Designing San Francisco: Art, Land, and Urban Renewal in the City by the Bay

Designing San Francisco: Art, Land, and Urban Renewal in the City by the Bay

by Alison Isenberg

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A major new urban history of the design and development of postwar San Francisco

Designing San Francisco is the untold story of the formative postwar decades when U.S. cities took their modern shape amid clashing visions of the future. In this pathbreaking and richly illustrated book, Alison Isenberg shifts the focus from architects and city planners—those most often hailed in histories of urban development and design—to the unsung artists, activists, and others who played pivotal roles in rebuilding San Francisco between the 1940s and the 1970s.

Previous accounts of midcentury urban renewal have focused on the opposing terms set down by Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs—put simply, development versus preservation—and have followed New York City models. Now Isenberg turns our attention west to colorful, pioneering, and contentious San Francisco, where unexpectedly fierce battles were waged over iconic private and public projects like Ghirardelli Square, Golden Gateway, and the Transamerica Pyramid.

When large-scale redevelopment came to low-rise San Francisco in the 1950s, the resulting rivalries and conflicts sparked the proliferation of numerous allied arts fields and their professionals, including architectural model makers, real estate publicists, graphic designers, photographers, property managers, builders, sculptors, public-interest lawyers, alternative press writers, and preservationists. Isenberg explores how these centrally engaged arts professionals brought new ideas to city, regional, and national planning and shaped novel projects across urban, suburban, and rural borders. San Francisco’s rebuilding galvanized far-reaching critiques of the inequitable competition for scarce urban land, and propelled debates over responsible public land stewardship. Isenberg challenges many truisms of this renewal era—especially the presumed male domination of postwar urban design, showing how women collaborated in city building long before feminism’s impact in the 1970s.

An evocative portrait of one of the world’s great cities, Designing San Francisco provides a new paradigm for understanding past and present struggles to define the urban future.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781400888832
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 08/22/2017
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 432
File size: 56 MB
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About the Author

Alison Isenberg is professor of history at Princeton University, where she codirects the Princeton-Mellon Initiative in Architecture, Urbanism, and the Humanities. She is the author of Downtown America: A History of the Place and the People Who Made It.

Read an Excerpt


The Illustrated Pitch

"Guys with Ideas" and a 1940s Vision for a Historic Waterfront District

By 1981, when historian Randy Delehanty interviewed ten original participants in the development of Ghirardelli Square two decades earlier, the converted factory complex had established its legacy as a historic preservation landmark. Private benefactor William Roth, heir to Matson Navigation Company's shipping empire, had purchased the factory to save it from demolition and a high-rise fate. A far-sighted team of modernist architects had finessed a path breaking redesign combining old and new elements, producing a vibrant commercial destination. In seeking to document innovative preservationist design, however, Delehanty inevitably captured other significant stories. His interview with Karl Kortum, director of the San Francisco Maritime Museum (SFMM), opened up an older, more sweeping account of the north waterfront's transformation. Delehanty spoke with Kortum in the museum, which since 1951 had occupied the former Aquatic Park Bathhouse, a ship-shaped building sandwiched onto the thin bank of land between Ghirardelli Square and San Francisco Bay. In 1981, the museum stood at the heart of a fifty-acre national maritime park that owed its existence to Kortum (fig. 7).

In truth, the interview was a monologue. Kortum answered Delehanty's narrow queries about Ghirardelli Square with a virtually uninterrupted narrative recalling the Maritime Museum's municipal origins, its expansion into San Francisco's first state park in 1957, and its 1978 transfer to the National Park Service. In the complex, colorful account that followed, Kortum told how in the 1940s he had sold the relevant city and state landowners his vision to develop the waterfront as a historical maritime destination; how he had lined up supporters including the newspapers, the head of the sailors' union, and city commissioners and supervisors; and how he had reached the right state legislators to ensure transfer of waterfront property into hands that would assemble and showcase historical resources. Karl Kortum had been the most vocal and tireless advocate behind saving the Ghirardelli block. Yet he saw preserving the factory as only one brief phase in a long-term campaign for a public maritime district. At some point in the interview, Delehanty gave up trying to reel Kortum in to focus on Ghirardelli and allowed the broader story to unfold.

