The Ferry Building Marketplace website featuring the Ferry Building history has a quote by Herb Caen, columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, that pretty much sums it all up: "A famous city's most famous landmark." The link takes you to some great photos of the marvelous Ferry Building, both inside and outside shots. I think it is worth the click to see more.
The photo on this old postcard was obviously taken prior to the construction of the Embarcadero Freeway (more below), which the Ferry Building website explains tersely in one line while discussing the dark days of the building: "To cast the once prominent structure into further obscurity, the double-deck Embarcadero Freeway was built across the face of the Ferry Building in 1957, and remained for 35 years."
Some history from Wikipedia:
The San Francisco Ferry Building is a terminal for ferries that travel across the San Francisco Bay, a marketplace, and also has offices, located on The Embarcadero in San Francisco, California. . . .
Designed by the New York architect A. Page Brown in the Beaux Arts style in 1892, the ferry building was completed in 1898. At its opening, it was the largest project undertaken in the city up to that time. Brown designed the clock tower after the 12th-century Giralda bell tower in Seville, Spain, and the entire length of the building on both frontages is based on an arched arcade.
With decreased use after bridges were constructed across the bay to carry railroad traffic, in the 1950s, the building was adapted for office use and its public spaces were broken up in an unsympathetic manner. In 2002, a restoration and renovation were undertaken to redevelop the entire complex. The 660-foot long Great Nave was restored, together with its height and materials. A marketplace was created for the ground floor, the former baggage handling area. The second and third floors were adapted for office and Port Commission use. During daylight, on every full and half-hour, the clock bell chimes portions of the Westminster Quarters. The ferry terminal is a designated San Francisco landmark and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
:::The well-built reinforced building with its arched arcades survived both the 1906 and the 1989 earthquakes with little damage. . . A large pedestrian bridge spanned the Embarcadero in front of the Ferry building until the late 1940s, after which pedestrians were not well treated for decades.
Until the completion of the Bay Bridge and Golden Gate Bridge in the 1930s, which began to carry railroad traffic, the Ferry Building was the second busiest transit terminal in the world, second only to London's Charing Cross Station. After the bridges opened, and the new Key System trains began running to the East Bay from the Transbay Terminal in 1939, passenger ferry use fell sharply. In the second half of the twentieth century, although the Ferry Building and its clock tower remained a part of the San Francisco skyline, the condition of the building interior declined with changes. Beginning in the 1950s, unsympathetic renovations installed a mezzanine level, broke up the grand space of the Great Nave, and partitioned the ticketing counters and waiting room areas into office space. The formerly grand public space was reduced to a narrow and dark corridor, through which travelers passed en route to the piers. Passengers were made to wait for ferries on outdoor benches, and the ticketing booths were moved to the pier.
With the construction in the late 1950s of the Embarcadero Freeway, which passed right in front of the Ferry Building, views of the once-prominent landmark from Market Street were greatly obscured. Pedestrian access was treated as an afterthought, and people disliked having to use the second-class space. They were cut off from the waterfront.
Due to extensive damage in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, the double-decker elevated freeway was demolished afterward. It was replaced with a ground-level boulevard, which reconnected a significant portion of San Francisco's historic waterfront and the rest of the city. Access was restored to Justin Herman Plaza and the foot of Market Street, of which the Ferry Building had been such an integral part for so many decades.
I found a remarkable photo online that shows what it was like when the Embarcadero Freeway ran in front of the Ferry Building.
image via Flickr by Telstar Logistics
Hideous, isn't it? I wanted to know more about the destruction of the Embarcadero Freeway, the action that was key in the renaissance of the San Francisco Waterfront that includes the Ferry Building. I found info at a great site produced by the Preservation Institute, titled Removing Freeways - Restoring Cities. Their page on the Embarcadero Freeway (see link) is fascinating reading, most definitely, and also features some great before-and-after shots taken at the Ferry Building site. It was shocking to find out that Herb Caen (quoted at the beginning of this post) was initially against the removal of the freeway when it was a hot topic in 1986. Then nature voted!
From the Removing Freeways article:
It seemed that the movement to remove the freeway had failed, that the idea was dead. Then, on October 17, 1989, the 7.1 magnitude Loma Prieta earthquake caused sections of the Bay Bridge and of Oakland’s Cypress Freeway to collapse, and it damaged San Francisco’s Embarcadero and Central Freeways so severely that they had to be closed. The Embarcadero Freeway had been retrofitted for earthquake safety during the early 1980s, so it still stood, but it was so severely damaged that it could not be used.
After this freeway was closed, traffic was snarled temporarily, but drivers adjusted in a short time by using alternative routes and public transportation.
Freeway opponents began a new push to remove the freeway rather than repairing it, and they succeeded now that freeway backers could no longer say that the traffic displaced from the freeway would create gridlock on local streets. Herb Caen changed his position and supported removing the freeway rather than repairing it. The main opponents were Chinatown merchants, who claimed that their business declined by 15 to 40 percent after the earthquake.
February 27, 1991, Mayor Agnos struck the symbolic first blow to begin the demolition of the freeway. After leaving office, Agnos remarked that “The best decision I made as mayor was to demolish that freeway. It removed that scar and opened up one of the most important parts of this city for development.”
The San Francisco Chronicle commented on June 17, 2000, in a story about the ceremony dedicating the improved Embarcadero boulevard, that despite the fierce debates about the issue, “A decade later, it's hard to find anyone who thinks ripping down the freeway was a bad idea.”
Learning that there is actually a movement dedicated to removing urban freeways has, for me, been the most interesting aspect in working on this post. Above, I linked specifically to the article about the Embarcadero Freeway, but if you are interested in reading more about the movement itself go to the home page to read more background and to find links to projects in various cities. I was amazed to learn that Portland, Oregon, was a pioneer city in transforming the blight of a major urban highway, built right on the waterfront into what is now beautiful Tom McCall Waterfront Park. I moved to Oregon in 1976 after the miserable-looking Harbor Drive had been removed, so seeing the pictures of what Portland looked at before I arrived was a real shock for me. Click here for the article on the removal of Harbor Drive in Portland. I am just really jazzed about the concept of removing freeways to restore cities and I hope it is an idea that will catch on, especially in relation to discussions about how best to tackle the enormous challenges concerning our decaying transportation infrastructure.