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City Hall History


The history of San Francisco can actually be traced to discovery of the small gap between San Francisco and Marin. This small strait protects the beautiful San Francisco bay like no other harbor ever discovered. It is an elusive strait, inhabited solely by Miwok and Ohlone Indians until several Spanish explorers chanced upon it in the late 1700s. With the discovery of its protective & deep waters, the harbor became a key point for trade, commerce and culture of early Spanish missionaries. It was dubbed the "Golden Gate" by Fremont on July 1, 1846.

Due to this incredibly protective and bucolic location, it has developed a well deserved reputation for eclecticism, forgiveness, and abundance.

It is within this culture that the San Francisco City Hall has become such an important part of local culture. While it represents the mechanics of government, it also brings something special to represent a unique and free San Francisco. A town known for decades for its artistic, cooperative and beautiful soul.

crescent moon over an illuminated City Hall

Old San Francisco City Hall

Founded by Juan Bautista de Anza on March 28, 1776 and named the Presidio de San Francisco Mission after St. Francis of Assisi. James Marshall discovered gold in Coloma, California in 1848 and that began the Gold Rush that turned San Francisco into the "gateway of the west". The burgeoning city did its best to establish order and community in what was still a rough and tumble land. Before 1872 San Francisco "City Hall" was in the ballroom of a hotel or in the back office of whichever businessman currently offered his location for official business.

It was only after 20 years of boom times that the original city hall began erection in 1872. It was finished in 1897, over 20 years since its beginning. Even in the 1800s, this was a long time for a building's erection. It was famous for the politics & back room dealings that San Francisco knows all too well. The original "old" city hall design was after the French "Second Empire" style, designed to be layed out in a giant W like a one of the French palaces. See some beautiful examples here. But it never quite achieved that, and when it was finished it had a 300-foot-high dome (definitely not "Second Empire"). It was located where the current SF City Library currently sits.

The Natural Disaster that shaped the Future of San Francisco - 1906 Earthquake

Then in 1906 came the great quake, and the building came tumbling down like a house of cards. Famous postcards showing the ruined dome were mailed all over the world. See a pic here, and read about the discovery of its old ruins.

The erection of the new city hall was stalled by politics for several years. Voters rejected an 8 million dollar bond for city hall election in 1908 and city hall was located for the time being at 1231 Market St.

In 1911 James Rolph as elected mayor and made it a personal mission to get a city hall that SF could be proud of. Mayor Rolph knew a major emblematic landmark was needed to put San Francisco on the map. Under his leadership, an $8.8 bond measure was passed, and the project was begun.

Designed by Bay Area Architects

A competition was launched to select the architect. This was won by the design of Arthur Brown who was mentored by the famous architect Maybeck. Arthur Brown also designed Coit Tower & the old SF Opera House. While Maybeck is famous for his design of the San Francisco Palace of Fine Arts.

Read about how City Hall's Parisian design elements created one of the great location for wedding photography in the world here.

Arthur presented a design based on the Church of the Invalides in Paris, France . It is one of the best examples of U.S. Beaux-Arts architecture. Other beautiful examples of this include the Iowa in Washington and the Mellon Building, both in Washington, D.C.

Artistically Beaux-Arts is considered part of the neoclassical movement which expressed a desire to return to classical views of beauty as idealized by Rome. Specifically Beaux-Arts arises from the long stewardship of the formal architecture schools in France at first the Royal Academie, then the Beux Arts. San Francisco City Hall is recognized as one of the most famous and accomplished Beaux Arts buildings in the world.

The city hall was erected between 1911 – 1916 and first began operation in 1917. Ever since, it has been seen as one of the most beautiful city halls in the nation. Arthur Brown was involved in every facet of the construction, from designing the famous dome to selecting and importing the door handles and choosing the fonts that label the arches and doorways. The beautiful sculpture you see around the building was created by Henri Crenier, one of the most famous sculptors of the 20thcentury. It contains many beautiful oak panels, birdcage elevators, huge chandeliers, and natural light skylights

The Grand Stair Case and Rotunda is one of the most famous parts of San Francisco City Hall. Joe Dimaggio and Marilyn Monroe were married there. The majority of the groundbreaking 4,000 same gender marriages in 2004 took place here, before an injunction was issued and began the legal wrangling which have led to gay marriage being legal throughout much of the country.

SF City Hall Grand Stair Case

A dramatic moment - Grand Staircase A Groom on One Knee

In the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, SF City Hall was badly damaged, and a large construction project was undertaken to repair it and make it seismically safer. The seismic system chosen is called a 'base isolation system' and is one of the most advanced seismic systems in the world. There is a four-foot buffer moat circling the building, which allows it to bend and sway safely in the event of a major earthquake. When the next big one hits, being in SF City Hall is one of the safest places in San Francisco!

Famous for Weddings

San Francisco City Hall is perhaps the most famous place in the world for a city hall wedding. It was here in 2004 that Gavin Newsome proclaimed gay marriages legal in SF, upending the status quo and starting a trend that has spread to the nation. This wedding history at the city hall has made it one of the most historic and sentimental places in the world to get married.

Dirty Harry, Foul Play, Raider's of the Lost Ark, and A View to a Kill were filmed there.

You can go on tours daily at 10:00AM, 12:00PM & 2:00PM