The dynamic postwar possibilities playing out among the north waterfront's old warehouses, factories, piers, and parks narrowed during the 1960s into a preservationist script that pitted modern high-rises against old brick buildings. There is much truth to this rescue narrative, in which demolitions fired up preservationists. Most memorably, in 1961 the construction of the first of the twin seventeen-story Fontana Towers on the former site of a factory adjacent to Ghirardelli violated the city's "unwritten" rules dictating a low-rise waterfront.

Yet Karl Kortum's 1949 civic vision of creating a historical maritime district significantly preceded the skyscraper panic of the 1960s. Kortum prioritized public ownership as a means to plan the waterfront neighborhood. He built upon the city's parks initiatives, including a troubled municipal–federal partnership that gave San Francisco the Works Progress Administration's Aquatic Park in 1939. Kortum endorsed the parallel private planning initiatives, such as the Jackson Square wholesale home furnishings district where entrepreneurs began revamping nineteenth-century buildings in the early 1950s. But he did not wait for the private sector to "save" old buildings. In the mid-1950s, for example, Kortum laid the groundwork for the state to purchase the Ghirardelli factory and the Haslett Warehouse and incorporate them into the public domain.

Later, Karl Kortum would fight high-rises, adopting new tactics in the late 1960s and 1970s as the buildings got taller and the threatened loss of public land took new forms. But he had formulated the core land stewardship critiques of his career in the 1940s and 1950s. During that time he had learned how to "pitch" ideas, as he said, so that they were seen and heard by those with influence over public purse-strings. In addition to having a talent for drafting hard-hitting prose, Kortum was a photographer and a visual thinker who enlisted the power of renderings to promote planning concepts. He left behind not only voluminous business correspondence and diaries but also a closely curated archive of watercolors, drawings, and models tracking the evolution of his historic maritime district proposals since the 1940s. In these earlier plans, the roles of the city's museum and parks advocates, maritime buffs, newspaper editors, and politicians in drafting blueprints for a historical waterfront emerge from the long shadows later cast by the high-rises.

One 1950 rendering opens up a vista that places the singular preservation of the Ghirardelli factory within Kortum's wider view of the waterfront district (fig. 8). "Proposed Reconstruction of Old San Francisco, 1850–1950," by artist Hubert Buel, projects a cohesive historic waterfront plaza onto the unused, undefined eastern edge of Aquatic Park. An invented row of nineteenth-century retail buildings completes the enclosure of "Argonaut Square," framed on two other sides by the extant Haslett Warehouse to the left and the Ghirardelli factory to the right (but out of the frame). Kortum's vision of an integrated historical district — incorporating two proposed museums, piers, ships, cable-car tourist transit, and modern retail — was inspired by the occasion of the Gold Rush centennial rather than by high-rises. The story of Argonaut Square shifts the preservation drama from benevolent private rescue by a wealthy, civic-minded San Francisco family to an independent activist vision paired with public ownership of the waterfront. Taking its cue from Kortum's interview with Randy Delehanty, this chapter begins with competing visions for the same narrow stretch of land and then reveals an older, deeper, and more sweeping story.


A 1961 rendering of a gleaming residential high-rise, "Ghirardelli Center," launched the preservationist script for the Ghirardelli block (fig. 9). The rendering, in which San Francisco's brick waterfront factories and warehouses had disappeared, substantiated newspaper reports that investors intended to tear down the factory. Early in 1962, the San Francisco Examiner confirmed the Ghirardelli family's "tentative negotiations" with a suburban developer to "sell the property as a site for an apartment house." Karl Kortum bumped into Harvey Ghirardelli in the neighborhood. Ghirardelli told Kortum that he hoped to sell the property for $5 million but that he would accept $3 million from the state in condemnation proceedings. Kortum and others approached private citizen Bill Roth about "saving" the buildings. The prospect of Ghirardelli Center appalled Roth. Kortum described the 8-by-10-inch glossy as "pure horror." He warned Roth of the Fontana's symbolism: "Like a pair of enormous tombstones, side by side, these structures will signalize a dead chance that the city once had." With his mother Lurline Roth's financial backing, Roth preemptively purchased the factory. Kortum suggested using the distinctive buildings for an extension campus of the University of California, where Bill Roth served on the Board of Regents. Roth had another experiment in mind (fig. 10).

