Architect Daniel Burnham envisioned grandeur— only shades of 1906 San Francisco plan survive
John King San Francisco Chronicle Urban Design Writer
San Francisco's most tantalizing "what-if" after the 1906 earthquake came when civic leaders turned their backs on one of the most ambitious plans ever crafted for an American city. It conjured alluring images of a gracious metropolis radiating from a vast Civic Center. Reservoirs cascaded west from Twin Peaks through sculpted greenery covering nearly five times as much land as Golden Gate Park. Market Street concluded in a formal Grecian retreat, and Telegraph Hill was topped by a spacious park. But the plan also had an elevated bayside road that foreshadowed the loathed and now-gone Embarcadero Freeway. Forests were cleared for the sake of manicured views, and San Francisco poorhouse was banished to a site near the county jail.
The design was the work of one of America's best-known architects, Daniel Burnham. It was embraced by civic leaders, and the devastation of April 1906 seemingly cleared the way for work to start. Instead, it was never to be -- but it left a mark on San Francisco's map and spirit just the same. "Of all the plans the city has had, this is the one that sticks in peoples' minds," says Charles Fracchia, president of the San Francisco Museum and Historical Society. "We're always looking to build the ideal city, but tussling with the messiness along the way."
San Francisco before the earthquake was the nation's ninth-largest city, with a population of 350,000 that was three times the size of rival Los Angeles. Its port was unchallenged on the West Coast, and it stood as "the great American metropolis of the Pacific," in the florid judgment of " San Francisco and Thereabout," a book from 1902. It also was a trash-strewn city with a topography-defying grid of narrow streets and a notoriously licentious reputation. Political boss Abe Ruef pulled the strings of power while the well-to-do fumed because the city lacked the sort of gracious boulevards and public buildings that captivated them on visits to Europe. Or, for that matter, any sort of coherent long-term plans for transportation and the city infrastructure.
Self-styled political progressives such as former mayor James Phelan saw an obvious solution: San Francisco needed an inspiring vision of what it could become, a vision that also might help rally voters to their side. This quest for the "city beautiful" was much in vogue at the time, a dream sparked by the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago with its glistening neo-classical structures along canals on the shore of Lake Michigan. Aiming high, Phelan and other boosters decided that the man to make their wish come true was Burnham -- the Chicago architect who oversaw the exposition and won accolades for his plan to make the Mall in Washington, D.C., a centerpiece of national pride.
Burnham accepted the invitation. All he requested in return was a cottage atop Twin Peaks because, he said, "from that location I can see clear around the compass." Having assembled a team that included local architect Willis Polk, Burnham was rarely on the scene. His longest visit came in September of 1904 when he declared "our shanty a charmer" to his diary and also noted a meal with Polk of "soup, steak, salad and omelet, with good red wine; the best dinner we ever had."
The plan was previewed the following September to rapturous response. "All classes are pledged to see that its principal features are carried out as soon as possible," one booster wrote Burnham. Support also came from Mayor Eugene Schmitz, a Ruef protege who arranged for the city to help publish the report and hold an exhibit at City Hall. Legend has it that copies of the plan arrived at City Hall on April 17 -- just in time to be consumed by the fire that tore through the city the next day.
As far as backers were concerned, nature had cleared the way for Burnham's dream to come true. Declared Phelan: "This is a magnificent opportunity for beautifying San Francisco." In hindsight, Burnham's plan is best described as a cross between the San Francisco of 1906 and the Paris of Napoleon III a half-century before that. Most of the street grid was left intact, but it would be sliced by wide diagonal boulevards that linked otherwise isolated districts to the grandest path of all, "a broad, dignified and continuous driveway skirting the water edge and passing completely around the city."
Along much of the bay, the boulevard would be on a new seawall with public beaches to the east, and new docks for the port to the west. On the northern waterfront, where finger piers already poked into the bay, the boulevard would rise up and run on top of the warehouses -- providing "an extensive line of fireproof storage" as well as a vantage point from which to "study the effects of sunshine and shadow on islands and mountains seen through the masts of ships."
Burnham also emphasized the scenic drama of the city's hills. He proposed that Bernal Heights and Potrero Hill be terraced with lavish plantings on their slopes and playgrounds on top; Telegraph Hill would be wrapped in classical buildings and crowned by "a monument symbolical of some phase of the city's life." Twin Peaks received the most spectacular treatment of all. The plan called for an "amphitheater or stadium of vast proportions" as well as an atheneum with columns and other classical flourishes and -- as a sort of exclamation point near one peak -- "a colossal figure symbolic of San Francisco."
