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SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA JANUARY 15, 1996

CITY HALL

October 17,1989, was an exciting day. The Giants had made it to the
World Series for the first time since 1962. They were playing the
Oakland Athletics. I left City Hall early. I was on my way home on the
Number Eight Market trolley bus to pick up my son, Ivan. I was going
to take him out to Candlestick Park. As the bus turned the corner
at18th and Castro and started heading up toward Collingwood, it
began to sway violently. I thought that we had been in an accident.

I quickly realized that there had been an earthquake. …

Later that evening my brother, Mark, arrived with Juliette. The World
Series Game had been cancelled. Ivan, Mark and I drove across the
town. People had taken it upon themselves to direct traffic through
major intersections like Geary and Divisadero that had become
uncontrolled when the loss of power shut down the street lights.

Coming upon the Marina, we saw an extraordinary spectacle.


Emergency personnel and some citizens were frantically engaged in
the fight to save the district. Many people strolled amidst the detritus
taking in the spectacle as if they were at the boardwalk. Others, dazed
and disoriented, were wandering about apparently unable to grasp
what was happening. …

My attention turned to City Hall where I worked. Leaving the building


as the quake struck, one of my colleagues saw the main pillars in the
lobby swaying back and forth. Some of the elegant marble sheets
cladding the walls of the stairways came loose. City Hall was closed
for several days as officials concentrated on dealing with collapsed and
hazardous structures and displaced persons, especially in the Marina
and the South of Market areas.

I was concerned about City Hall. … I doubted that the building was
designed to carry the load standing above our heads. …

The collapse of the marble cladding in the stairwells was also a source
of concern and made me realize how heavy those marble sheets were.
Even more troubling were the supporting walls of the stairwells,
exposed when the marble fell off. Made of hollow terra cotta bricks,
the walls had been designed to absorb the energy of an earthquake by
crumbling. They had performed their function. However, once they
had crumbled, they were no longer stable or capable of carrying a load
or absorbing any more shock.

It was evident that City Hall was in difficulty. Nevertheless, the


Director of Public Works issued a proclamation certifying that the
building was safe and that City employees could reenter for work.
Little did we know that a debate was raging among the City’s
engineers about the safety of the building. After two years of haggling,
the Superintendent of the Bureau of Building Inspection issued a report
that was delivered the day after he resigned. The report concluded
that City Hall was hazardous and needed major structural retrofitting.
City Hall would have to be closed down for major repairs. After
working almost twenty-five years in City Hall, I would be required to
vacate my office. It was only after we were forced to leave that I
realized what an important symbol City Hall had become for me.

City Hall is a neoclassical, beaux art building. In 1970 it still retained


its Nineteenth Century ethos even though it was built in the Twentieth
Century. The structure was a monument to the City’s rebirth after
1906. The new City Hall atoned for the sins of earlier generations of
leaders who had been bribed into squandering the City’s riches on
corrupt contractors and kickbacks. A salient consequence of this
profligacy was the collapse in the Earthquake of the old City Hall and
the uncompleted Hall of Records. Many of the walls had been filled
with rubble rather that concrete by contractors who had bribed City
officials to look the other way.

City Hall was completed in 1915, two years after Hiram Johnson was
elected Governor of California. That election catapulted San Francisco
and the State of California into a decade of major reform and
governmental restructuring. The initiative, referendum and recall,
women’s suffrage, popular election of United States Senators,
nonpartisan local elections, competitive bidding of public contracts,
and civil service merit system for public employment were among the
reforms adopted during that era.

At the local level studies were undertaken regarding the improvement


of City Government. In 1930 San Francisco voters elected a Board of
Free Holders who redrafted the City Charter to improve City
government. In November, 1931, the voters adopted a new City
Charter that took effect on January 1, 1932. The Charter instituted a
system of checks and balances and accountability that has largely
eliminated high level corruption in San Francisco. With all the reforms,
City government still remained a very parochial barony for several
generations as it was when I came to work in 1970.

Even today, San Francisco’s City Hall is the crown jewel of local
governmental edifices in the Unites States. …

Even the middle class exodus to the suburbs in the ‘50’s, ‘60’s
and ‘70’s did not undermine City Hall’s preeminence in Northern
California. Nevertheless, the building suffered the fate of most older
edifices faced with the heedless onrush of modernity’s disregard for
tradition and the human dimensions of public places.

