The City Beautiful

By Jesse Hamlin

Jim Hass, illustrated by Olivia Wise.

Jim Haas has a mission to preserve San Francisco’s classic — and often neglected — civic buildings.

From his 19th floor aerie on Van Ness Avenue, Jim Haas has a smashing bird’s-eye view of San Francisco’s landmark Civic Center, a cluster of neoclassical buildings anchored by the spectacularly domed City Hall designed by Arthur Brown Jr. “It’s my domain, yes,” Haas says with a laugh, gazing out at the grand public structures and space she has championed for 35 years, and whose story he tells in his rich new book, The San Francisco Civic Center: A History of the Design, Controversies, and Realization of a City Beautiful Masterpiece.

Jim Haas praises the Civic Center Public Realm Plan — still yet to be approved — as a “brilliant” 21st-century makeover of the Civic Center Plaza and other vestiges of Old San Francisco. The Hall of Records, damaged from the 1906 earthquake.

“It never occurred to me at the time,” he writes, “that I would devote more than half of my adult life to the restoration, completion and enhancement of the nation’s most magnificent municipal architectural treasure.”

It pains him that city officials and the public have often shown a lack of interest in, “and even an indifference to,” the place and its history. He wrote the book, he says, to celebrate Civic Center and “help people understand it, so they come here more often. It’s a very significant place, and when we’re selling San Francisco, we should sell it along with the Golden Gate Bridge and everything else.” Inspired by the pioneering City Beautiful designs created by Frederick Law Olmsted and Daniel Burnham for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, the Civic Center plan was designed by the eminent Bay Area architect John Galen Howard, who, like Brown, had studied at Paris’ Écolede Beaux-Arts. He was hired by the energetic new mayor, James “Sunny Jim” Rolph, in 1912 after Congress chose San Francisco to host the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition. Expecting visitors from around the world, the City needed a new city hall to replace the one destroyed by the 1906 quake. It would be joined initially by an exposition auditorium (now the Bill Graham Civic) and a library, all framing a large landscaped plaza.

“They wanted to show off San Francisco as the most prominent city on the West Coast,” explains Haas, who credits Rolph with shepherding the construction of eight Civic Center buildings — there are now 13 – during his 20-year tenure, including the War Memorial Opera House and Veterans Building (also designed by Brown) and the California State Building. Rolph overcame the squabbles and set-backs that have marked the endeavor from the start.

Architect Willis Polk’s rendering of the War Memorial Opera House, which opened its hallowed doors in 1932.

In her laudatory foreword to Haas’ book, Senator and former San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein writes that there’s been “no shortage of disputes and controversies surrounding the site’s development and upkeep: from lack of funding and bureaucratic neglect, to the inevitable evolution of architectural taste and civic priorities.” In the 1980s, when Friends of the Library lobbied Feinstein to back a bond issue to build the new main library, Haas urged her not to focus just on the library, but “to think of this as an opportunity to fix up and finish out the Civic Center.”

She did, developing a major plan that included a new library and courthouse, and the renovation of the 1917 George Kelham-designed old library for use by the Asian Art Museum. After the ’89 quake damaged all the Civic Center structures except Davies Hall, voters passed bond measures to retrofit and restore the historic buildings. But left untouched was the unloved plaza, which for years has been “a bit of a wasteland,” as Haas puts it.

He lobbied, “if not harassed,” the late Mayor Ed Lee to do something about the plaza and other spaces. The result is the long-gestating Civic Center Public Realm Plan, which envision lawns, gardens, pavilions and other amenities. It could be approved by 2021. “I think it’s brilliant,” Haas says. “It takes the 1913 plan as a template, then adds things to make it work for the 21st century.”

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