Civic Center—begun in 1913 and heavily influenced by the City Beautiful movement—is in an area of San Francisco that was originally sand dunes.
Now City Hall is surrounded by large plazas and classic architecture. Notable buildings include the Asian Art Museum, Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco Public Library, War Memorial Opera House and Veterans Building.
San Francisco Civic Center History
The land where Civic Center is today was occupied by Yerba Buena Cemetery from 1850 until it had to be moved because shifting sands were exposing graves.
Civic Center with its classic architecture was declared a national landmark in 1978.
The current City Hall was completed in 1915. It’s a Beaux Arts-style building that replaced the Old City Hall which had been completed in 1897 but was destroyed just nine years later in the 1906 earthquake and fire. The dome on San Francisco’s City Hall is 16 feet higher than the capitol dome in Washington D. C. and yes that’s real gold (leaf)—$400,000 worth in 1999. The typeface on all signs at City hall is called City Hall and was hand drawn by the detail-oriented architect of City Hall – Arthur Brown Jr. Brown designed three other structures at Civic Center as well as Coit Tower and many other buildings in the Bay area and some as far away as Washington DC. Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe were married at San Francisco’s City Hall in 1954. Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk were assassinated there in 1978.
Van Ness Avenue
Van Ness Avenue divides San Francisco’s Civic Center. The widest street in The City, Van Ness is where rows of Victorians were dynamited to act as a fire break after the 1906 earthquake — destruction ordered by then Mayor Eugene Schmitz to save what was left of San Francisco.
San Francisco War Memorial and Performing Arts Center
Several cultural showcases along Van Ness Avenue across from the rear facade of City Hall comprise the San Francisco War Memorial and Performing Arts Center. The centers facilities are used for opera, symphony, recitals, plays, theatre, modern and classical dance, lectures, meetings and gala events of all kinds. Several historic events occurred at the SFWMPAC.
The War Memorial Opera House and Veterans Building, like City Hall, were designed by Arthur Brown Jr. along with G. Albert Lansburg. The two buildings in the original War Memorial Complex separated by the Memorial Court. Davies Symphony Hall was added later.
The War Memorial Opera House has been home to the San Francisco Opera from its beginning in 1932 while the San Francisco Symphony performed here from 1932 to 1980.
The United Nations had its first conference in the Opera House and the UN Charter was drafted next door in the Herbst Theatre. The official end to World War II, the Treaty of Peace with Japan (commonly known as the Treaty of San Francisco), was signed here by 49 nations on September 8th, 1951.
The War Memorial Opera House commemorates those who served in World War I.
The Veterans Building exterior is nearly identical to the Opera House. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art occupied the third and fourth floors from1932–1994.
The Herbst Theatre occupies three floors in the center of the building. Originally designed as the Veterans Auditorium the Herbst Theatre was refurbished and renamed in 1977. The San Francisco Arts Commission Gallery is on the first floor and the Green Room is on the second floor with an exterior loggia overlook of Van Ness Avenue. Now used as a performance and reception hall, the Green Room was designed as a lounge for World War 1 Veterans.
The Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall is the concert hall component of the San Francisco War Memorial and Performing Arts Center. The Davies Symphony Hall was completed in 1980 to give the San Francisco Symphony a permanent home and allow it to expand to a year-round schedule.
The hall was given a major acoustic renovation in 1992. An adjoining building contains the Robert H. Zellerbach Rehearsal Hall with three separate rehearsal spaces with the largest matching the size of the stage at the Opera House.
Davies Symphony Hall features the largest concert-hall organ in North America; a Ruffatti Concert Organ added in 1984 has 8,264 pipes with the largest over 32 feet tall.
Bill Graham Civic Auditorium
The Beaux-Arts style Bill Graham Civic Auditorium occupies an entire city block, is four stories tall and is one of San Francisco’s major convention venues hosting numerous concerts and public events throughout the year.
Built in 1915 and originally named the San Francisco Civic Auditorium it hosted the 1920 Democratic National Convention and the San Francisco Warriors NBA team from 1964–1967. The auditorium was renamed in 1992 for rock promoter Bill Graham.
Asian Art Museum of San Francisco
The Asian Art Museum occupies San Francisco’s former Main Library, another Beaux Arts-style building built in 1917. The building was damaged in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and rebuilt for the museum. The Asian Art Museum, which has one of the most comprehensive collections of Asian art in the world, moved here from the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park in 2003. Chicago industrialist Avery Brundage’s donation of his collection in 1960 and an additional donation in 1969 totaling 7,700 plus Asian art objects was the basis of the now more than 17,000 objects in the Asian Art Museum’s Collection. Silicon Valley entrepreneur Chong-Moon Lee contributed $15 million for the new museum in Civic Center and a later $1 million for the Korean Department. The Engraving on the front of the building is: Asian Art Museum, Chong-Moon Lee Center for Asian Art and Culture.
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San Francisco Public Library
The new San Francisco Public Library is across Civic Center Plaza from its former location—now the Asian Art Museum. The building was completed in 1995 with double the space of the previous structure. Arthur Brown Jr. (City Hall, War Memorial and Veterans Building) also designed the Federal Office Building at 50 United Nations Plaza — the last structure to be completed in the seven-building complex.
The Pioneer Monument in Civic Center was one of many gifts to California by James Lick, the richest man in the state at the time of his death. The Lick Observatory on Mount Hamilton near San Jose was another. Created by F.H. Happersberger in 1984, the Pioneer Monument was moved one block from the intersection of Hyde and Grove Streets to its present location in 1993.