5 Common Misconceptions About San Francisco City Hall
For most San Franciscans, City Hall is more than just the building that houses their legislative officials; it's part of the city's history. Opened in 1915, it was (and still is) modern with its rotunda dome and central clock tower roughly modeled on Philadelphia City Hall.
San Francisco has had an active history since there were significant settlements by Native Americans beginning as early as 3000 BC to a Spanish colony from 1776 to 1821 followed by a brief Mexican period lasting until 1846 when California became a state in the United States . There have been many buildings erected over time but only one that has become an icon of city life: our beloved Civic Center - San Francisco's City Hall.
But what many people do not know is that there are at least 5 misconceptions about the building that is the center of our city's politics.
#1: San Francisco's City Hall was built on landfill.
While it may be common knowledge for most San Franciscans, some soon-to-be transplants, visitors or even new residents frequently do not realize this fact. It is true that the site was once marshland and mudflats but it has been filled with land brought in by schooner since 1865 when construction of a new county jail began (Downtown SF). Fill material came from bay fill more than 150 years ago, rubble used to ballast steam ships outbound from San Francisco during the Gold Rush, debris caused by 1906 earthquake & fire, and finally landfill material that was used in the construction of freeways after WWII
That's right - it took 65 years to finish the project! At least 4 architects were hired to design this building before Reed and Stem (of Stem, Goodhue, and Furham) completed the final plans . The first two architects did not work out so well because one fled due to conflict with his client, San Francisco Mayor James Phelan , while another committed suicide . An early version of City Hall designed by Arthur Brown Jr was nearly complete when it was destroyed in 1906 earthquake & fire; he then joined forces with Mayoral hopeful Bernard Maybeck who created a beautiful Beaux-Arts style Civic Center plan for SF (that was never built). When Mayor Phelan (who initially selected Brown Jr to design Civic Center) got wind of Brown's plan with another team, he fired him and brought in Reed & Stem instead.
This is the building that stands today after many years of construction. The initial dome structure was made of steel-reinforced concrete but it actually began sagging due to its own weight so it was replaced with lighter sheet copper just before the 1915 opening. It can be seen below in photos from 1910 .
While this fact may not seem important, it definitely adds historical significance to what you are looking at when passing through City Hall or attending public hearings! Try not to think too hard about the landfill used...
#2: It's like a church.
City Hall is actually an example of Beaux-Arts style , which was prominent in the early 20th century and based on Renaissance styles that involved symmetry, formal geometry and classical elements. The building was not designed to be a local house of worship (like many churches) but rather has more parallels with the layers within ancient Greek temples .
"When we get past all the stone ornamentation, there is nothing figurative or literal about what you see," city historian Gladys Hansen said of City Hall. "It doesn't tell any story in particular."
The dome in the center of City Hall is actually not covered in gold leaf but in 23k gold-colored bronze that has oxidized into a green state over time . As for the Palace of Fine Arts, it was built for the Panama Pacific International Exposition held in 1915 so its exterior design also reflects Beaux-Arts style with ionic columns and allegorical sculptures.
#3: It's where all politicians work or face judgment when they are convicted.
City Hall houses 9 departments as well as the Board of Supervisors, Mayor's office, Clerk of Boards, Democratic Central Committee room, and the City Hall main auditorium for public hearings. Board of Supervisors is a legislative body that consists of 11 members who represent different districts within San Francisco and serve staggered 4 year terms, with elections every 2 years. The Mayor's office is much smaller than you may think and left much more to the discretion of mayors than many people realize.
Even though there are no windows in the famed rotunda designed by George Kelham , which was inspired but not copied from St Paul's cathedral in London England , it does not mean politicians must stay out of sight behind closed doors before they go on trial . In fact, one would be surprised by how highly visible their work can be especially when making appearances at public hearings! The building is open to the public from 8am -8pm Monday through Friday and weekend public tours are available as well.
#4: The building is haunted.
In 1990, during a renovation project that aimed to clean the exterior of City Hall for the first time since 1915 , there was a discovery made that could have been much more costly & time-consuming . It turns out the dome had been coated with black paint for decades so it would appear closer to its intended gold color staring down at Civic Center! Unfortunately, this solution added another 30 years before it deteriorated enough so restoration efforts could begin. We all know how old buildings can accumulate a lot of dirt and grime... besides regular wear-and-tear, there was also speculation about other supernatural occurrences that may make a building seem haunted .
"I've heard stories of people who have seen a lady in black walk through the halls up here," said Thomas Tam, facilities manager at City Hall. "A number of us have felt a little bit of coldness pass by us."
Other common explanations can be attributed to ventilation or acoustic issues from design flaws - such as echoing noise from the rotunda that could result in an auditory illusion even for someone wearing hard-soled shoes. And once you see all the scaffolding and restoration work going on with 19th century architecture, it's not surprising why some workers feel a creepy sensation when trying to stay focused in areas they must access alone.
#5: It is sinking into the ground.
City Hall is more than 100 years old, it's no surprise that things are settling into place after major earthquakes, economic changes & boom/bust cycles . But over time, piles will be driven deeper to provide necessary structural support for any added weight of new construction on top of it. The building was actually designed with expansion in mind especially since urban sprawl expanded northward from Van Ness Ave toward Civic Center causing more congestion and pollution that was not meant to be part of this particular area.
Though there has been an ongoing debate about how best to preserve historical architecture without sacrificing beneficial space , City Hall is now surrounded by skyscraper development looming nearby which can become overwhelming if inside the lobby looking out through the original stained glass windows. Fortunately, with a bit of careful planning , City Hall will be able to expand by 2 floors so it does not appear dwarfed by the surrounding buildings.