San Francisco will fete its magnificent City Hall at a centennial celebration Friday evening as part of the reception for the mayors attending the annual meeting of the National Conference of Mayors. The centennials of City Hall and the Panama Pacific International Exposition give us an opportunity to reflect on what an amazing year 1915 was for San Francisco and how it affected the city’s politics, built environment and architectural styles.
1915 gave us the Panama Pacific International Exposition, the most magnificent Civic Center in the nation, the country’s first publicly owned municipal transportation system, problem-solving public leadership and grand public architecture.
When San Francisco received permission from Congress to hold an exposition, the mayor was P.H. McCarthy, leader of the Union Labor Party. He was known as highly partisan, soft on vice and incompetent in completing public works projects. The businessmen running the exposition project resolved to elect a new mayor and recruited their vice president, Mission District resident James Rolph. A successful businessman, Rolph was the consummate politician. He overwhelmed McCarthy in the mayoral primary in September and his Republican business-friendly policies and warm personality persuaded voters to elect him four more times.
Rolph’s first priority was to create a Civic Center with a new City Hall because it would be “unthinkable” for the city to invite millions of visitors to the exposition without its government housed in proper grand public buildings. In the months before his inauguration, Rolph used the exposition’s architects committee to resolve the outstanding issues over establishing a Civic Center.
In his inaugural address, he declared its location and then recruited prominent architect John Galen Howard to prepare specifications for the Civic Center and City Hall. He scheduled a special election in March 1912 for a $8.8 million bond issue, which the voters endorsed by a phenomenal 92 percent. This set off a push to build five buildings before the exposition opened in February 1915, but only one, the Exposition Auditorium, was actually completed. City Hall, designed by Arthur Brown Jr., was dedicated on Dec. 28, 1915, and within a few years, the Public Library and State Building were finished. The War Memorial would be completed in the 1930s.
Rolph’s second priority was to improve the city’s streets and transportation system. The exposition committee demanded that the city arrange adequate transport to the exposition, which was being built in an isolated swamp in the Marina. Rolph asked the voters to approve a $3.5 million bond issue on the August 1913 ballot. The voters gave him a victory of 79 percent and the extended municipal rail lines were in operation for the opening of the exposition.
Rolph and the exposition backers hired architects who embraced the City Beautiful movement, many trained in Paris. These men set the standard for public and private buildings in the city for decades.
James W. Haas is a member of the City Hall Preservation Advisory Committee, a board member of the Cviic Center CBD, and is writing the definitive history of Civic Center.