As a nation, we have built next to the wharf, beside the open road or near the station. Across a seemingly limitless land, the main adjective applied to our towns has been “fast-growing.”
The once-tiny village of Yerba Buena, bordering a cove sheltered from the wind on San Francisco Bay, is no exception. Because there has been so much room to build, and because embracing the new is part of the American personality, we have come late to a respect for the buildings of previous generations. It was just in the 1930s that the Historic American Buildings Survey began. And the National Historic Preservation Act, which established U.S. government policy toward historic structures, only arrived in 1966.
As San Francisco becomes more dense, many valuable old structures face few viable options to keep them in service. The re-purposing of historic buildings (those 50 years old and older) accommodates their reinvigorated use and enhances the vitality of our city.
Sometimes, old buildings are recast in ways that surprise, even disturb, those who cherish their existing character. To my mind, letting a fine old building decline is not a viable strategy. Growth and development are part of a continuum. Increased density means that tall stands next to short, and old is juxtaposed against new. The test of whether these shifts of size and scope can work is at eye level and at a human scale. When there is richness and choice in the built scene, new contrasts can enhance our sense of place.
San Francisco, already the second-most dense of American cities, resounds these days with big projects and big ideas about how to ensure that it will be a thriving and hospitable home for 925,000 people, including 148,000 new residents, by the year 2030. A new level of density will become the reality.
Residents, workers and new shops already add liveliness to this intimate scene, and the nearby Old Mint will add a sense of heritage and new activity when its rehabilitation is completed.
This growth is everywhere in the news — on television and radio, in The Chronicle, and most recently in a super-sized special report in San Francisco magazine.
The epicenter takes in a swath along the eastern waterfront from Market Street south to Mission Bay and west toward Rincon Hill. Walk through the area, and you experience a San Francisco that looks and feels different from what it was as recently as five or 10 years ago. This may not be a bad thing.
Earlier growth spurts probably produced similar shocks in their day. To realize how quickly the urban scene can change, one only needs to think of the ferocious pace at which hotels and apartment houses were built after the 1906 earthquake and fire as part of the breakneck preparation for the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition.
The contemporary urban evolution is now occurring on a scale that affects historic buildings. Expressing diverse styles and eras, these buildings rightly have been set apart for special scrutiny under the city planning code. Taken together, our manmade resources are as valuable to us as natural ones. By respecting them, the character of San Francisco can be retained, even as the city changes and grows.
But preservationists, and others who want to protect that character, can no longer insist on retaining the status quo. We must adapt, as buildings must be adapted, to new generations of users and often to new uses.
Since the 1980s, San Francisco’s Downtown Plan has proved its worth by classifying and protecting buildings according to their importance. Recognizing the contribution of historic resources to the urban fabric, the city has also begun to emphasize neighborhood surveys and planning for new growth based on the surveys. Mechanisms such as the transfer of development rights from historic properties to other sites allow many property owners to participate in the new economics of downtown growth.
In case by case, increasing numbers of the city’s historic buildings are being successfully re-used. The most conservative preservation standards are not always being followed. Yet as the Contemporary Jewish Museum begins to take shape behind the historic wall of the Jessie Street Substation, for example, who among us is not avid to see the built result?
The search for where to build is a constant. That search takes us to:
Building above: The Ritz Carlton Club and Residences have been inserted into, behind, and above the historic Chronicle Building at Market and Kearny streets. This is a site where architect Willis Polk suggested building as high as 54 stories in 1914! With such a history, it seemed logical to explore a contemporary vertical addition to help pay for exterior restoration and structural stabilization.
Building beside: The 1907 Williams Building, at Third and Mission streets, was adapted in a different way. Saved from demolition by the Redevelopment Agency in the 1970s, it was finally integrated into the program needs of the adjacent St. Regis Hotel and Residences. Backed up to this 40-story newcomer, the historic structure has been strengthened and stabilized, and it still effectively holds the corner.
Building within: As a means of bringing life to the central courtyard of the 1875 Old Mint, the new user of the property, the San Francisco Museum and Historical Society, is addressing the courtyard as “found” space, enclosing it with glass and focusing movement into and through its exhibits. Even a modest intervention can have a significant impact on its immediate surroundings and help to define the larger neighborhood. The Mint Collection, located downtown on Jessie and Mint streets, exemplifies this. Four historic buildings, including a 1907 candy factory and a 1926 warehouse, are being adapted for use as 95 units of residential, live-work and commercial space. Residents, workers and new shops already add liveliness to this intimate scene, and the nearby Old Mint will add a sense of heritage and new activity when its rehabilitation is completed.
These projects have all produced their share of discussion, even argument. But they represent some of the most interesting preservation-related developments today. They will stand beside today’s new buildings, some of which will become tomorrow’s landmarks. I look forward to another generation of change. So should the rest of us.
Jay Turnbull, a fellow of the American Institute of Architects, is a founding principal at Page & Turnbull, a firm of architects, historians and planners.