Can telling the story of one building tell a larger story about the city it’s a part of? That’s the central premise of John King’s engaging new book, Portal: San Francisco’s Ferry Building and the Reinvention of American Cities (W.W. Norton). The long-time urban design critic for the San Francisco Chronicle has written a brisk, lively history of this beloved edifice, which opened in 1898 and served as the principal gateway to the city until the emergence of the automobile (and the bridges that served them). For decades it sat largely empty and neglected, cordoned off by the Embarcadero Freeway. After the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989, the damaged highway was eventually removed, freeing up the Ferry Building, which was given new life as a transportation hub, food hall, and office building. Last week I talked to King about the genesis for the book, the terminal’s seminal importance to the city of San Francisco, and the threat it faces from rising sea levels.
MCP: Martin C. Pedersen
JK: John King
You grew up in the Bay Area. You saw the building long before you had a professional interest in it. Do you have a lifelong connection to it?
Yes, but it didn’t register with me as a young person. I grew up in the East Bay, and San Francisco had already built the Embarcadero Freeway. It had modern buildings going up. It’s funny. There’s an SOM building for Alcoa that faces the water, a black-slab exoskeleton from the late ’60s. And I remember sitting as a kid in the backseat of my parents’ car, thinking: What a cool building. That’s what I remember noticing, not the Ferry Building.
At that point the Ferry Building was blocked by the highway.
But I did see it, because I was coming over on the Bay Bridge. I went to college at UC Berkeley, and the Embarcadero Freeway was what you drove onto to go to the rock clubs in North Beach. So I have dim memories of the Ferry Building growing up. But then, in the early ’90s, when I started at the Chronicle, the Embarcadero Freeway had come down. Writing about planning and development, I got fascinated by this relic of a building, sitting there in sorry shape, a beat-up old building that happened to have a clock tower on top. But the location on the waterfront was remarkable, and encountering the building on foot made for great fun. At one point, then-Mayor Willie Brown proposed putting the de Young Art Museum into the Ferry Building.
I’m not sure that would’ve worked.
There are so many ways that it wouldn’t have. This was more of a trial balloon. Here’s this building that everyone says is a treasure, yet no one had any idea what to do with it. When it was redone, I went to an event a few months before it opened, a big American Institute of Architects dinner, and I remember being knocked out at how incredible it was inside. That’s when it really registered on me: This isn’t just a historic building renovation. They were making the building a key part of San Francisco’s future.
The book’s argument is that you can tell the story of San Francisco through the history of this building.
Very much so. I’m fascinated by how certain buildings go through changes that are emblematic of the larger forces in the city where they reside. When you look deeply at the Ferry Building, you can read the story of urban renewal, the story of shifting transportation patterns. You can discern the political changes and the damage done to American cities in the ’60s and ’70s. And just by looking at the tenants in the building, you can see the different kinds of social and cultural strands that have shaped the San Francisco of today. So many threads of history intersect with and lace through the building.
You have a section at the end of the book where you talk about what makes an icon. There are a lot of old buildings, but they’re not all beloved. Why did this one travel so well over time?
The iconicity of the building ties back to a lot of the original decisions around it, which were: “We’re going to build a building that marks the entry point into San Francisco from the rest of the country. Therefore, we want this to be at the most powerful place it can be, in terms of your perception of San Francisco.” The building was sited not only on the waterfront, but at the foot of Market Street, which was the city’s major boulevard. They put a big clock tower on it, because they wanted the building to be a visual marker. So if you’re coming into San Francisco from miles away, you see this landmark that gets bigger and bigger. That was conscious from the beginning.
The building extended out into the water, with the different ferry slips. There were these beautiful waiting rooms, and two incredible staircases that deposited you right at the foot of Market Street. The whole idea was a sequence of dramatic arrival and departure, and those physical elements endure today. And even though there’s a big skyline behind it, the building is still separate from other things. Lower Manhattan has lots of great old buildings, but they’re lost in the blur of other old and new buildings. The Woolworth Building is hard to see.
And at one point that was the tallest building in the world.
Exactly. Whereas the Ferry Building, through all the changes, is still this dramatic imposing piece there. For many people, it was such a part of their lives during its heyday. That fueled their memories and affection—everybody had a story connected to it. And then in all the fights over how San Francisco would grow and how it would physically change, it was always an easy reference point to point to and say, “We have to save this, it represents what this city has been and should be. We can’t let it become just another American city.”
The building is an engineering marvel that survived not one but two earthquakes. Talk about the research you did for that section of the book, because you’re not an engineer. Where did you get all the information about the pilings and the crazy stuff they did to shore it up?
One of the things I most enjoyed about doing the book is, I’m a history major and love going through old documents. San Francisco has wonderful research institutions in it. The public library has a great history room. The California Historical Society has its research library here. I’d find articles describing the building, and see that it had 5,017 piles of Oregon pine. Then you dig through and discover that the first shipment was on a monster raft that capsized, and so they all floated away. Once I had the parameters of what I needed to know, I could look at the biennial reports from the board of State Harbor commissioners, which always had lengthy updates on how the project was going. Another remarkable document that was so important to me was this fat, two-volume scrapbook kept by the architect of the building, Arthur Paige Brown, and his family.
