San Francisco’s Civic Center area, which encompasses a number of excellent classical-style buildings and well as some modern structures, is a real treat for lovers of architecture.
After much of San Francisco was flattened by the 1906 earthquake and fire, plans were made for a new center for government institutions, built in the fashionable Beaux-Arts style.
The driving spirit behind the project was mayor ‘Sunny Jim’ Rolph, elected in 1911. He made the creation of the new Civic Center one of his priorities and in 1915, the first building – the Civic Auditorium – was completed. It was followed by a new city hall, opera house and concert hall. Even more governmental and cultural buildings were added later.
Civic Center Overview
Civic Center is laid out around a large symmetrical square, the Civic Center Plaza. The plaza is flanked on the south by the area’s first post-1906 building, the Civic Auditorium. Bordering the Civic Center Plaza to the west side is Civic Center’s most impressive building: the palatial City Hall.
At the other, east end of the plaza is the beautiful Old Library Building (now the Asian Art Museum) and the 1995 San Francisco Main Public Library, designed by Pei Cobb Freed & Partners. Between the two library buildings is the Pioneer Monument, created by Frank Happersberger in 1894. One of the few structures that survived the 1906 earthquake, the monument depicts a statue of ‘California’ surrounded by several figures, including an Indian, gold diggers and a Spanish monk.
One further block east is another plaza, the United Nations Plaza. The name is a reference to the United Nations Charter of 1945 that was signed in the nearby Veterans Building.
Some of the most important buildings in the area are located on the west side of Civic Center, where you’ll find the State Building, Veterans Building, Opera House and Symphony Hall.
Notable Civic Center Buildings
The present City Hall in San Francisco was built in 1915 and replaced a previous building that was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake. A Beaux-Arts structure designed by architect Arthur Brown, City Hall is massive at 390 feet long (119 m.) and about 273 feet wide (83 m.). It covers about 500,000 square feet (46,000 m2) or nearly two city blocks. Its dome is one of the largest in the world. The exterior is faced with granite, and the inside uses various marbles and sandstone to cover the walls. Statues of former mayors can be found inside as well.
War Memorial Opera House
This beautiful 3,146-seat opera house has been home to the San Francisco Opera Company since 1932. Considered to be one of the last Beaux-Arts buildings constructed in America, the opera house boasts beautiful Roman Doric columns and arch-headed windows. The building was designed by Arthur Brown and G. Albert Lansburgh. Inside, the building is quite ornate, featuring lovely coffered ceilings, beautiful staircases, massive chandeliers, and lots of gilded sculpture. The building suffered severe damage in the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989 and required extensive renovation.
Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall
One of the newer buildings in the Civic Center complex, Symphony Hall, was built in 1980 and gave a permanent home to the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. Modern in design, the building was created by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and Pietro Belluschi. The concert venue seats about 2,700 patrons and is also home to a wonderful 5-manual pipe organ. Sculpture lovers should look for Henry Moore’s “Large Four Piece Reclining Figure” (1973) outside the theater.
Earl Warren (California State) Building
This attractive building is on California’s National Register of Historic Places. Named for the former Chief Justice of the U.S. and designed in the American Renaissance style, the original structure was six stories high and 372 feet long (113 m.). Two wings were added in the 1930s. The facade is faced in gray California granite and terracotta-simulating granite. The three-story base is topped by two stories of alternating arched and pedimented windows. Italian Renaissance ornaments also grace the facade, and three monumental arches can be found at the McAllister Street entrance.