The generation that preceded mine, so imbued with things modern,


butchered the building’s decor. Assembly line ’50’s style fluorescent
lights had replaced many of the elegant, ornate fixtures. During
America’s short-lived love affair with plastic and asbestos, linoleum
had been laid down over the marble floors in office corridors, including
those in the City Attorney’s Office. Many of the old oak desks had been
refinished with a plastic composition material or replaced with tinny
grey or institutional tan metal desks. Ornate, elegant meeting rooms
were remodeled in a utilitarian, Montgomery Wardian plywood and
Formica motif. Fortunately, around 1970, the building was declared a
historic landmark. This status protected it from further mindless
altering, but deterioration abetted by post Proposition 13’s eternally
deferred maintenance became increasingly apparent after the Loma
Prieta earthquake. …

For my entire tenure in the City Hall there was a demonstration on the
front steps almost every day. …

Civil rights demonstrators and environmentalists regularly carried


placards in the plaza and on the sidewalk in front of City Hall, often
sharing the space with the anti-war movement.

The City Hall demonstrations during these years focused on stopping


the cuts that City government was often powerless to address. State
and federal governments have no institutional presence in San
Francisco that allows effective access to elected officials. It is
therefore inevitable that the victims of our economic decline always
find their way to City Hall.


The City Hall provided an unparalleled venue. Not only was it a
building without equal; it was also the only County seat in the state
that housed all three branches of local government in one structure.
The front steps served as a special meeting place for citizens drawn to
all aspects of the City’s governmental operation. Citizens seeking to
influence lawmaking came together with those concerned with the
administration and interpretation of laws.

In fact the courts ensured a continuous flow of people, including


litigants, witnesses, and jurors, spectators, and journalists who would
never have any other occasion to visit the seat of government. The
incessant movement and human energy of those drawn to the courts
vitalized the public space in City Hall. Even when the building is
restored, it will not be the same. The City is building a new courthouse
that will open in 1997. The flood of people drawn to the courts will no
longer assemble on the steps of City Hall.

There was much more to the vitality of City Hall than the court house
contingent. Taxicab drivers would periodically circle City hall honking
their horns to protest gate fees or the Board of Supervisors’ refusal to
raise taxi rates. Minority truckers would do the same with their rigs to
influence City affirmative action policies. Students and welfare
recipients would often march in front of the building to demonstrate
against federal and state cuts in their favorite programs, even if the
City had no power to do anything about the cuts.

The Board of Supervisors’ consideration of any proposal to make even


the most modest increase in Municipal Railway rates was always
certain to attract crowds. Senior citizens would come out in droves. …

Only on the steps of City Hall could one observe the Reverend Ray
Broshears and his following …

The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence decked out in full length habits,


giant false eyelashes and acres of meticulously applied mascara
regularly preened themselves and displayed on the steps of City Hall.
… When the City was moving to close the bathhouses at the height of
the AIDS epidemic, towel clad protesters lined up in front of City Hall,
carrying signs denouncing the City’s action and comparing it to the
early stages of the Holocaust. …

Of course, over the years there was an endless stream of eccentric if


not insane individuals. Some would harangue City government with
mysterious complaints that no one understood. Others were
manifestly unaware of their eccentricities and went about their
business oblivious to the goings-on around them. …

For several months in the mid 1970’s an extremely angry man would
bring a strange contraption to the plaza across from City Hall. The
enormous device resembled a cross between a bicycle and an elevated
ergonomic chair in which one kneels. He would perch on it and glower
silently at City Hall for hours at a time. Since he never said anything or
carried any signs, it was impossible to glean any message from his
presence other than his manifest antipathy for the seat of government.

The most memorable people, however, were not the entertainers and
demonstrators on the front steps. Inside the City’s castle, there were
many other characters. …

In the late Fall of 1994 City departments began vacating City Hall.
Among the first to go were the courts on the third and fourth floors.
The last department to leave was the City Attorney’s Office. I
remember walking out for the last time on Friday April 24, 1995. As
the building began to empty, I noticed a marked change in the human
environment. It was not just a matter of empty offices and vacant
corridors. The loonies and the municipal groupies had also
disappeared. ...

When City Hall closed, the demonstrators disappeared. The War


Memorial Building, which houses the temporary City Hall, is a stately
edifice. However, it lacks the vitality of City Hall before it was vacated
in 1994. Nor does it appear to attract the cast of characters who made
working in City Hall so interesting. After all, it is the people more than
anything else that I remember. …

City Hall will reopen before the beginning of the next Century. The
next generation will have the good fortune to see City Hall as it
appeared to awestruck San Franciscans when it was completed in
1915. We can only hope that the restoration will inspire a new age of
architectural excellence that does not imitate City Hall but rather
emulates its creators.

I look forward to the day when the City Attorney quarters are returned
to City Hall. However even with a rehabilitation that respects and
restores its architectural and aesthetic dignity, City Hall will not be the
same. First, the courts with all the participants in the legal drama will
not return. More importantly, a building needs aging before ghosts and
eccentrics can find a place. Nevertheless, when the seat of
government is restored to City Hall, they will return. Even though City
Hall will not reopen for nearly four years, I await that day with a quiet
sense of joy that I will be going home.