Oh, wow. How did you know that existed?
I was searching the files at the California Historical Society, doing various keyword searches, and the scrapbook popped up. I thought, I gotta look at that! I plunge in and find out the family has compiled these two gigantic scrapbooks. There were articles from the first buildings he did in New York; anything that mentioned what he was doing, the family would clip and save it. One of those two volumes is pretty much just the Ferry Building. There were five competing newspapers. There was national interest. And I started reading all these stories, and they were such glimpses into the social norms of the era.
It’s striking how so much of the political discourse is no different than today. Every argument ever thrown against a big public infrastructure project was thrown against the Ferry Building: it’s a boondoggle,; it’s too expensive; it’s unsafe; the architect’s a crook. The same things get trotted out. And they were all there on this yellowing paper, well preserved. In one article, Brown says to a newspaper reporter, “My family keeps a scrapbook of every article about me,” and I’m reading it in the scrapbook! Then, once it opened, the building became such a popular cultural symbol of San Francisco that it appeared on dozens and dozens of postcards, and on so many brochures and magazines of the era.
That obviously shifted over time. At some point in the ’70s the Transamerica Building went up.
As soon as the Golden Gate Bridge went up, that became the icon for San Francisco, for many good reasons, both functional and aesthetic.
With the Pyramid, it was pretty much, “Wow, we’re the only city in America that has a building like this!” Planners were so upset the building got approved that they subsequently downzoned everything around it. But in the process, they left it stranded at the end of the financial district. It gets the Ferry Building treatment of being an isolated object.
And that zoning holds today?
Absolutely. The fear when the Pyramid went up was, “Oh, my god, these things are now going to march up Columbus Avenue into North Beach and Telegraph Hill and the waterfront.” So the planning that followed tamped down heights north of Washington Street. Now you’ve got the Transamerica Pyramid that’s 853 feet high, and across the street directly to the north, buildings ranging from two to four stories that are all from the late 1800s, early 1900s.
How’s the Ferry Building doing post-covid?
The Ferry Building, like everything else, was really set on its heels by the pandemic. It never quite closed, other than the initial shelter-in-place stuff. It never closed as nonessential, because it was deemed to be a transportation facility. The building had a lot of vacancies in 2020 and 2021, and then things came back in 2022. There are still vacancies now, but very few compared to what we see in other parts of the city.
It’s still a foodie mecca. Who goes there now, besides ferry passengers? Is it tourists or locals?
It’s a really heartening mix. The tourists go there because people have all heard about it, but it’s also a place that younger people love. It’s got the farmer’s market, which by all accounts does as well as it did before the pandemic. The Ferry Building was never completely lost to the tourist zone the way that so many festival marketplaces from the ’70s and ’80s were—places that had their time and then either flopped or became tourist places. The Ferry Building is much more part of the workaday, experiential city than, say, Faneuil Hall in Boston or Navy Pier in Chicago.
The last chapters of the book are a coda about the future, and they involve sea-level rise and the threat it poses. You end a chapter giving the unofficial poet laureate of San Francisco, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the last word. “In 50 years,” he says, “it will all be underwater.” Do you share his view?
I think Ferlinghetti was being poetic. That’s not going to happen. But the question of sea-level rise is real, and it’s one that every city that has reclaimed its industrial waterfront in dramatic ways will have to contend with.
Which is almost every waterfront city.
Exactly. They’re all facing aspects of this. If the sea level rises 3 feet, water would not wash into the Ferry Building every day. But once you start adding big storms and king tides, it really gets propulsive. There are parts of the Embarcadero that are even lower, and they’re already having real strain. Assuming that the projections are accurate—and not the most drastic ones—then the question becomes, looking out 50 or 60 years: How do you keep the waterfront functioning?
There are going to be hard decisions, all over the coast. There will be towns that will be defensible, others that probably won’t be defensible.
I think everyone wants to put it off by having study after study and then concluding, “Boy, someday this is gonna be bad!” That’s confronting San Francisco very starkly. Ferlinghetti may have been taking a little bit of poetic license, but some variation of that prognostication does face the city, the Embarcadero, and the Ferry Building.
This is an interestingly timed book. Fox News has decided that San Francisco is the poster child for Liberal City Dysfunction. We hear talk of “doom loops.” As a close observer of the city, where is San Francisco right now? What’s happening on the ground, separate from the propaganda?
Oh, boy. It’s a city that in a lot of ways feels like it’s dusting itself off and getting back into the groove it once knew. I see more places reopening, more people in restaurants and bars. A lot of neighborhoods are in great shape. Recently I did a large piece about North Beach, where it honestly feels better than it did in 2019. That’s a place where the old precepts of urbanism, those strong bones, that urban DNA, came in handy in terms of adapting to the pandemic. The neighborhood had been seen as a little long in the tooth and getting too touristy. But it’s become a vibrant place again.
Then there are the parts of downtown where there are still so many empty storefronts. You see all these sad blocks where the switch went off in March 2020 and was never flipped back on. There are big buildings being foreclosed on and given back to the banks. We see huge amounts of space being put out to sublease. It’s going be a real rough five or six years, I think, but this doesn’t mark the end of the story by any means.
Featured image: The Ferry Building in the early 1950s. Photo: San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library.