Definitive Guide to Architecture in San Francisco
Visitors with a penchant for architecture will recognize some of the architectural titans and buildings singled out in these walkabouts. They include Julia Morgan, designer of Hearst Castle; buildings adorned with murals by Diego Rivera, Bernard Maybeck’s masterpiece from the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition, the Palace of Fine Arts.
Jackson Square • North Beach • Chinatown
Begin your day at Columbus Avenue and Montgomery Street, where old faces new: the old Transamerica Building (4 Columbus), originally the Fugazi Bank Building designed by Charles Paff in 1907, faces the new Transamerica Building (600 Montgomery), designed by William Pereira & Assoc. in 1972. Nearby is the former Bank of Italy building (550 Montgomery), designed in 1908 by Shea and Lofquist, with its ornate white marble interior.
Photo: Sony Abesmis
As you walk through the Jackson Square Historic District, stop at William Stout Architectural Books (804 Montgomery; 391-6757), a rare treat for architecture bibliophiles. En route to North Beach, note the Columbus Tower (Columbus at Kearny), designed in 1905 by Salfield & Kohlberg and now owned by filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola. And don’t miss the 1860 St. Francis Church (610 Vallejo St.) and Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights (261 Columbus Ave.), America’s first paperback bookstore, which opened in 1953.
Photo: City Lights Bookstore
Walk a block over to Stockton Street, Chinatown’s main food shopping strip. Architectural highlights include the Chinatown Library (1135 Powell), three buildings by Julia Morgan — the 1912 Gum Moon Residence (940 Washington St.); the 1932 former Chinatown YWCA (940-950 Powell); and the 1908 Donaldina Cameron House (920 Sacramento St.). Also note the Chinese Six Companies (843 Stockton) from 1908, and Charles Rogers’ 1925 Nam Kue School (765 Sacramento). Portsmouth Square (750 Kearny St.), created in 1971 by Clement Chen/Warnecke & Assoc., was the plaza of the Spanish colonial port town Yerba Buena, renamed San Francisco in 1847. At California and Grant, two pagoda-like buildings designed in 1908 by Ross and Burgren — the Sing Chong Building and the Sing Fat Building — stand in marked contrast to the 1853 Gothic Revival Old St. Mary’s, built by Chinese laborers. Sculptor Beniamino Bufano’s serene stainless steel and rose granite statue of Sun Yat Sen graces St. Mary’s Square.
Photo: Eric Chan
Telegraph Hill • North Waterfront • Russian Hill • Nob Hill
Start your day by buying an all-day Muni Passport, good on all buses, streetcars and cable cars. Head to Coit Tower, completed in 1934 by Arthur Brown Jr., for spectacular panoramas and, inside the tower, the restored WPA murals.
Below the tower on Montgomery is the Malloch Apartment Building (1360 Montgomery), a 1937 Art Moderne building by J.S. Malloch featured in the 1946 Humphrey Bogart movie “Dark Passage.”
Photo: Luis Villa de Campo
Proceed down the Filbert Steps, passing the Grace Marchant Gardens and some of San Francisco’s oldest houses. Watch overhead for the wild parrots that live in the garden. At the bottom of Telegraph Hill is Levi Plaza and the site of Levi corporate headquarters, designed by Helmuth, Obata & Kassabaum/ Howard Friedman/Arthur Gensler in 1982.
Photo: Karlis Dambrans
Have lunch on the west side of the Embarcadero at Fog City (1300 Battery St.; 982-2000), then follow the Embarcadero north to The Cannery, built in 1909 and remodeled by Joseph Esherick in 1968. Nearby is Ghirardelli Square, originally an 1860s chocolate factory, remodeled in the mid-1960s by Wurster, Bernardi & Emmons, with landscape design by Lawrence Halprin & Associates. Nearby is the San Francisco Maritime Museum, a spectacular streamline moderne building with nautical references designed in 1939 by William Mooser Sr. & Jr. as an aquatic recreation center (North Point, San Francisco.447-5000).\
Photo: Ghirardelli Square
Take the Hyde Street cable car to California Street on Nob Hill to see the 1906 Fairmont Hotel on Mason Street, designed by the Reid Brothers; the 1886 Pacific Union Club, designed by Augustus Laver and renovated in 1910 by Willis Polk; the Scarlet Huntington Hotel; and the 1910 Grace Cathedral, designed by George Bodley with Lewis Hobart. At Weeks and Day’s 1925 Intercontinental Mark Hopkins Hotel, visit the Top of the Mark for a drink while enjoying one of the most spectacular views of the city.