On the west slope, stretching down to Lake Merced through rolling hills, Burnham proposed a single open space of 4,764 acres. By comparison, Golden Gate Park is 1,017 acres. It would be a series of reservoirs tumbling through illuminated landscapes: "not only a public park," Burnham wrote, "but a center for great public fetes."
These picturesque elements help explain why the plan is remembered. Also, Burnham understood cities need to function; to improve circulation, for example, he proposed a downtown subway and a set of one-way streets. But for every aspect of the plan that seems prescient, another is impractical or elitist.
Much of the focus was an immense civic center framing a retooled intersection of Market Street and Van Ness Avenue. For this still-raw city on the edge of the continent, Burnham implanted a collection of 21 governmental and cultural buildings fanning out from a "great central Place" where 11 streets came together, with an obelisk in the middle of the traffic. It also included an ornate train station that Burnham dubbed "the grand vestibule to the city" -- even though the Ferry Building was already a popular landmark and the unquestioned point of entry for nearly all visitors.
As for the park on Twin Peaks' western slopes, Burnham wanted to enhance the view by cutting down existing forests, "leaving a clean sweep to lake and ocean." Another obstacle was a public almshouse, which provided services to the poor; Burnham called it "a blot on one of the fairest vistas" and proposed moving it to the outskirts of San Francisco near the county jail.
"As a visual plan it's cool and beautiful, but as a real thing imposed on the city it would have been so totally wrong," argues Stephen Tobriner, an architecture professor at UC Berkeley and author of "Bracing for Disaster: Earthquake-Resistant Architecture and Engineering in San Francisco, 1838-1933. It's a total misreading of what was necessary for San Francisco."
As it turns out, people at the time felt the same way. Burnham cut short a European vacation to return to San Francisco. He was on hand when the Board of Supervisors endorsed a streamlined version of the plan on May 21 as Schmitz declared "This means business... We can now get down to work."
But as an elated Burnham headed to Chicago after the plan's approval, the consensus began to unravel. Newspapers ridiculed "the cobweb plan" -- the scornful phrase used by The Chronicle to dismiss the proposed boulevards. Property owners threatened litigation if their land was seized for boulevards or street-widening. "We may allow visions of the beautiful to dance before our eyes," thundered The Chronicle, "but we must not permit them to control our actions." Meanwhile, the alliance between progressives and the political machine collapsed after Ruef used the plan as a pretense to try and change city laws to allow elected officials to rewrite city contracts at their whim.
Progressives lobbied Burnham to return yet again and revive the crusade. Even Schmitz wrote Burnham, saying, "The author of those plans should be the one to lay the foundation and to direct the work." The pleas fell on deaf ears. Not only was the architect's health spotty, he also was poised to begin work on a plan for Chicago, which appeared in 1909.
Ultimately, the impact of Burnham's plan is measured by the shadows it cast on the landscape. A formal civic center now exists, though not at the scale or the precise location he proposed. Sunset and Park Presidio boulevards on the west side of the city reflect Burnham's call for green thoroughfares. Another Burnham suggestion -- a Market Street subway -- became fact in 1980. In a less obvious sense, the plan looms in civic history as the road not taken. Opportunity Lost. "They had a chance. They had an empty slate. There was an opportunity for the city's elected leaders to re-create San Francisco," wrote Simon Winchester in last year's best-selling "A Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the California Earthquake of 1906."
But instead of striving for an orderly utopia, San Francisco followed a more expedient path. The only hilltop monument is Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill, a tribute to firefighters suggestive of an upright hose. The train station was never built; reservoirs added since 1906 are hidden out of sight. The city rebuilt -- quickly -- by returning to the street grids that Burnham dismissed in his plan as "embarrassments." Not only that, a wariness of grand plans seeped into San Francisco's psyche -- from the campaign to stop freeways in the early 1960s to today's ongoing strife over a proposed redevelopment district along several tattered blocks of Market Street.
"Daniel Burnham and his West Coast ambitions fell victim to both the indolence of the city and the impatience of its business community," Winchester concluded: "... without a settled sense of urban purpose, the city allowed itself to grow organically, with neither direction nor design." All of which makes for a great story. But a great city is organic. It evolves with society and responds to unexpected stimulation. It is judged by quality of life, not quality of design -- and by that standard, San Francisco fared just fine.