California Historical Articles
The New San Francisco
( Originally Published 1906 )
WITH superb courage and optimism that characterize the American people, San Francisco lifted her head from the ashes, and, as Kipling says, "turned her face home to the instant need of things."
Scorched and warped by days and nights of fire, the indomitable spirit of the Golden Gate metropolis rose on pinions of hope, unsubdued and unafraid.
Old San Francisco was an ash heap. From out the wreck and ruin there should arise a new San Francisco that would at once be the pride of the Pacific coast and the American nation and a proud monument to the city that was.
Temporarily the commerce of the city was transferred to Oakland, with its magnificent harbor across the bay, and at once a spirit of friendly rivalry sprung up in the latter city. Oakland had been the first haven of refuge for the fleeing thousands, but in the face of the overwhelming disaster the sister city saw a grand opportunity to enhance its own commercial importance.
But the spirit of San Francisco would brook no successful rivalry and its leading men were united in a determination to rebuild a city beautiful on the ashen site and to regain and re-establish its commercial supremacy on the Pacific coast.
With the fire quenched, the hungry fed, some sort of shelter provided, the next step was to prepare for the resumption of business and the reconstruction of the city. Within ten days from the first outbreak of flames the soldiers had begun to impress the passer-by into the service of throwing bricks and other debris out of the street in order to remove the stuff from the path of travel.
Some important personages were unceremoniously put to work by the unbiased guards, among them being Secretary of State Charles Curry of Sacramento.
The people of San Francisco turned their eyes to a new and greater city. Visitors were overwhelmed with terror of the shaking of the earth, they quailed at the thought of the fire. But the men who crossed the arid plains, who went thirsty and hungry and braved the Indian and faced hardships unflinchingly in their quest for gold over two-thirds of a century ago had left behind them descendants who were not cowards. Smoke was still rising from the debris of one building while the owner was planning the erection of another and still better one.
The disaster had made common cause, and the laboring man who before was seeking to gouge from his employer and the employer who was scheming to turn the tables on his employes felt the need of co-operation and cast aside their differences, and worked for the common cause, a new and a greater San Francisco.
Fire could not stop them, nor the earthquake daunt. They talked of beautiful boulevards, of lofty and solid steel and concrete buildings and of the sweeping away of the slums. They talked of many things and they were enthusiastic. They said that the old Chinatown would be driven away to Hunter's Point in the southeastern portion of the city near the slaughter-houses. They said the business district should be given a chance to go over there where it belonged, by right of commanding and convenient position. They talked of magnificent palaces to take the place of those that had fallen before the earthquake, fire and dynamite. Courage conquers. We are proud of the American spirit which arises above all difficulties.
But there are some things which could not be replaced. There could not be another Chinatown like the old one, with all its quaint nooks and alleys. All this was gone and a new Chinatown must seem like a sham. There were no more quaint buildings in the Latin quarter, with their old world atmosphere.
Coppas place, center of real bohemia, where artists for many years congregated and adorned the walls with pictures, still remained. But it was lonesome; all its fellows were gone; it was surrounded by ruins. Not an old place remained with a story or with a sentimental charm. San Francisco went to work with a will to rebuild, ships continued to enter its magnificent harbor, and lived down earthquake and fire to again become a great, prosperous, magnificent city.
But the sentiment of its Latin Quarter was gone, for outside of the Coppas place, there was nothing left of the old and loved San Francisco except the gable tiled roof of Mission Dolores, its plain wooden cross surmounting it, and its sweet-toned chimes long stilled. Their voices should ring out anew at intervals to remind all who may hear them that San Francisco has a storied past and a bright future, a future glorious as the brilliant sunsets that come streaming so magnificently through the Golden Gate.
It should be borne in mind that San Francisco was not destroyed by the earthquake. While old buildings in that part of the city which stood on "made" ground east of Montgomery street and some of that district lying south of Market it is true suffered from the shock, it was fire that wrought the great devastation and wiped out the entire business section and more than half of the residence section of the city.
The great modern steel structures were practically uninjured by the earthquake, except for cracked walls and displaced plaster. All those great structures, of course, subsequently were utterly ruined by the flames as far as the interior construction was concerned, but the walls were in most cases intact. The most notable cases of practical immunity from the shock were the St. Francis Hotel, the Fairmont Hotel, the Flood buildings, the Mills building, the Spreckels buildings, the Chronicle building and scores of other modern steel structures.
The branch of the United States mint on Fifth street and the new postoffice at Seventh and Mission streets were striking examples of the superiority of the workmanship put into federal buildings. The old mint building, surrounded by a wide space of pavement, was absolutely unharmed. Not even the few palm trees which stand on either side of its broad entrance were withered by the flames that devoured everything around it.