Photo: Fairmont Hotel
Financial District • Union Square
At Market and California, in front of Bliss & Faville’s 1916 monumental Southern Pacific Building (1 Market), catch the California Street cable car for a rolling view of architectural beauties. You get the best view if you stand out on the platform. On the north side of the street, watch for Crim and Scott’s 1909 Tadich Grill (240 California); Bliss & Faville’s 1907 Bank of California (400 California), a classic Greco-Roman structure with a Corinthian colonnade; and Percy & Polk’s 1904 Kohl Building (400 Montgomery), which has a wonderful articulated top. Get off at Stockton Street for coffee and a croissant at the elegant Ritz Carlton (600 Stockton) in the former Metropolitan Life Building, designed in 1909 by Lebrun and Sons.
Walk back down the south side of California Street, where you will find Anshen & Allen’s 1960 International Building (601 California); Wurster, Bernardi, Emmons/SOM’s 1968 former Bank of America World Headquarters (555 California); Willis Polk’s 1913 Insurance Exchange (433 California); D.H. Burnham & Co.’s 1903 Merchants Exchange (465 California); and the Dollar Building (301-333 California), designed in 1919 by Charles McCall. At Sansome, walk one block north to the old Federal Reserve Building (400 Sansome), the 1924 creation of George Kelham. The law offices boast beautiful lobby murals by Jules Guerin.
Other points of interest are the former Pacific Stock Exchange (301 Pine), designed in 1915 by J. Milton Dyer and remodeled in 1930 by Miller & Pflueger; inside is a stairway mural by Diego Rivera. The former Standard Oil Building (225 Bush) was designed in 1922 by George Kelham; Hertzka & Knowles/SOM’s 1959 Crown Zellerbach Building (1 Bush), was San Francisco’s first glass-walled tower. A block away are MacDonald & Applegarth’s 1910 Heineman Building (130 Bush) and George Kelham’s 1929 Shell Building (100 Bush). End at one of the city’s best-loved sculptures, Douglas Tilden’s 1894 Mechanic’s Monument.
Photo: David Jones
Walk west to Sutter Street. Note Havens & Toepke’s 1913 Flatiron Building (540-80 Market), the Romanesque Revival arch of Schaltze and Weaver’s 1926 Hunter-Dulin Building (111 Sutter), and the unique glass curtain wall on the Hallidie Building (130-50 Sutter), designed in 1917 by Willis Polk.
At the former Crocker Bank Building (1 Montgomery), designed in 1908 by Willis Polk, visit the roof garden designed in 1983 by Skidmore Owings and Merrill (SOM). At Belden and Bush is the venerable Sam’s Grill (421-0594), a longtime favorite for seafood. Tiny Belden St. is lined with restaurants that have sidewalk seating during the warm months.
After lunch, walk west on Bush Street to Louis Brouchoud’s 1913 Notre Dame des Victoires (564 Bush), the historic center of San Francisco’s French colony. Heading back to Market, notice the 1908 Pacific Telephone & Telegraph Building (333 Grant) by Ernest Coxhead, and Albert Pissis’ 1908 White House (255 Sutter), once a department store. Off Grant on Maiden Lane see Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1949 Circle Gallery (140 Maiden Lane) with its interior spiral, a convention Wright later utilized in New York’s Guggenheim Museum.
In elegant Union Square is Bliss & Faville’s 1904 Westin St. Francis Hotel (301 Powell). Don’t miss the stained glass rotunda at Neiman Marcus, all that’s left of the City of Paris department store that once stood on the site, its demolition the occasion of a major preservation battle.
Marina • Presidio • Western Shore
At Market and Third, take the #30 Stockton bus, which winds through the Financial District, Chinatown, North Beach and the Marina District. Get off at Chestnut and Fillmore and walk west along Chestnut, a bustling shopping area with Art Deco storefronts. At Baker Street, proceed north to Bernard Maybeck’s 1915 Palace of Fine Arts, an outdoor rotunda built for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition.
