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A Reborn Portal to a Great American City

No longer isolated by a freeway, San Francisco’s Ferry Building doesn’t have the worldwide fame of the Eiffel Tower or Big Ben. But a new book argues that it has shaped both its own city and the built environment in many others.

San Francisco's Ferry Building
San Francisco’s Ferry Building. “It checks the boxes of what makes an icon,” Portal author John King writes.
(David Kidd/Governing)
“We shape our buildings,” Winston Churchill famously said, “and thereafter they shape us.” He was talking about the Houses of Parliament, which he ordered rebuilt in traditional Gothic style after they were damaged by German bombs during World War II. But it doesn’t take too much reflection to realize that he was right: Architecture has set many of the parameters of modern urban life. The steel-framed skyscrapers invented in Chicago in the late 19th century ushered in a high-rise downtown office culture that still exists today. The sterile glass boxes that came out of the 20th-century modernist movement have lined commercial districts in monotonous repetition all over the western world.

But buildings shape us in another way as well. They become icons of the cities that construct them, and serve as indelible symbols of those cities to visitors and locals alike. Big Ben is London; the Eiffel Tower is Paris; the Empire State Building is New York. If you want to travel back far enough, you could say that the Colosseum has been Rome for the past 2,000 years.

John King, the design critic of the San Francisco Chronicle, believes prominent buildings serve both of these purposes: They mark off eras in the evolution of the urban environment and serve as emblems of the cities in which they are built.

To prove his point, he has written Portal, a history of the most important building in San Francisco, the Ferry Building on the edge of the San Francisco Bay. It does not have the worldwide fame of the Eiffel Tower or Big Ben, but in its own way, King argues, it has shaped the evolution of its city and exerted a strong influence on the built environment in many other places as well.

“Purely as a work of architecture,” King writes, “it checks the boxes of what makes an icon. It has a memorable simplicity and a recognizable silhouette. … At every stage of San Francisco history in the past 125 years, people have singled it out as their idea of what the city is. Or what the city was. Or what the city ought to be.”

The creators of the building had even more grandiose ideas. They dreamed, King tells us, “that it would be more than just a building … that it would stand as a profound work of civic infrastructure connecting the city to the region and nation, proof of urban ascendance.”

From its inauguration in 1898, the Ferry Building was both ambitious and prosaic. Just three stories high, except for the 245-foot clock tower at its center, it was 659 feet long — almost exactly an eighth of a mile. It was built to receive the hundreds of ships that docked at the bay every single day.

The Ferry Building is not only an icon of San Francisco; its history is in many ways the history of San Francisco. At the peak of its functionality, it welcomed 43 passenger boats and 47 million people from points along the bay, generating foot traffic from arriving commuters second only to the Charing Cross railway station in London.

THAT WAS IN THE 1930S. Then things started to fall apart. The ubiquity of automobiles cut drastically into ferry traffic, and the most visible ferry route, into San Francisco from nearby Marin County, was discontinued in 1938. On the last day of service, regular travelers said tearful goodbyes to commuter friends they had been crossing the bay with for decades.
San Francisco's original Ferry Building
The Ferry Building that stands today, completed in 1898, replaced this wooden structure, shown circa 1883-1886.
(San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency)

By 1938, after two gleaming new bridges brought car traffic into San Francisco from Marin and the East Bay, the Ferry Building seemed to have lost its purpose and even its status as a local icon. That year, a report by U.S. Steel predicted that by the end of the century, there would be no Ferry Building and no dock at all. During World War II, the building found a use, but not the one it was meant to serve: It became a bunker for military personnel and equipment.

That function ended with the end of the war. By 1947, the Ferry Building had slid back into the torpor that planners had predicted. Only two ferries still docked at the old terminal. The San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen called it a “sad old pile of gray — dead and useless except for the clock that goes ticking on when all else is gone.”

The ultimate indignity was visited upon the venerable structure in the late 1950s, when the city approved and commissioned the Embarcadero Freeway, in King’s words “a sixty-foot-tall concrete freeway blocking the classical façade and closing off any sense of connection to the water beyond.”

