Attorney & Historian James W. Haas sees San Francisco Civic Center, past, present and future

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With the San Francisco City Hall decorated for the holiday season, few consider its significance like attorney & historian James W. Haas. His new book details the tremendous effort and intrigues it took to build the City Hall in only two years to coincide with the Pan Pacific Worlds Fair of 1915.



All lit up for the holiday season, San Francisco City Hall is dazzling amid the traffic and mundane routine of the downturn of the downtown Civic Center area. Yet as attorney and author James W. Haas points out in his book, “The San Francisco Civic Center, A History…” many people overlook the fact that it is a masterpiece and is often under- appreciated.

Designed by Arthur Brown, Jr. the City Hall itself we see today took two years to build with steel, granite and marble interiors. It’s done is 307 feet in height and is taller than the dome of the nation’s capital in Washington DC.

All involved worked to ensure it would be completed in time to coincide with the begging of the 1915 Pan-Pacific World’s Fair. This was no easy task. Compared to the building and planning department bureaucracies of today, such an accomplishment would be next to impossible.

The actual Beaux-Arts grandeur of the entire Civic Center complex was originally the vision of John Galen Howard in 1912. Yet, Haas notes that even with such determined ambition, his book is a story of perseverance and dysfunction. The San Francisco Civic Center explores why the Civic Center was built, how it became central to the urban planning initiatives of San Francisco in the early twentieth century, and how the site held onto its founders’ vision despite heated public debates about its function and achievement.

“Some people consider City Hall and the Civic Center complex as hegemonic of another era not reflecting California’s initial spirit,” said Haas.

While this might seem so, from a critical dystopian lens of the 21st Century, Haas knows the expanded and more detailed view. Of which, he said when he spoke to this reporter from his downtown home “not many people know much about it.”

With its columns and ornate accents much of the architectural elegance of City Hall, and the Civic Center is lost amid increasing homelessness and litter.

“There’s a lot of misinformation about its history, Haas said. It took me eight years to write the book and two years to get it published.”

Haas mentioned briefly that a civic center is more than just a ‘City Hall,’ a civic center like the one in San Francisco serves a more important and detailed function, essential for good government. Especially when a City and County like San Francisco with its more than 1 million inhabitants continues to attract people from all over the world.

The Institute of Classical Architecture and Art praised Haas’ book. “What began as bits and pieces of research necessary to advocate for long-overdue renovations and maintenance of the historic site ultimately turned into an 8-year-long project which resulted in the final informative book,” said ICAA Trustee Anne Mann.

Not only does Mr. Haas provide an in-depth review of the development of San Francisco’s Civic Center, said Mann. But he places it within the context of the concept of the civic center as it developed nationally, touching on notable examples in other cities including Cleveland and Denver.”

Haas believes strongly in the SF Civic Center and a commitment to its revitalization. “My interest in it goes back more than 35 years,” he said. He among others had been advocating for a new main library at the Civic Center, which at that time was in need of renovation and expansion.

Like the 1906 Earthquake, the Loma-Prieta Earthquake of 1989 brought attention to the fact that City Hall and surrounding buildings needed care and better attention.

That magnificent dome center-piece which is City Hall was not the stunning site with glistening gold-leaf detail seen today. For much of the past 50 years it was in need of restoration.

Even amid social turmoil of the 1960s and ‘70s City Hall continued in its role as a regal center befitting a fine and popular city. Many movies have utilized the interior, especially the staircase, which has been the backdrop for many, most notable, “Dirty Harry” starring Clint Eastwood as a disillusioned SF cop/detective on the trail of a crazed killer.

Haas is pleased that the weekly Farmers Market takes place at Civic Center and continues to bring people to the area. It has been so successful, that it has been expanded.

Use of The Light Court at City Hall among other spaces, has been an important public space for events, exhibits and yes, something close to this reporter’s heart, major press conferences.

Recently on Dec. 10, The Light Court was the host for a ‘Pop Up Shop’ Holiday sales event. While pleased that such a space is available to local merchants, some have concerns.

“I don’t think the Civic Center is or can be a vital shopping area except for vendors servicing the workers,” said Caryl Brandes. She participated in the ‘Pop Up Shop’ and is a regular at several such local merchant event concessions.

“The homeless problem is awful so it doesn’t make the area inviting to hang around. If cleaned up and one is able to keep it that way it would be a nice place to spend some time. But still, Brandes said, not an attraction for shopping.”

Haas understands and is working with groups and civic leaders on the issues. “It is not something that can be fixed or swept up in a day or two.” The problems and issues at Civic Center require more detailed attention and commitment. As the saying goes, “Rome wasn’t built in a day.” And, so it is with everyone’s popular city, San Francisco.

Published by University of Nevada Press – 2019, San Francisco Civic Center – A History of the Design, Controversies, and Realization of a City Beautiful Masterpiece by James W. Haas has a forward by Senator Dianne Fienstein. The book has been well received and is available on line through various online retailers or directly through University of Nevada Press. Visit the web site.