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San Francisco City Hall, summer 2003.

The City Hall of San Francisco, California, opened in 1915, in its open space area in the city's Civic Centermarker, is a Beaux-Arts monument to the brief "City Beautiful" movement that epitomized the high-minded American Renaissance of the period 1880–1917. The structure's dome is the fifth largest in the world. The present building is actually a replacement for an earlier City Hall that was completely destroyed during the 1906 Earthquake.

The architect was Arthur Brown Jr, whose attention to the finishing details extended to the doorknobs and the typeface to be used in signage. Brown also designed San Francisco's War Memorial Opera Housemarker, Veterans Building, Temple Emanuel, Coit Towermarker and the Federal office building at 50 United Nations Plaza.


The building is vast, totalling over 500,000 square feet (46,000 m²) and occupying two full blocks of San Francisco. It is 390 feet (119 m) long on Van Ness Avenue and Polk Street, by 273 feet, 3 inches (83.25 m) on Grove and McAllister Streets. Its dome, which owes much to Mansart's Baroque dome of Les Invalidesmarker, Paris, is the fifth largest dome in the world, rising 307.5 feet (94 m) above the Civic Center Historic Districtmarker. It is fourteen inches (35 cm) higher than the United States Capitolmarker, and has a diameter of 66 feet (20 m), resting upon 4 x 50 ton (3.5 x 44.5 metric ton) and 4 x 20 ton girders (3.5 x 17.8 ton), each 9 feet (2.7 m) deep and 60 feet (18 m) long.

The building as a whole contains some 7,900 tons (7,035 metric tons) of structural steel from the American Bridge Company near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It is faced with Madera County granite on the exterior, and Indiana sandstone within, together with finish marbles from Alabama, Colorado, Vermont, and Italy. Much of the statuary is by Henri Crenier.

The Rotunda is a spectacular space and the upper levels are public and handicapped accessible. Opposite the grand staircase, on the second floor, is the office of the Mayor. Bronze busts of former Mayor George Moscone and his successor, Dianne Feinstein, stand nearby as tacit reminders of the Moscone assassination, which took place just a few yards from that spot in the smaller rotunda of the mayor's office entrance. A bust of former county supervisor Harvey Milk, who was assassinated in the building was unveiled on May 22, 2008. [82731] While hard to discern these days, the inscription that dominates the grand Rotunda and the entrance to the mayor's small rotunda, right below Father Time, reads:









These words were written by (previous) Mayor Edward Robeson Taylor. [82732]and dedicated by Mayor James Rolph.

While plaques at the Mall entrance memorialize President George Washington's farewell address and President Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, the primary themes of the statuary are to the past mayors, with the dates of their terms in office. The medallions in the vaults of the Rotunda are of Equality, Liberty, Strength, Learning and, as memorialized in the South Light Court display, Progress.


Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe were married at City Hall in 1954. Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk were assassinated there in 1978, by former Supervisor Dan White.

The Loma Prieta earthquakemarker of 1989 damaged the structure, and twisted the dome four inches (102 mm) on its base. Afterwards work was undertaken to render City Hall earthquake resistant through a base isolation system. In an earthquake, the mass of the dome threatens to act as a pendulum, rocking the building's structure and tearing it apart. But the base isolation system of hundreds of rubber and stainless-steel insulators inserted into City Hall's underpinnings has the effect of disrupting seismic waves before they can affect the structure. San Francisco's City Hall is currently the world's second largest base-isolated structure (after the International Terminal at San Francisco International Airportmarker)—a triumph of seismic retrofitting. City Hall reopened after its seismic upgrade in January 1999.
Interior stairs lead to the Board of Supervisor's meeting chamber
The city hall has attempted to recruit peregrine falcons to nest in aeries outside the dome. Pigeon droppings have to be periodically cleaned from the pair of glass-covered light wells (formerly covered with concrete at the height of modernism). In a curious coincidence, the new city hall in nearby San Josemarker has already drawn at least one pair of falcons, discovered by Mayor Ron Gonzales himself as he saw pigeon feathers descend past a window during a meeting.

In May 1960, the main Rotunda was a site of a student protest against the House Un-American Activities Committee and a countering police action whereby students from UC Berkeley, Stanford, and other local colleges were fire hosed down the steps beneath the rotunda. This event was memorialized by students during the Free Speech Movement at UC Berkeley four years later.

The grand plaza, partially seen in the image above, has undergone several extensive renovations, with radical changes in its appearance and utility. Prior to the 1960s there were extensive brick plazas, few trees, and a few large, simple, raised, and circular ponds with central fountains, all in a style that discouraged loitering. The plaza was then extensively excavated for sorely needed underground parking. At this time a central rectangular pond, with an extensive array of water vents (strangely, all in several strict rows and all pointing east, with identical arcs of water, and completely without sculptural embellishment), was added, with extensive groves of trees (again, in 60s modernist style, planted with absolute military precision on rectangular grids). In the 1990s, with the rise of the problem of homelessness, the plaza was once again remodeled to make it somewhat less habitable – although the most significant change, the replacement of the pond and pumps with a lawn, could be reasonably justified on the basis of energy and water conservation.

San Francisco City Hall in film

The beauty of City Hall has not been lost on filmmakers working in San Francisco; a good many films have shot scenes in and around the building. Ironically, that which may be City Hall's best-known scene does not take place in San Francisco but in Washington, DC. A scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark was filmed in the rotunda as a late addition to the production when it was decided that a coda was needed for Indiana Jones and Marion Ravenwood's relationship. The City Hall was prominently featured throughout and famously at the end of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Dirty Harry filmed a key scene in the Mayor's office itself. In the opening sequence of The Towering Inferno, the film's dedication is superimposed over a shot of City Hall, and the helicopter taking Paul Newman to the Glass Tower is shown flying over the building.

Other films that feature City Hall include:


  1. Hall, C. Weekender:Civic center. VIA: AAA Traveler's Companion. VIA Magazine. American Automobile Associaton. November/December 2008
  2. Brown was in partnership as Bakewell and Brown; Brown's blueprint of the building are preserved at the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley.

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