Issue 483June 2009

Reflections on Preservation

How the past became the future

Urbanist Article July 1, 2009

In 1958 when John Woodbridge and I arrived in San Francisco from the east coast, architectural preservation was limited to buildings of the Hispanic colonial era and the Gold Rush. Influenced by Modernism, the younger generation of architects dismissed buildings of the late Victorian period as the fanciful ornament known as “gingerbread”.

We wanted to see the houses designed by William Wurster, Gardner Daily and others, which had appeared in the architectural magazines. But where were they? There were no guides, and even if the houses had been published, their locations were not given.

We learned that Wurster’s office had made a map showing its work and that of other architects. With a worn copy of the map — it was printed on blueprint paper and wasn’t easy to read — we explored the Bay Area’s modern buildings with enthusiasm. We entertained the thought of writing a guidebook to Bay Area architecture for others like ourselves.

When planning began for the 1960 AIA convention, we were asked to create a guide for the attendees. The three members of the AIA committee who reviewed our selection of buildings were William Wurster, who was also Dean of the UC Berkeley Department of Architecture, Ernest Born, a faculty member and Elizabeth Thompson, an architectural journalist. In general, they approved of our selections, but they drew the line at extending the range of historic buildings to include stands of the exuberant late 19th century houses we had come to appreciate. What was later celebrated as San Francisco’s “painted ladies” was considered tawdry and best left out of print.

Although previous conventions gave out printed pamphlets and maps of their architectural attractions, these were not sold in bookstores. Since our little $l.95 book, Buildings of the Bay Area, was the first nationally published architectural guidebook, it could be sold — theoretically. But the local bookstores didn’t know where to display the book. At Stacy’s in downtown San Francisco the guidebook was shelved with engineering textbooks in the back of the store. We never knew if any copies were sold.

Around this time the preservation movement was sparked by the loss of major historical buildings. Two examples follow:

If ever a building had such significance that it was certain to be preserved, it was the Montgomery Block, which stood on the southeast corner of the intersection of Montgomery and Washington Streets where the Transamerica Building now stands. Montgomery Street was then at the edge of the Bay.

Erected in 1853 by Henry Wager Halleck, the four-story Montgomery Block, designed in a restrained Classical style, had 28 ground-floor commercial spaces and 150 offices on the upper floors. The innovative part of the building, a huge raft of lattice-laid redwood logs, was designed by Halleck, who had studied civil engineering at West Point. Bolted together in an excavated basement, the raft foundation permitted the building to float as a unit during an earthquake rather than breaking apart. This strategy was validated when the building survived the 1906 earthquake undamaged.

The lawyers and financiers who were the building’s original tenants left when the financial world moved south on Montgomery. They were succeeded by actors, artists and writers, among them Jack London, George Sterling, Lola Montez and Mark Twain. Called “The Monkey Block,” the building was an important bohemian center from the 1890s to the 1940s. But in the post-World War II decade its population declined along with its appearance and status so that when the land greatly increased in value, its demolition was proposed.

Although preservation had gained an audience, it was small and not organized to oppose a huge real estate investment. The Montgomery Block was demolished in 1959 and replaced by the Transamerica Building, which is now a city icon but lacks the level of cultural history the Montgomery Block accumulated.

Another early battle the fledgling preservationists lost was over the Murphy family house in Sunnyvale. The city wanted the land for a park and opposed spending money to preserve the house, which was perceived to be a “white elephant.”

Martin Murphy and members of his family and friends traveled across the continent in 1844 and became ranchers in the Sacramento valley and the southern part of the San Francisco peninsula where they founded Sunnyvale. The family house was carefully designed, but since there were no sawmills near Sunnyvale, the house was framed according to specifications in Bangor, Maine, and then shipped in sections around Cape Horn to Sunnyvale where it was erected around 1850. As with other wooden buildings of the times, the structure was held together with wooden pegs and leather straps instead of nails.

Although the Murphy house was a California State Historical Landmark and arguably as significant as the houses of other early settlers, its demolition by the City of Sunnyvale in 1961 met with little opposition. Yet, evidence of the growth of the preservation movement in succeeding decades can be seen in the creation of the Sunnyvale Historical Museum, opened in September 2008, which celebrates the contributions of the Murphy family. A replica of the Murphy House was built on an adjacent property as a kind of apology for the destruction of the most important surviving artifact of the city’s pioneering past.

Although the demolition of buildings of architectural and historic value had begun to energize preservationists, urban renewal was the real catalyst for the movement. When Justin Herman became the director of the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency in 1959, his political and administrative skills transformed the previously unremarkable agency into a virtual bulldozer of the city’s underprivileged neighborhoods.

While urban renewal held sway from the 1960s to the mid-1970s, its visible effects empowered the preservation movement. In 1976 the celebration of the country’s Bi-Centennial directed public attention to the past and its vanishing treasures.

As neighborhood populations were dislocated and their buildings razed urban renewal became known as urban removal. The Golden Gateway replaced the produce district near
The Embarcadero between Jackson and Clay Streets, the Yerba Buena redevelopment area south of Market Street removed blocks of small hotels and boarding houses along with their blue collar residents, and the Western Addition Areas 1 and 2 demolished the late 19th century houses occupied by the African-American population that replaced the Japanese-Americans who had been relocated from their homes and businesses during World War II.

Finally, the public outrage over this indiscriminant destruction and social injustice grew so strong that the demolition of buildings in the Western Addition’s A-2 area, which surrounded the newly built core of housing and commercial buildings occupied by the re-located Japanese-Americans, was delayed and then discontinued. The hiatus allowed a group of volunteers organized by Augustan Keane, a lawyer who lived in Alameda but had his office in San Francisco, to survey the A-2 area. Our group walked the blocks of late 19th century buildings, wrote descriptions of them and took photographs. We then turned the survey results over to the Redevelopment Agency for what we hoped would be a reconsideration of the plans for the A-2 area. A formal acknowledgment of our work was all we received. Still, the demolition ended, and in the 1970s and 1980s the so-called Victorian style was rehabilitated to become the city’s pride and joy. The Redevelopment Agency even sent us a commendation for our efforts in the 1980s.

The movement grew. In the 20th century’s closing decades, the past became the future.
In 1979 I was appointed to the California State Historical Resources Commission and served as its architectural historian until 1984. The commission met four times a year to review applications for nominations of buildings and historic districts to the National Register of Historic Places.

As we toured the state and listened to the people who attended our meetings and spoke in favor or against the various designations, it became apparent to me that in both large and small cities many of the advocates for the creation of historic districts in their downtowns were not so motivated by the architectural significance of the district’s buildings as by the threat to the familiar built environment by proposed new development. Justifications for registering ordinary buildings became more elaborate and often linked to the accumulation of history rather than whether the buildings retained the appearance of their time. In other words the debt to the past began to weigh more than the promise of the future.

Where are we now? With the bursting of the latest financial bubble, the absence of development has brought awareness of how much our economy depends on it to provide jobs. Since the recession has lowered the pressure on both sides of the development/preservation equation, this time of inactivity could be devoted to the kind of even-handed planning that would mitigate future battles by evaluating the benefits of both.

About the Authors: 

Sally B. Woodridge a writer, critic, and architectural historian based in Berkeley, California.

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