The Civic Center – San Francisco's Beaux Arts Centerpiece

San Francisco's Civic Center contains the finest collection of Beaux Arts buildings in America. The centerpiece is City Hall, which takes up two full city blocks on Polk Street. Across the street is the headquarters of the Supreme Court of California, and nearby is the Asian Art Museum, the War Memorial Opera House, the Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall, and the Herbst Theatre.

Considered the hub of local, state and federal government, plus the center of the city's cultural activities, Civic Center Plaza is also the gathering place for many of San Francisco's top events and parades — Gay Pride, Earth Day, St Patrick's Day, and many others. There's a lot to do and see here for both visitors and locals alike. Let's look at a few fascinating details about its history and its place in the city.

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The Mastermind

Civic Center

The mastermind behind the City Beautiful movement, architect Daniel Burnham (1846-1912), was commissioned to design San Francisco's master plan. He was invited to consult with millionaire and former mayor James Phelan, who was concerned about the ugliness of the current building construction in San Francisco that, in his opinion, was blighting the city.

Burnham arrived with his young assistant, Willis Polk (1867-1924), who was immensely impressed with the setting. In 1904, Polk set up a temporary office on Twin Peaks so he could look down on the terrain that San Francisco would soon occupy, while we worked out his vision of the city's future.

Polk was lightyears ahead of his time, suggesting new ideas such as one-way streets, subways, and residential neighborhoods where backyards would merge onto shared parkland. His forward-thinking plans included preserving the crest of the hills with curved roads that would follow the contours of the land rather than conventional gridiron patterns. He also designed a park for Twin Peaks with landscaped hills and a watercourse that would carry the city's water supply from reservoirs.

The Earthquake of 1906

The Earthquake of 1906

Before any real action on Polk's ideas could take place, San Francisco was hit with the 1906 earthquake and the subsequent fire. All plans were put on the back-burner. But, the pair of planners were not ready to give up. With the backing of enthusiastic supporters, Polk and Burnham set a campaign in motion to rebuild San Francisco.

Burnham salvaged part of his project and convinced city financial supervisors to back the monumental Civic Center. However, it wasn't until after Burnham's death in 1912 that the plan was set in motion.

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Sunny Jim & City Hall

City Hall

The man largely responsible for actually getting City Hall built was "Sunny" Jim Rolph, mayor of San Francisco from 1912 to 1931, nearly two decades. He presided over the city during its rebuilding after the earthquake and considered City Hall his proudest achievement. Other projects initiated on his watch were the first San Francisco Public Library,the Civic Auditorium, and the Bay Bridge.

Arthur Brown Jr (1874-1947) had attended the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris with his friend and fraternity brother, John Bakewell Jr (1872-1963). Upon their return to their native San Francisco, the two men set up an architectural firm where they won a pivotal contest to design the key building in SF Civic Centre master plan, the City Hall itself.

Ignoring sensible restrictions, Brown and Bakewell created a plan for a Beaux-Arts structure that even by today's standards would have been exorbitant in design and expense. In current dollars, the structure would cost $80 million to build, a large amount for a small city. The new team's design beat out established architects from across the country, and their victory catapulted them to fame. The chief architect is considered to be Arthur Brown, whose attention to detail knew no limits. He's said to have personally designed the doorknobs and even the font used in the building's signage.

Following the lead of the City Hall design, in 1936 the War Memorial Opera House and the Veteran's Building were added to the Civic Center. Today they all still stand as a unified square of stately and ornate Beaux Arts architecture.

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What You Will Find at the Civic Center in San Francisco

Davies Symphony Hall

The SF Symphony at Davies Symphony Hall
Chong-Moon Lee Center – The Asian Art Museum
Ballet in the War Memorial Opera House
San Francisco Opera in the War Memorial Opera House
The San Francisco Library
The Herbst Theatre in the Veterans Building
Civic Center Plaza
The Civic Center

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