And so the wrecking ball was stopped, and Maritime Museum archivists would one day label the image "Scuttled High Rise Plan for Ghirardelli Center." Responsible private ownership promised to secure the old factory buildings, and the newspapers lauded Roth's "magnificent act of civic rescue." The real estate brokers assured the public that even if the current 40-foot height restriction was overturned, the new owners had "no intention of building high-rise structures on the land." They valued historic character "rather than just investment for profit" (fig. 11). Roth explained, "Our plan is not for the highest economic use of the property ... but what would be of most value to the people of San Francisco." No ordinary piece of real estate, the bay-front parcel counted as "one of the most magnificent properties in San Francisco," architect Robert Anshen advised Roth. Kortum agreed: "The view — always a subject of discussion and an intrinsic value on this face of San Francisco — is incomparable." It took in "the bay, passing ships, purple [Mount] Tamalpais and the lights of Sausalito."

Bill Roth's investment was hailed as "intelligent and thoughtful" private planning of the type encouraged in 1950s urban renewal circles. His ties to Matson Navigation Company steeped Roth in the maritime industries and made him a leader of one of the city's most influential families. The Roths enjoyed the gratitude of San Franciscans for the "gift" of saving the bay view and factory buildings. Instead of cashing in, Roth's "public spirited" development of Ghirardelli Square energized a new urban design model that blended historical and modern, local and tourist (fig. 12).

Another recently vanished city landmark haunted Roth and deepened the public's appetite for Ghirardelli as a civic rescue story. Roth regretted his failure in 1959 to stop the demolition of the 1853 Montgomery Block. Known locally as the Monkey Block, by the late nineteenth century the building was associated with writers, artists, actors — what one reporter called San Francisco's first bohemians. By the 1950s, the building occupied the border between the financial district and low-rise Jackson Square, which included the faded Barbary Coast red-light district. Once cleared, the Monkey Block site moldered and rankled as a parking lot for ten years. In 1969, Transamerica Corporation announced plans to build the city's tallest skyscraper at this prominent intersection, which aggravated critics even more. Later, Roth lamented what he called the "planning effects" of losing the Montgomery Block. Not only had the city missed an opportunity to extend the impact of a unique Gold Rush–era structure but the subsequent void also allowed Transamerica to build its Pyramid and set a precedent for further encroachments into Montgomery Street. In 1959, however, one could pardon San Franciscans for thinking that threats to the Monkey Block lacked teeth. The city's papers had regularly proclaimed the building "doomed" since the late 1940s. Roth actually hired an architect to review the structure's potential in 1959 and declined the purchase because of the architect's ambivalence.

Even a cursory consideration of Bill Roth's role, however, suggests a more complex picture than a one-man stand against high-rises that obliterated history. Roth stood on both sides of the preservation/tear-down divide. Roth was an insider intimately familiar with city planning and the waterfront. He led the San Francisco Planning and Urban Renewal Association (SPUR), a business-backed citizen's advocacy organization behind judicious redevelopment. Roth did not want a wall of Fontana high-rises to replace brick factories and cut off the waterfront, but he did not object to skyscrapers or clearance on principle. At Ghirardelli, he quietly reserved the right to decide whether the income from a few towers might profitably preserve the rest of the site. As an executive in his family's shipping business, Roth helped introduce revolutionary container technology in the late 1950s at the Port of Oakland. In the longer historical view, Bill Roth ultimately contributed more to rendering San Francisco's port facilities obsolete and modernizing the regional port economy than he did to preserving its seafaring past.

In the years after Ghirardelli Square opened, the site's property managers kept the rescue story alive. Whenever hillside neighbors complained about intrusive bright lights or loud noise, the managers pulled out the rendering of the high-rise Ghirardelli Center "as a weapon." The rescue narrative — by starkly pitting modernist high-rise against historic factory as competing rebuilding models — elevated themes of architecture, urban design, and private benevolence in the waterfront's renewal. Architecture was indispensable to the debates clouding the city's future, to be sure, but ultimately it provides a narrow and incomplete accounting of the wide-ranging experiments unfolding during these decades. If we step back from the factory versus high-rise binary, the vision and broader context of Karl Kortum's historic maritime district comes into focus, a vision founded on an argument for responsible public ownership of the waterfront domain — in the public's trust, as dictated by state law.