Photo: Jay Cross
On Marina Boulevard is Willis Polk’s 1928 St. Francis Yacht Club, and just west of it is the beautifully restored Crissy Field shoreline. A 1.5-mile walk takes you to Fort Point, built between 1853 and 1861; at the tip is the spot where Kim Novak jumped into the Bay in the film “Vertigo.” To get to the viewing area for the Golden Gate Bridge, Joseph Strauss’ 1937 wonder, walk back halfway between Fort Point and the Warming Hut and up a flight of steps that leads to Battery East Road where the suspension span starts.
After walking the 1.7-mile bridge, return to the south end and catch the #29 bus, which goes through the Presidio, now a national park. Get off at 25th and El Camino del Mar, and stroll past the beautiful homes and gardens of Seacliff. Continue on El Camino del Mar into Lincoln Park and up to George Applegarth’s 1916 Legion of Honor on 34th Avenue, featuring 16th-18th century European paintings and sculpture, plus a renowned Rodin collection.
Take the #18 bus outside the museum to Sutro Heights Park and the Cliff House, and walk south along the beach to the restored 1921 Willis Polk-designed Beach Chalet, with WPA murals by Lucien Labaudt. Have lunch or a beer in the brewery and restaurant upstairs. Return downtown on the N Judah streetcar.
San Francisco Travel
South of Market • Embarcadero • South Park • Civic Center
Start out with breakfast in the Garden Court of Trowbridge & Livingston’s spectacular 1909 Palace Hotel (Market at New Montgomery). Nearby is the Reid Brothers’ 1914 Call Building (74 New Montgomery) and the 1925 Pacific Telephone & Telegraph Co. Building (134 New Montgomery) by Miller and Pfleuger, one of the city’s finest skyscrapers. Don’t miss the exquisite bronze detailing in the lobby.
Photo: The Palace Hotel
Willis Polk’s historic Jessie Street Substation (222 Jessie St.), designed in 1905, has been incorporated into the dramatic new Contemporary Jewish Museum (736 Mission St.) designed by Daniel Libeskind. Next door is St. Patrick’s Church, built in 1872 and rebuilt after the earthquake, one of the city’s oldest churches. Note its Tiffany clerestory windows.
The gardens across the street at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (701 Mission) are filled with public art such as Terry Allen’s bronze “Shaking Man” and Huston Conway’s Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Waterfall. The esplanade, completed in 1992 by MGA Partners with Romaldo Giurgola, sits on the roof of the expanded Moscone Convention Center, constructed in 1991 by Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum. Above the gardens are two outdoor cafes; stop for refreshments and view YBC’s contemporary architecture, including the Children’s Creativity Museum, an interactive art and technology center, the Metreon, and, looming beyond, Mario Botta’s magnificent Museum of Modern Art (currently closed for construction), built in 1995.
Photo: Peter Prato
Walk down to the Embarcadero, which got a new lease on life with the removal of the elevated freeway damaged in the 1989 earthquake. Begin at the foot of Market Street, at Justin Herman Plaza, homage to the longtime head of the former Redevelopment Agency. Plaza centerpiece is sculptor Armand Vaillancourt’s fountain, erected in 1971, its impact an ironic casualty of the demolished freeway, removing the setting for his political portrayal of the inevitable future.
Across the Embarcadero is A. Page Brown’s 1898 Ferry Building, restored and reopened in 2003 with restaurants, food shops and a farmers’ market three days a week. One block south is A.A. Pyle’s 1914 Agriculture Building, a Renaissance palazzo-style structure that once was the city’s main post office. Across the street is the Audiffred Building (1-21 Mission), Hippolyte Audiffred’s 1889 tribute to his native France. The 1938 Rincon Center at Mission and Spear designed by Gilbert Underwood, also once a post office, contains remarkable WPA murals. Heading south toward the Bay Bridge, note Carl Werner’s 1924 YMCA Building (166 The Embarcadero) and the graceful, 1933 neo-Romanesque Hills Brothers Coffee Factory (2 Harrison) by George Kelham.
