Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Old Postcard Wednesday--Ferry Building, San Francisco

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.



mythopolis said...

I am partial to ferries. My dad met my mother on the Staten Island ferry. I am pleased to say the Staten Island ferry is still in operations today!

Anonymous said...

I love public transport! I understand the need for motorways etc but my personal opinion is that they are a blight on the landscape - lots of towns over here have been virtually destroyed by them. (And now a quick confession - I'm not 100% sure what a 'freeway' is; is it one of those 10 lane monsters I have seen in movies?

Jannie Funster said...

It's certainly been through a lot. I'd love to go to the very tippy-top inside and have a look around, and see the view.

I spent only a few days in San Francisco in my life and was enchanted. I thought the freeways were pretty well navigable, and so MANY of them. Rode a streetcar too, of course.

Fireblossom said...

How cool! That's my kind of progress, and i had no idea about it. Wonderful Postcard post, my friend.

I hope that you'll come by when you can and read my poem "Amtrak", which i feel like you would like.

Stickup Artist said...

I used public transportation till I moved out here to the Cali desert. I didn't have a car till I was 28 years old. Now I'm super dependent on my car but enjoy taking old back roads, particularly Route 66. I have a feeling the cost of energy will rebuild communities that are more self-sufficient on local goods, like food, and that freeways will not be so necessary to transport such commodities. Believe it or not, they have a high speed railway planned for San Bernardino County, but guess where it will take us-Las Vegas! I would have liked it to go to LA or San Diego which would seem much more helpful and practical. A very thought provoking post I am interested in the removal of urban freeways movement. I didn't know about that before.

Lydia said...

mythopolis~ How romantic that your parents met on the Staten Island Ferry! Would love to know the story. I was on the Staten Island Ferry in the early 90s and loved every minute of the ride.

jane~ Having not traveled (unfortunately) over there I was under the assumption that your towns were safe from that kind of blight.

I thought your question about freeways deserved a less personal definition than I would give... So I looked, and the gist (from and Yahoo Answers is:
Highways: are roads that are usually maintained by the local government (or even the state - never federal) but the funding for the highway can come from the federal government. State highways never cross state lines. US highways do cross state lines. US highways were established to create paths for travel where the road number does not change from state to state. This was done to make interstate travel easier and was mandated by congress sometime around the 1930s.

Interstate: A highway that crosses state lines and is not a US highway. This is a seperate act of congress and was established in the 1950s to create highways that were limited access and were designed for those traveling long distances on a regular basis. An interstate [highway] is one of the parts of the United States Interstate Highway system, which was originally built for civil defense purposes, but is now recognized mainly for its commercial use. Interstate highways have to meet federal standards, such as gradual and banked curves, center dividers, specific markings for entrance and exit lanes, and such. They have a unique numbering system, with odd numbers running north-south, and even numbers running east-west, and other rules. (Interstate highways in California are also freeways).

Freeway: an express highway with no intersections, usually having traffic routed on and off by means of a cloverleaf. It is a term used in California (and maybe elsewhere) that has nothing to do with the road being "free," that is, not having any toll. Under normal California law, all real estate owners with a lot bordering a road have the right to run a driveway to that road and drive onto it. A freeway is "free" from that right, which is why it is also called a "limited-access highway". Freeways are usually multi-lane roads, and the only way to get on and off them is to use entrances and exits. (Interstate highways in California are also freeways).

Lydia said...

Jannie~ Oh yeah, you gotta ride a trolley! I have not been in San Francisco since before that earthquake in 1989, and my childhood-early adult memories definitely include the freeways. I really want to go for a visit now that I've learned this about the Embarcadero Freeway and read all about the Ferry Building Marketplace that replaced where it ran in front of the Ferry Bldg.

Fireblossom~ Thanks much! It's my kind of progress, too. I am really excited about this movement!
Excited, too, to see your post and will be by tonight. :)

Stickup Artist~ That's remarkable that you didn't have a car until you were 28, and it's understandable why you have one now. There is nothing like driving out on an open desert highway, and your spectacular photography seems almost a "thank you" to the desert for being there.
It was eye-opening to learn about the removal of urban highways movement, and I'm glad you are now interested in it too!

Hattie said...

One of the thrills of my childhood was going to see the relief map at the Ferry Building.
It was enchanting to see the whole state laid out in minature, and it's because of this map that I have a good sense of the geography of my home state.

rosaria williams said...

I just returned from a trip to San Francisco, visited the Ferry Building and was thoroughly enchanted by its new life, artisanal boutiques and high-end restaurants.

goatman said...

Looks to me like the old Ferry building would be good for art displays and fairs. Dry and airy with plenty of walking space.
In spite of time marching on, cities seem to be able to restore and continue the old structures amid the new.

Don't Feed The Pixies said...

many years ago on our trip to California we dropped in for the day to a very hilly place called San Francisco

It's so long ago now that the memories are more that i remember that we did such and such, but can't actually remember doing it. So: taxi ride down the hills with the taxi feeling like we were in an episode of some cheap cop programme, catching the ferry under the Golden Gate and being slightly disappointed we hadn't been able to go to Alcatraz, eating frozen bananas by the docks

Knowing my dad I'm pretty sure he would have been singing "if you're going to San Francisco" badly - and only knowing the first line or so.

Oh and trams. There were definately trams.

Lydia said...

Hattie~ Wow! Thanks for that link! The article and photos are fascinating. The map was the length of two football fields! What a wonder it must have been, and also no wonder that it served as such great instruction. I think that Sacramento should rescue it. It should have a place of distinction somewhere in the capital city. What a shame for it to be stored and deteriorating...

rosaria~ Your comment makes me all the more desirous to see the place now. I am so glad you had a wonderful time and that your trip coincided with this old postcard for the sheer sychronicity of it all!

goatman~ I agree with your appraisal. Seems a perfect place to serve as a people place, past-present-and future.

Pixies~ Fun travel memories! They are sort of like my early memories of San Francisco, but I was there in adulthood also. Even so, I have not seen The City (as San Francisco is called in the U.S.) for too many years now...

Kathe W. said...

I remember whne the Ferry Building was hidden from sight by that damn Embarcadero! The new improved Ferry Building is a delight to step into when we take the ferry from Sausalito- my cousin and her husband live there and it's the best way to get to San Francisco for us...then we just wander and walk and wander discovering new places and alleys that otherwise we'd miss in a car!
and by the way- I succumbed to upgrading to the new blogger - I was afraid my blogs would disappear. I am slowly getting used to the new ways of posting!
Cheers and have a great weeeknd!

Lydia said...

Kathe~ I wish that was in my memory so I can make the comparison sometime. Your description of the ferry from Sausalito to the Ferry Bldg. just really whets my appetite for that trip. I spent one day in Sausalito and fell in love with the place.
Will drop by to see your changes (I'm proud of you!).

susan said...

I very well remember driving into SF after the Embacadero Freeway had been removed and was glad, but I'm ashamed to say I lived in Portland for 17 years never knowing there had once been another freeway where Tom McCall Park stood. It just seemed so natural that it was there.

Lydia said...

susan~ You are ahead of me in seeing SF without the Embarcadero Fwy., and even with me on being clueless about Harbor Drive! Wasn't that picture of the freeway (at the link) a shocker, susan?! No one ever talks about it having been there, so it's as if it never happened. Which is what reclamation is all about, come to think of it! :)



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