Neither Ghirardelli Center nor Argonaut Square was actually built, but both had a discernible impact on what came next. Their ripple effects traced the flow of ideas that remade San Francisco's waterfront during these decades. Following the renderings and their travels illustrates how some ideas took hold and became visions, while others did not.


Although it became popular in the 1950s and 1960s to uphold examples of enlightened private investment as distinguished from government-funded, expensive "urban renewal," Ghirardelli Square and the Maritime Museum fit into a larger, complex redevelopment of the city's northern waterfront that sprawled over private and public realms (fig. 13). A brief tour of how private rebuilding interacted with public-sector forces on the waterfront — particularly the San Francisco Port Authority, the city Planning Department and Commission, and the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency — also introduces many of the most relevant neighborhood sites. Placing two private preservationist cases, Jackson Square and The Cannery, next to the Crown Zellerbach tower and plaza marks the 1950–65 period as modeling how private investment could oversee the public good. By the late 1960s, relying on public-spirited private stewardship, as had been done for Ghirardelli, The Cannery, Jackson Square, and Crown Zellerbach, would be stunningly inadequate in the face of a new generation of large-scale private clearance and high-rises. And as San Francisco's public and private revitalization projects multiplied and grew more complex, they increasingly intersected in terms of the people involved, especially the consulting designers and architects, as well as others in allied fields such as public relations, model-making, architectural rendering, property and retail management, and graphic design.

Through most of the 1960s, the public sector had surprisingly little direct leverage over the shape and design of private development in San Francisco as long as proposals conformed to land-use, zoning, safety, and planning regulations such as height limits, parking requirements, and emergency access. Historically themed revitalization emerged on a private, grassroots basis, without active preservation mandates. Skyscraper developers faced few constraints as long as they did not ask the city to exempt them from existing height limits or close a street. Nonetheless, many trends in the public domain directly shaped private redevelopment agendas and policy contexts within the city. Particularly important to the waterfront were the San Francisco Port Commission, Planning Department, Redevelopment Agency, and Board of Supervisors. In San Francisco, as in many U.S. cities, public parks and open-space planning would prove to be an instrumental lever directing government resources to the historical waterfront. This was especially true for the Maritime Museum, as this chapter shows. Because in the mid-1960s and 1970s the Board of Supervisors meetings became a critical forum for public debate concerning the exercise of municipal power over development (as private rebuilding controversies arose), those meetings are examined in greater detail in the later chapters of this book.


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Table of Contents

Introduction Land and Landscape 7
1 The Illustrated Pitch “Guys with Ideas” and the 1940s Vision for a Historic Waterfront District 26
2 “Not Bound by an Instinct to Preserve” The Modernist Turn toward History 62
3 “Culture-a-Go-Go” The Mermaid Sculpture Controversy and the Liberation of Civic Design 86
4 Married Merchant-Builders From Home-Making to City Planning in the Postwar Suburban Boom 114
5 Maaging Property An “Iffy” Collaboration 142
6 Movers and Shakers Publicists and the Writing of Real Estate 168
7 “Urban Renewal with Paint” Graphic Design and the City 196
8 Model Cities “Think Big, Build Small” 230
9 “The Competition for Urban Land” Grady Clay’s Lost 1962 Manuscript 276
10 Skyscrapers, Street Vacations, and the Seventies 300
Conclusion “Got Land Problems?” 344
Acknowledgments 366
Abbreviations 370
Notes 371
List of Archives Consulted 419
List of Interviews by the Author 420
Index 421
Image Credits 433

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"Alison Isenberg's Designing San Francisco explores a series of controversies from the 1940s through the 1970s, decades when activists, artists, environmentalists, and preservationists challenged establishment approaches to land use, public sculpture, and urban redevelopment in the Bay Area. Her fascinating book is essential reading for anyone interested in the politics of architecture, landscape architecture, and urban design."—Dolores Hayden, Yale University, author of The Power of Place: Urban Landscapes as Public History

"Designing San Francisco makes a major contribution to the history and practice of urban planning and architecture. Probing deeply into how urban plans are worked out on the ground by a broad cast of city builders, Isenberg offers the first serious and persuasive alternative to the longstanding binary opposition between the partisans of Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses."—Mary P. Ryan, author of Mysteries of Sex: Tracing Women and Men through American History

"Masterful and compelling."—Julia L. Foulkes, author of To the City: Urban Photographs of the New Deal

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