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City Hall: A Case of Civic Pride
By Florence Holub
On Jan. 5, 1999, I stood among the eager throng of inhabitants of our fair city, waiting to view the resurrection of our earthquake-damaged City Hall. The area in front of the building was fenced off such that we had to enter in single file through a metal detector. Once we got through that portal, we were halted for a body search, a patting-down of every possible hiding place for a firearm or cream pie. After passing inspection, I joined the solid mass of bodies facing the main entrance, where the ceremony was to be held.
Soon the door opened, and a jubilant Mayor Willie Brown appeared. He issued a warm welcome and then introduced many of the individuals who had labored long and hard on the restoration. He praised City Architect Tony Irons, the artisans, and construction crews for completing the job on schedule (but just barely!), despite a fire and other financial and political setbacks.
I was impressed at the feat myself, since Leo and I had toured the "work-in-progress" a mere five months ago, wearing hard hats and stepping gingerly through piles of debris. At the time I'd thought, there is no way this remodeling will be finished by Christmas. Yet here it was -- done!
Throughout the reopening ceremony, chanting voices could be heard in the distance, but the protesters were too far away to do more than annoy. The mayor carried on in good humor, topping off his speech with the pronouncement: "It's your building, the doors are open, come in!"
The crowd was so large, we proceeded toward the entrance at a snail's pace, which gave me time to entertain some thoughts about the protest going on outside. A practical solution occurred to me: Why not unite the "Food Not Bombs" chorus with the pie-throwing brigade? Perhaps they could fill each other's needs and leave our civil servants free to conduct the people's business.
As we entered the building, everyone scattered in different directions, and the spacious interior opened up with breathtaking elegance. The sweeping marble staircase, the classical columns, the imposing granite walls, the balconies with gilt and metal railings -- this must have been how it looked to Mayor James "Sunny Jim" Rolph on the day he dedicated the building in December 1915.
At first glance, the main floor seemed identical to the one I remembered from before the Loma Prieta Earthquake, but on further inspection it was greatly improved. The crowded offices in the halls on either side of the rotunda have been returned to their original light-flooded, people-friendly openness.
The South Historic Light Court, to the left, now holds several fascinating exhibits, which explain the events and influences that have colored our city's history. One artifact that captured my attention was the silver shovel made in 1913 by the exclusive Shreve & Co., which Mayor Rolph used to dig the cavity into which the cornerstone for City Hall was placed.
A charming antique "Fire Buggy" dominates the San Francisco Fire Department's exhibit. It was driven by Dennis T. Sullivan, chief engineer of the department, who died as a result of injuries sustained April 8, 1906, when a chimney fell on his fire station at Bush and Kearny streets. Nearby hangs a beautifully executed oil painting of Lillie Coit, the good lady who was the angel of the Fire Department.
There is also a marvelous panoramic photo of our city, taken before the 1906 disaster, by Eadweard Muybridge. It is displayed next to a recent one by Mark Klett, photographed from the same vantage point on Nob Hill. How different the second landscape looks!
These are only a sampling of the wealth of memorabilia that the public can view. Those who'd like to see it all should take one of the tours given by trained docents each weekday at 10 a.m., noon, 2 p.m., and 4 p.m. (call 554-6075 to confirm times).
On the opposite side of the rotunda in the North Historic Light Court, a cafe offers hot and cold beverages and an enticing array of snacks. Weary visitors can sit at small round tables covered with deep-green tablecloths, among potted palms as in the days of yore. Huge blowups of photographs taken early in the century spot the walls, and located nearby is the City Store, where San Francisco memorabilia is for sale.
While wending my way toward the staircase, I rubbed shoulders with Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, came face to face with ex-Mayor Art Agnos, then bumped into Helen Lundy, a friend from Noe Valley who worked at City Hall until her retirement. Helen was delighted to see the building looking so beautiful, and she related excitedly that she had just visited the mayor's office and shaken hands with him!
"You did it again!" I exclaimed, remembering the day Helen and I had rushed down to 24th and Mission streets upon learning that candidate Bill Clinton would be making a stop there. When Clinton arrived, he began to circle the large crowd of supporters at the intersection, smiling good-naturedly, chatting, and shaking outstretched hands.
When he approached our area, I tried but was unable to get up and over the tier of heads in front of me. Helen, however, thrust up her hand and made a connection with the man we were convinced would be a great president! (And he has been, in spite of the least cooperative Congress in my 80-year-old memory.)
I still regret missing that handshake. So now that I envisioned another hand of distinction within reach, I hightailed it up the marble stairs to the mayor's quarters, where a long line of well-wishers stretched out into the hallway. I was about to retreat when a perceptive lady assured me that the line moved quickly, and in no time I was facing a beaming Mayor Brown, who clasped my hand warmly while I uttered a few words of appreciation.
Actually, Jan. 5, 1999, is a day we can all be proud of, for in 1990 the voters overwhelmingly approved the City Hall restoration bond issue. Federal funds helped also, but in order to receive the aid, the city had to promise to restore the building to its original design (including accents of gold). Unfortunately, the money had run out by the time the builders reached the final phase of restoration, so Mayor Brown found a civic-minded benefactor, who paid for the "gilding" of City Hall (instead of investing in more artwork for his own building).
Today our blue-gray cupola looks exactly as it did in 1915. (The green shade that we'd grown accustomed to in the '80s was actually the corroding copper layer underneath, left exposed after the protective original finish had flaked off.) This building stands as a magnificent accomplishment, and as one expert has stated, "the most cost-effective reconstruction of the 20th century."
Following are some facts about our City Hall that we can boast of:
1. It has been designated a National Historic Landmark -- the finest example of Beaux Arts architecture in the land.
2. It is three times larger than the State Capitol in Sacramento.
3. It is one foot taller than the United States Capitol building in Washington, D.C. (Mayor Rolph gleefully saw to that.)
4. It is the largest base-isolated structure in the world, which will protect us from future earthquakes.
5. It is the "smartest" building in the land, geared with the latest computer technology for the 21st century.
And it is certainly the most beautiful! All of this demonstrates that we are again "the city that knows how."