Backstory to San Francisco’s City Halls

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Ever since I began teaching of the San Francisco State Humanities Department’s course on the cultural history of San Francisco, I admired the classic grandeur of its city hall. I knew that it replaced an earlier version which had been destroyed in the fire and earthquake of 1906, but knew little of the precedent buildings that had housed the city’s governmental offices. 

Research revealed the evolution of San Francisco’s city halls, from the simple Mexican customs house to the grand edifice designed by the firm of Bakewell and Brown. As I learned of the fate of many other California’s city halls — San Jose San Rafael, Eureka and others ( — I began to appreciate the sustained civic will that raised the present structure and refused to tear it down after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989. With a final bill of $300,000000, it might have sounded reasonable just to tear down the Beaux Arts masterpiece and replace it with an up-to-date concrete box. But the city officials resisted the urge, and chose instead to bring San Francisco’s strengthened city hall into the twenty-first century.

It is worth remembering that the great grandparent of San Francisco’s city hall is the Roman Pantheon, whose dome, as Daniel Boorstin remarks, “has been imitated to exalt the God of the Hebrews, the Savior of Christians, the Allah of Muslims, and the Sovereignty of the People.”

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