The new postoffice building also was virtually undamaged by fire. The earthquake shock did some damage to the different entrances to the building; the walls were uninjured. Every window pane, of course, was gone, as they were in almost every building in town, but the government was able to resume postal business immediately.
The Fairmont Hotel, while seriously damaged in the interior, was left intact as to the walls and the management offered space in the building to the various relief committees who desired to house the homeless or to store supplies in those parts of the building considered safe.
One question that confronted the rebuilders was whether the city's level had sunk as a result of the earthquake.
Parties sent out by City Engineer Thomas P. Woodward for the purpose of ascertaining whether or not the city, as a whole, had sunk, reported that there was no general depression, though there were many spaces where there were bad depressions. The most notable depressions were on Valencia, from Nineteenth to Twentieth; lower Market, Howard and Seventeenth and Eighteenth; Van Ness, from Vallejo to Green, and on Folsom in the region of Seventeenth street.
The southeast corner of the new postoffice building extended over an old swamp, and here there was a depression of fully four feet. The sinking was confined almost entirely to the lower parts of the city, and particularly to "made" ground. Mr. Wood-ward gave it as his opinion that there was no general depression of the city whatever.
City Engineer Woodward was one of those who devised a general scheme for rebuilding the city, by which the new San Francisco was to be a city of magnificent buildings, terraces, boulevards, green parks and playgrounds and gardens.
One prominent feature of Mr. Woodward's comprehensive scheme was the widening of Van Ness avenue into a magnificent boulevard. To this end he proposed the acquisition by the city through condemnation proceedings of all that choice residence property the full length of Van Ness avenue.
Under his plan there would be no narrow and clogging streets in those sections of the city laid bare by the fire. Streets in the heart of the business district which were proved entirely inadequate for the rush and confusion of a big metropolis were to be widened by slicing from the private holdings on either side, again through process of the courts.
Market street was to be left as it was. So with Third and other streets that were repaired by the city authorities just before the earthquake, but streets in the commission and wholesale sections were to be radically altered, both in width and course.
The big construction companies of New York took a great interest in the San Francisco disaster, especially as far as the damages to building was concerned.
One of the largest construction companies in the world started an engineer for San Francisco at once.
Great satisfaction was expressed by the architects of the San Francisco Chronicle building that the structure had withstood the shocks in good shape and was practically uninjured until assailed on all sides by flames: The Chronicle building was of steel framework, with the outer walls partially anchored to the frame.
George Simpson, the chief engineer of the company that built the Chronicle building, was of the opinion that the big modern buildings of Chicago and New York would withstand such earth-quake shocks as those felt in San Francisco.
"The east, and especially New York city," said Mr. Simpson, "is far ahead of the west in the matter of thorough building construction. In the case of our modern buildings the steel frame-work sits on a bed of concrete that has been built on top of solid rock foundation.
"Now, it will be observed that all of the steel frame buildings in San Francisco withstood the shocks and the only damage done to them outside of fire was the falling out of part of the walls. In these cases the outer walls were merely built on the steel work. With our big buildings the walls are anchored to the steel frame-work. That is, each big piece of stone has imbedded in it a steel bar from which another arm of the same material runs in at right angles and is riveted or bolted to the framework.
"That is what I meant by anchored walls and in the event of an earthquake it would take a terrific shock to loosen these walls. Were it possible to erect an entire steel building resting on a solid foundation there would be no fear from earthquakes. In the Philippines they are now building some churches of steel framework with a sheet iron covering. This is done in anticipation of earthquake shocks."
The rebuilding of Baltimore required 30,100 tons of structural steel. To rebuild San Francisco on the same basis the estimate was 60,000 tons amounting with freight to $6,000,000.
As compared with the loss of $200,000,000 this was an insignificant amount.
Among those who submitted a comprehensive scheme for a new San Francisco was Daniel Hudson Burnham, the noted architect of Chicago, who designed most of the features of Chicago's World's Columbian Exposition and from whose conceptions the Court of Honor at that exhibition was built, and those who visited the White City in 1893 will never forget the picturesque grandeur of that enchanted region. Mr. Burnham believed in a new and ideal San Francisco and would see it take its place as the American Paris in the arrangement of its streets and the American Naples in the beauty of its bay and skies. The plans for the ideal San Francisco were his, and hardly had his report been printed than the columns of the old city went down to ruin and fire swept out of existence the landmarks by the gate of gold.
It is now the question, How far will the new San Francisco realize the dreams of those who have had before them for so many years the image of a metropolis of the Pacific with broad boulevards and great parkways and wooded heights—a city of sunken gardens, of airy bridges, of stately gardens and broad expanses?
Daniel H. Burnham had back of him a long record of achievements which earned for him his title of city builder.
He built the Rookery building and the Masonic Temple in Chicago, and then was called to various cities where he supervised the erection of imposing piles which have become land-marks. It was while studying the relations of these large buildings to their surroundings that he became interested in his still greater work, which had to do with squares and blocks and parkways.