THE FERRY BUILDING SEEMED DESTINED, if it survived at all, to be merely a ruined relic of an ancient era, remembered, if at all, in coffee-table history books. But then things changed again. It was the freeway that was marked for oblivion, the target of a growing local preservationist movement. A campaign to tear it down failed narrowly in 1986, but in 1989, after the Loma Prieta earthquake, a consensus developed that the freeway had to go. It was demolished, the Embarcadero was reborn as a pedestrian-friendly boulevard, and there was once again easy access to a long-neglected urban symbol.
The Ferry Building's marketplace
When the Ferry Building was restored in 2003, its ticketing hall was repurposed as a marketplace. Tourists and locals have flocked there. (David Kidd/Governing)
The Ferry Building was carefully restored in 2003, its long ticketing hall repurposed as a market for exotic foods, local produce and specialty goods. Tourists and locals flocked there. Visitors could once again walk through the building all the way to the water. Gourmet Magazine called it “a brilliantly original idea of an urban market.” Google leased 40,000 square feet of office space in the cavernous hall upstairs. Herb Caen took back his earlier comments and told an audience that “I can’t think of any landmark I’d fight harder to save.”

The COVID-19 pandemic took a toll on the restored building, and for the first time since its rebirth a significant number of its retail units were vacant. But there were fewer such vacancies than in most of downtown San Francisco, and by last year the retail booths had begun to fill up again. John King talks about a “bumpy evolution from an industrial waterfront to a corridor of consumption.”

THE MORE YOU THINK ABOUT SAN FRANCISCO’S SPLENDID BAYFRONT, and the building that has represented it for more than a century, the more you think about all the things the city has done first, before other cities got around to them, and the more you ponder how much the bayfront and the building have contributed to them.

The Embarcadero Freeway opened in 1959, but that was also the year the city rejected six other mega-highways that were on the drawing board. The Ferry Building was, as King points out, the bellwether of the anti-freeway movement. Other cities began to abort massive freeway plans in the 1960s, but San Francisco got there first. When the freeway was finally demolished in 1991, that was a milestone as well. Freeway demolition became a significant urban issue during that decade, capped off by the multibillion-dollar Big Dig in Boston, but only after San Francisco had demonstrated that demolition could enhance rather than hinder local urban life.

Cities throughout the country began restoring their waterfronts in the closing years of the 20th century, and most of them looked west to the revival of the Embarcadero as a boulevard and to the restoration of bayfront vitality. A little further north along the water, in 1964, two obsolete factory buildings had already been redeveloped into the pleasure ground of Ghirardelli Square, with 55 shops, 14 restaurants, two theaters and 15,000 visitors a day. Adaptive reuse soon became a staple of modern urban planning, with projects such as Quincy Market in Boston, Harborplace in Baltimore and a host of imitators all over the country. Some were more successful than others, but San Francisco showed them how to do it. The Ferry Building, King writes, “embodies how urban waterfronts can be reinvented without sacrificing their past identities.”

Today San Francisco is up against pressing new demands for innovation. The waterfront aside, it has been experiencing a downtown decline perhaps worse than in any other major American city. It needs to come up with a way out. That may be starting to happen. A few blocks north of the struggling commercial center, the New York Times has reported, Montgomery Street has attracted a billion dollars worth of investment, and its buildings are filling up with architects, media startups and a public radio station. It may jump-start business activity in the heart of the city, or it may not. But it is worth watching.

And while all this is going on, the city and its region have to figure out how to deal with the global warming and sea-level rise that threaten their economy and well-being. King tells us that ever-higher tides in the bay could encroach on the vibrant urban waterfront that it has taken half a century to create. That is likely to require the building of a massive seawall at the cost of billions of dollars that will not be easily found. Of course, no place in the United States has figured out what to do about such problems. But history suggests at least the possibility that when answers emerge, San Francisco will be there first.
Alan Ehrenhalt is a contributing editor for Governing. He served for 19 years as executive editor of Governing Magazine. He can be reached at
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