquake & Fire. As the fire approached, the owner raised the American flag on a staff beside the house. A company of soldiers saw it from below and were inspired to charge up the hill to fight the fire. The soldiers are credited with saving the house and protecting the rest of the Russian Hill.
Built for a Sugar magnate, now occupied by reclusive romance novelist. This house's story could write itself.
The Old Mint
The second mint in San Francisco opened at Fifth and Mission Streets in 1875. It survived the 1906 Earthquake and Fire due to its iron shutters and the Mint employees and soldiers fought the fire to protect the $200,000,000 stored in the vaults. Architect A.B. Mullett designed a monumental, Classical Revival building. It remained in operation until 1937 when the third mint was built further to the west on Market Street.
San Francisco City Hall
San Francisco City Hall was completed in early 1916, designed in the classical style of Greece and Rome as taught the École des Beaux Arts in Paris. A symbol of rebirth of the City and its government after the 1906 Earthquake and Fire, the City Hall was planned and executed as the focus and key structure of the grandiose Civic Center complex. Ever since it's been the site of some of the country's most historic actions.
The Alamo Square Historic District contains distinguished residential architecture built between 1870 and 1929. It contains the Painted Ladies - a block of Victorian houses along Steiner Street (made famous by the opening credits of Full House).
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Built in 1914, the San Francisco Armory was home to the National Guard. It acted as a social and recreation center for Guardsmen, as well as "the Madison Square Garden of the West". By the late 1960s it was declared obsolete and the National Guard moved to Fort Funston. In 1976, George Lucas used the Drill Court to film some scenes for Star Wars, but plans to convert the building into a full-time film studio never materialized. Today it's occupied by, ahem, film studios Kink.com.
Misión San Francisco de Asís, commonly called Mission Dolores, is considered the oldest essentially unaltered building in San Francisco. The present Mission stands on or near the site of the original Mission founded in 1776 by Father Francisco Palou under the direction of Father Junipero Serra. The current building was built in 1782-1791 by the Franciscan Fathers and the Mission Indians. A structural renovation was carried out in 1920 under the direction of SF starchitect Willis Polk.
From 1973-1978 the storefront served a dual purpose as Harvey Milk's retail photography shop, Castro Camera, and as Milk's headquarters for his four campaigns for public office. The fourth campaign resulted in Milk's election to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and changed the tenor of politics in San Francisco.
Named for Adolph Sutro, a Prussia-born Gold Rush engineer and real estate investor who was elected mayor of San Francisco in 1894, the Sutro Tower's antennas reach 1,811 feet above sea level. Sutro's grandson built a mansion on the hill in the 1930s and sold it in 1948 to American Broadcasting Company, for use as the transmitter site for its new television station, KGO-TV.
Glen Canyon Park
In 1868, Glen Canyon was the site of the first commercial manufacturing of dynamite in the United States. The Giant Powder Company leased land in what was then the sparsely populated area of Glen Canyon. An explosion at the factory on November 26, 1869 killed two and injured nine others, essentially destroying the factory complex. In 1889, the area was sold to the Crocker Real Estate Company, who attracted home owners by constructing an amusement park that included balloon ascents and a tightrope walk across the canyon. Glen Canyon purchased by the Recreation and Parks Department in 1922 and the recreation center was constructed under the WPA in 1937.
The fort was established in 1900 by World War I construction began for a parade ground, barracks, and a series of coastal batteries. After World War II the batteries were no longer used, but the fort became a Nike missile launch site during the Cold War. It was deactivated in 1963 and eventually became part of the GGNRA. Now it's one of the premier hang-gliding spots in the country.
The Dutch Windmill, conceived by John McLaren and Adolph Spreckels, was designed by San Franciscan Alpheus Bull Jr. and built in 1902 for $25,000. The windmill was situated near the Pacific Ocean to capture the prevailing westerly winds and use the energy to pump water for The Park's irrigation system. In 1913, motorized pumps were installed to augment the wind.
Adolph Sutro, the self-made millionaire-turned-mayor, developed the Sutro Baths in 1894. The massive baths held 1.7 million gallons of water and could be filled in one hour by the high tide. Sutro’s grandson converted part of the baths into an ice-skating rink in 1937, which was later 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. Some people thought it was under suspicious circumstances. In 1964, developers bought the site with plans to replace the baths with high-rise apartments. After the fire in 1966, nothing was ever built.
Conservatory of Flowers
Constructed between l878 and 1879, the Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park is one of the largest in the United States, covering 12,533 square feet. It was patterned after The Conservatory, Kew Gardens, England.
Presidio of San Francisco
The Presidio warrants a historical tour all of its own, but here is the Cliffnotes version as you drive through: formally established in 1776, the San Francisco Presidio has served as a military headquarters by Spain, Mexico, and the United States (it was major command post during the Mexican War, Civil War, Spanish-American War, World Wars I and II, and the Korean War).
Earthquake Refugee Shacks
The 1906 Earthquake & Fire destroyed 500 city blocks and left 250,000 citizens (over half the city's population) homeless. The Army ran 21 refugee camps, and union carpenters built more than 5,000 small wooden cottages. Tenants paid $2/month toward the total cost of $50. Once the cottage was all paid off, the owner had the responsibility to move it from the camp to a permanent location. Owners would build extensions onto them or even hodge-podge a few together to make a bigger house. The surviving shacks are scattered all over the city, but two cottages are preserved at the Presidio today.
Golden Gate Bridge
If you don't take your visitors here, you may have your SF citizenship revoked. Here are some factoids to impress: Construction of the bridge started in 1933; the bridge's 4,200 feet of clear span (from tower to tower) was the longest in the world until 1959; the patented orange color is officially named International Orange.
Palace of Fine Arts
Designed by Bernard Maybeck, the Palace of Fine Arts was constructed for the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition. The entirety of the Palace of Fine Arts was supposed to meet its doom at the end of the fair like all the others. But instead it was saved from demolition by the Palace Preservation League, founded by Phoebe Apperson Hearst.
Aquatic Park, developed from 1936 to 1939, was one of California's largest WPA projects. The Maritime Museum is a Streamline Moderne" building made to evoke nautical lines like a ship. The Aquatic Park lagoon occupies the site of the former Black Point Cove, which was partially filled in during the early 20th Century. The lagoon was supplied with new sand, most of it coming from excavations in downtown San Francisco for the Union Square underground parking garage which was built in 1941.
Alcatraz Island is more than a famous prison - it was the site of the first lighthouse and US-built fort on the West Coast, the infamous federal penitentiary, and the 18 month occupation by Indians of All Tribes. Though the ferry ride and tour tickets are expensive, they are well worth the price.