San Francisco Civic Center Plaza
Welcome to the Civic Center Plaza!
The term “Civic Center” has been used in reference to an entire central business district of a community or a major shopping center in the middle of a community. In this type of Civic Center, special attention is paid to the way public structures are grouped and landscaped. It also refers to a multipurpose arena that combines venues for sporting events, theaters, concerts and similar events.
The Civic Center in San Francisco, California, is an area of a few blocks north of the intersection of Market Street and Van Ness Avenue that contains many of the city’s largest government and cultural institutions. It has two large plazas: Civic Center Plaza and United Nations Plaza and has a number of buildings in classical architectural style. The Bill Graham Civic Auditorium is one of the few remaining buildings from the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition.The United Nations Charter was signed in the War Memorial Veterans Building’s Herbst Theatre in 1945, leading to the creation of the United Nations. It is also where the 1951 Treaty of San Francisco (the peace treaty that officially ended the Pacific War with the Empire of Japan, which had surrendered in 1945) was signed. The San Francisco Civic Center was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1987, and listed in the National Register of Historic Places on October 10, 1978.
Here comes the History of the Civic Center. The Civic Center was built in the early 20th century after an earlier city hall was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake and fire. Despite the noted architect and urban planner Daniel Burnham had provided the city with plans for a neoclassical Civic Center shortly before the 1906 earthquake, his plans were never carried out. A temporary city hall was put up on Market Street, but planning for a more permanent structure and civic center did not take place for several years. The current civic center was planned by a group of local architects, chaired by John Galen Howard.
The driving spirit behind the project was mayor ‘Sunny Jim’ Rolph, elected in 1911. He made the creation of the new Civic Center one of his priorities and in 1915, the first building – the Civic Auditorium – was completed. It was followed by a new city hall, opera house and concert hall. Even more governmental and cultural buildings were added later.
The War Memorial Opera House and its neighboring twin, the War Memorial Veterans Building (which together were the nucleus of the San Francisco War Memorial and Performing Arts Center), the Main Library, and the State and Old Federal buildings would be built later, during the 1920s and 1930s.
During World War II, Army barracks and Victory gardens were constructed in the main plaza in front of City Hall and the Library. The 1950s through the 1970s and 1980s saw tall post-modernist Federal and State buildings constructed in the area; an underground exhibition facility, Brooks Hall, was built beneath the Civic Center Plaza in 1958. The Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall and Harold L. Zellerbach Rehearsal Hall were added in 1980. The 1990s saw the construction of a new Main Library with the conversion of the old Main Library building into the Asian Art Museum, and the removal of all public benches. In 1998, the city officially renamed part of the plaza the Joseph L. Alioto Performing Arts Piazza after the former mayor.
Its central location, vast open space, and the collection of government buildings have made and continue to make Civic Center the scene of massive political rallies. It has been the scene of massive anti-war protests and rallies since the Korean War. It was also the scene of major moments of the Gay Rights Movement. Activist Harvey Milk held rallies and gave speeches there. After his assassination on November 27, 1978, a massive candlelight vigil was held there. Later, it was the scene of the White Night Riots in response to the lenient sentencing of Dan White, Milk’s assassin. Recently, the Civic Center has been the center point of the Gay Marriage activism, as Mayor Gavin Newsom married couples there.
The Civic Center with its “classical” architecture was declared a national landmark in 1978. It has several buildings that are of architectural interest including the Asian Art Museum as well as the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, the buildings that comprise the San Francisco War Memorial and Performing Arts Center, the Orpheum Theater, Golden Gate Theater, the Curran Theater, and the interior of the Great American Music Hall. Other notable points of interest include: Alcazar Theater, City HallFederal Office Building, 50 United Nations Plaza and San Francisco Public Library.
The centerpiece of the Civic Center is the City Hall, which heads the complex and takes up two city blocks on Polk Street. The section of the street in front of the building was renamed for Dr. Carlton B. Goodlett, a local African American activist. Across the street on McAllister Street is the headquarters of the Supreme Court of California. Across from that building is the Asian Art Museum, opened in 2004 in the former building of the San Francisco Library, which is now in a newer building constructed in 1995.
West of City Hall on Van Ness Avenue is the War Memorial Opera House, where the U.N. Charter was signed in 1945 and the Treaty of San Francisco was signed in 1951. To that building’s left is the Davies Symphony Hall; to its right the War Memorial Veterans Building, which contains the Herbst Theatre.
North of City Hall is the Phillip Burton Federal Building and United States Courthouse for the United States District Court for the Northern District of California, and State of California office buildings. South of the main Civic Center complex on the nearby Mission Street, is the head courthouse of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit which sits across from a newly constructed Federal Building complex.
A monument to James Lick and the Manifest Destiny is located in the middle of Fulton Street between the Library and the Asian Art Museum. The section of Fulton Street between Hyde and Leavenworth streets was pedestrianized and re-developed into a monument for the United Nations and the signing of the UN Charter in 1975, when the Bay Area Rapid Transit subway was constructed under Market Street. The 2.6-acre pedestrian mall was designed by Lawrence Halprin. It was rededicated in June 1995 by visiting members of the UN General Assembly as part of its 60th anniversary, and renovated and rededicated again in 2005 during the World Environment Day event. Currently, it is the site of a small farmers’ market as well as a large equestrian statue of Simon Bolivar.
Because the Civic Center is located near the skid row Tenderloin neighborhood, it has a seedy, run-down, high-crime reputation and appearance with large amounts of homeless encampments, which have prevented it from attracting the large amounts of tourists seen in other areas of the city. Despite repeated redevelopment of Civic Center over the years aimed primarily at discouraging the homeless from camping there, large numbers of homeless continue to camp and loiter in the area.
Despite such a reputation, its central location also makes it the center of many of the City’s festivals and parades. Many street parades and parties are held at Civic Center Plaza, including San Francisco’s Gay Pride Parade, the City’s Earth Day celebration (which attracts 15,000+ people), the St. Patrick’s Day parade, San Francisco’s version of the Love Parade, and the San Francisco LovEvolution party.
Civic Center Station is a subway stop for both BART and the Muni Metro. The F Market historic streetcar line and many Muni bus lines run nearby. The Fox Plaza condominium complex is also located nearby. Civic Center has three Universities located there; the University of California, Hastings College of the Law, the private The Art Institute of California – San Francisco and The San Francisco Conservatory of Music. In December 2010, a set of innovative wind and solar hybrid street lamps provided by Urban Green Energy were installed as part of the center’s vision for sustainability.
San Francisco’s Civic Center area encompassing a number of excellent classical-style buildings as well as some modern structures is a real treat for lovers of architecture.