As you walk along the Embarcadero, note the Promenade Ribbon, a linear sculpture, and the Historic Interpretive Signage Project of plaques and illustrated pylons. On them, you can read the story of 1930s union fighter and longshoreman Harry Bridges, see a 1913 photo of the Embarcadero and more. At Folsom Street is Rincon Park with “Cupid’s Span,” a 60-foot sculpture by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen donated to the city by Gap founders Donald and Doris Fisher. At Pier 40 is grassy South Beach Park and Mark di Suvero’s 60-foot stainless steel sculpture “Sea Change.”
Rehabilitated into housing, the 1867 Oriental Warehouse (650 First St.) was the repository for goods shipped from Asia. At Townsend and Second is Frederick H. Meyer’s 1920 Fire Department Pumping Station (698 Second St.). South Park, laid out in 1856 by George Gordon in the model of London residential crescents and leveled by the ’06 quake, today is a tony commercial and residential area and a high tech hub. Jack Dorsey is said to have originally conceived the idea for Twitter here. A few blocks away, at Fourth and King streets, is Oracle Park, San Francisco Giant’s 40,000-seat baseball stadium. The Schmidt Lithography Co. at Second and Bryant and the plant across the street have been rehabilitated as the “Clock Tower” live/work complex. Note 85 Second St., a former Wells Fargo Express Building that survived the ‘06 earthquake. Return to the Palace Hotel for tea in the Garden Court.
Photo: San Francisco Giants
Catch the historic F-Line trolley on Market. Get off at Seventh Street and walk one block south to Mission and the old Main Post Office, now the U.S. Court of Appeals Building, designed by James Knox Taylor in 1905. The golden-arched mosaic interior is among the most impressive of the public buildings. Across the street is the new Federal Building, designed by 2005 Pritzker Architectural Prize-winner Thom Mayne. Albert Pissis’ now-empty 1892 Hibernia Bank Building (Jones, Market and McAllister) is the city’s oldest surviving bank building in a strictly classical revival idiom.
The Civic Center, with its Beaux Arts symmetrical layout, expresses San Francisco’s early 20th century consciousness of its position as THE metropolis of the West Coast. Buildings include: Arthur Brown Jr.’s 1936 Federal Building; George Kelham’s 1917 Old Main Library, now home of the Asian Art Museum, renovated by Italian architect Gae Aulenti and reopened in 2003; the new Main Library at Market and Grove, designed by James Freed & Simon Martin-Vegue Winkelstein Moris in 1996; John Galen Howard, Frederick Meyer & John Reid Jr.’s 1914 Civic Auditorium, renamed for rockmeister Bill Graham; the ubiquitous Bliss & Faville’s 1922 State Building at 250 McAllister; and Hood Miller’s 1997 Superior Court, 350 McAllister. Facing Civic Center Plaza is City Hall, the highest expression of the Beaux Arts City Beautiful Movement in the nation, designed by Bakewell & Brown in 1915.
Facing the Van Ness Ave. side of City Hall are Arthur Brown Jr. & G. Albert Lansburg’s 1932 Opera House and Veterans Building, and Skidmore Owings & Merrill’s 1981 Davies Symphony Hall, with Henry Moore’s 1973 “Large Four Piece Reclining Figure” in bronze outside.
Photo: Beto Lopez
Three public art installations grace the Main Library at Larkin and Grove: Alice Aycock’s “Functional and Fantasy Stair, Cyclone Fragment,” made of aluminum, painted steel, stainless steel and plaster; Nayland Blake’s “Constellation,” painted steel, mirrors and fiber optic lighting by Architectural Lighting Design and Ann Hamilton; and Ann Chamberlain’s “Untitled,” 50,000 hand-notated catalogue cards embedded in artisan plaster on the third, fourth and fifth floor walls.
Moving with air currents and reflecting the changing light outside the library is Carl Djerassi’s 1982 gift to the city, “Double L Excentric Gyratory,” a stainless steel kinetic sculpture by American artist George Rickey.
For calendar information and local expert recommendations on all of San Francisco’s arts and cultural activities, visit www.sfarts.org which features more than 1,000 arts events in its database along with curated arts highlights and feature articles. SFArts.org is accessible on iPads, iPhones and other mobile devices.
Explore 10 self-guided tours designed to immerse visitors in San Francisco’s culture, rich ethnic heritage and world-class art.