Upon the invitation of the Association for the Improvement and Adornment of San Francisco Mr. Burnham went to the Golden Gate, where he devoted months to the plans for a new city. A bungalow was built on the Twins Peaks seven hundred feet above the level of the streets, from which Mr. Burnham and his staff of assistants could command a view of the city and the bay. The material which they sought to make into the perfect city was before them day and night. They saw San Francisco by sunlight, in fog, in storm or in the blaze of a myriad lights. As the work progressed the San Franciscans who were interested in the scheme often climbed to the bungalow to watch the progress of the work.
The scheme prepared by Mr. Burnham provided first for a civic centre where all the principal city buildings were to be located and also the new union railroad station. About this was to be a broad circular boulevard, a perimeter of distribution, and beyond this a series of broader boulevards or parkways connecting the hills, which were to be converted into parks themselves.
About this was to have been the circling boulevard following the shore line of the peninsula. The scheme included also the extension of the avenue leading to the Golden Gate Park, known as the Panhandle, the building of a Greek amphitheater on the Twin Peaks, with a statue of San Francisco greeting the countries of the Orient. The plan also provided for a new parade ground at the Presidio and the building of numerous parks and playgrounds throughout the city. All this was to have cost millions, but to a man of the largeness of the City Builder this was a detail which was to be reckoned with year by year.
Now that buildings which were to have been acquired by the city to make room for the pathways of the ideal San Francisco are in ashes and twisted beams it may be that the vision of Daniel H. Burnham may soon be realized.
"It is an unfortunate thing," he said, "that our American cities are not first laid out in accordance with some definite idea. As a matter of fact, however, they simply grow up and later have to be changed in order to give them symmetry. In Europe the whole idea is different. The government has more control over such affairs than it has in this country, and it prescribes just what the height of the buildings shall be, The result is a skyline which is imposing. In this country each man builds for himself.
Pending the action of the authorities on the plans for the San Francisco Beautiful Mr., Burnham had little to say about the rebuilding. , The boulevards connecting the hills were to have been made by taking out blocks of houses, most of which were in poorer sections of the city. This would give a passageway more than two hundred feet wide. The buildings which would have been condemned have been destroyed, and it then became a question as to whether the authorities of the city would be able to make the change contemplated.
Mr. Burnham's plan for the New San Francisco left China-town out of the reckoning, as there was talk of private capital arranging for the transfer of the quarter to another part of the city. It was the opinion of Mr. Burnham that Chinatown, as occupying a valuable section of San Francisco, would eventually have to go.
"Twin Peaks," runs the report made by Mr. Burnham, "and the property lying around them, should be acquired for park purposes by the city. The idea was to weave park and residence districts into interesting and economic relations, and also to pre-serve from the encroachments of building the hill bordered valley running to Lake Merced, so that the vista from the parks to the ocean should be unbroken. It is planned to preserve the beautiful canyon or glen to the south of Twin Peaks and also to maintain as far as possible the wooded background formed by the hills looking south from Golden Gate. This park area of the Twin Peaks, which includes the hilts which surround the San Miguel Valley and is terminated by Lake Merced, is a link in the chain of parks girdling the city.
"To the north of Twin Peaks lies a natural hollow. Here it was proposed to create an amphitheatre or stadium of vast pro-portions. The gentler slopes of the Twin Peaks were to be used as villa properties. The plans for Twin Peaks also included a collective centre or academy, which is to be arranged for the accommodation of men in various branches of intellectual or artistic pursuits. A little open air theatre, after the Greek model, would form a part of this scheme."
Even Telegraph Hill was to have its precipitate sides ter-raced and was to be transformed into a park, according to the design of Mr. Burnham. To carry out all the plans of the architect would be a large task just now, but the citizens of the new San Francisco expect that the broad general lines will be laid down and then in the course of time the rest will be added.
Unexampled as was the loss of property in San Francisco the disaster in that respect alone was converted into a permanent benefit.
No other city with the exception of Chicago ever had such a grand opportunity of rebuilding upon a basis of permanency and beauty.
Instead of shrinking, real estate values rose rapidly and continued to rise. Fancy figures were quoted on sites suitable for business establishments. Structures that remained comparatively intact not far from the old business section were leased at extremely high rates.
Instead of dooming San Francisco the double attack of fire and quake proved a blessing. Unaccountable as it may be to many people in the eastern states, the denizens of that part of the country had no especial fears of a recurrence of the catastrophe. They argued that seismic disturbances of such intensity come once in fifty or one hundred years.
"Next time we will be prepared," was the regulation comment... The faith of those people, their courage and their enduring hope obliterated all doubt and crushed timidity. The watchword from the day of the disaster was "rebuild." And generally there was added the injunction, "and make it earthquake proof."
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