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    San Francisco City Hall: The People’s Palace

    By Patrick Carney


    The Shared Vision of Mayors “Sunny Jim” Rolph (1913)
    and Willie Brown (1996)

    San Francisco’s spectacular City Hall was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake. After an architectural competition, Bakewell & Brown Architects were selected to design the new structure a few blocks away. When flamboyant Mayor “Sunny Jim” Rolph came into office, the vision was upgraded. In 1989, another earthquake damaged the new City Hall, which by that time was almost 75 years old and in poor shape, not just from the earthquake but also from years of lack of respect. Bond measures were passed for a seismic upgrade and interior restoration. Just like when City Hall was originally constructed from 1912–1915, a new Mayor came into power in 1996, and he was hands-on and upgraded the vision. The 1913 vision of Mayor “Sunny Jim” Rolph, and 1996 Mayor Willie Brown, were similar.

    “Your job is to do what is right for the building. Don’t worry about politics or money, that’s my job!” Mayor Willie Brown stated as he walked into the conference room. He certainly kept his part of the bargain.

    cityI had a front row seat to the building’s restoration when I was selected to be the design team’s liaison to then-Mayor Willie Brown. The experience of working on San Francisco City Hall was certainly affected by whom we were working for. Mayor Brown recognized the importance of this opportunity to return the building to its original importance and grandeur. He inspired us to think only about what was best, and then to do our best. He took hits in the media for some of our team’s proposals, such as restoring the Light Courts adjacent to the Rotunda, and using them as income-generating event spaces. They called the project “Taj Ma-Willie” (and other unprintable things).

    What the press, of course, didn’t emphasize was that during World War II, the glass roofs of the Light Courts were covered in asphalt to keep them dark in case of air raids. In subsequent years, they were divided into a rabbits-warren of small rooms. Plus, in the 50s and 60s, the public often favored modern buildings, not old ones. A lot of damage and abuse had been inflicted on the grand old dame, and it took a lot to bring her back. It would have been heartbreaking to have to implement the wrong vision.

    City Hall’s Restoration

    It was an honor to work for five years on the restoration of City Hall. I was one person on a large team, but as Project-Designer of the lead firm of the joint venture of 5 architectural firms and 22 engineering and specialty firms working on City Hall in the 1990s, I ended up being selected as the Joint Venture Team’s Liaison to Mayor Brown. I think I was intended to be the sacrificial lamb (fall-guy), but I survived, since the Mayor and then-SF City Architect for SF-DPW Tony Irons liked me. It was an amazing experience.

    I joined Tony Irons for all major presentations to the Mayor, and presented options for layouts of the Mayor’s suite, all of the Supervisors’ new suites, all of the Commission Hearing Rooms, Supervisors’ Committee Room, restoration of the historic Legislative Chamber, elevator cabs, etc., and also presented the material selections, colors, fabrics and finishes to the Mayor. I had worked on the temporary City Hall in the old Museum of Modern Art space in the Veterans Building, and was enthusiastic to be working on the historic City Hall, once the firm where I worked was awarded the contract. However, working on the restoration exceeded my expectations.

    city2The Rotunda’s Pink Triangle

    The building is a recognizable symbol of the LGBTQ movement worldwide, so it is appropriate that there is a pink triangle in the rotunda of this “architectural monument to equality.” Artist/sculptor Henri Crenier created four large medallions at the base of the dome in the rotunda, including one entitled “The Medallion of Equality,” which has an equilateral triangle in her hand. The plaster is painted to reflect a lighter version of the floor’s Tennessee Pink marble and the Colorado limestone. Even though the beige color of the plaster isn’t defined, it is intended to be in the pinkish family, therefore, one can argue a “pink triangle” is in the Rotunda (pointed upward).

    As yearly-organizer and co-founder of the giant Twin Peaks Pink Triangle, I love to point out the one in City Hall, especially with the 20th annual Pink Triangle coming up in a few weeks. It is fitting that the medallion where the pink triangle is located is entitled “The Medallion of Equality,” and it ties into the theme of this year’s Pride Parade, “Equality without Exception,” as well as the Pink Triangle commemoration. It is ironic that the Nazi’s used equilateral triangles to identify their “undesirables,” since such triangles have been used in art for centuries to denote equality, but never discrimination or persecution.

    Living Reminders of the Assassinations

    During the process of working on the Mayor’s expanded suite, the assassination site of Mayor George Moscone was unveiled when the carpets in the rear dressing/lounge area behind the Mayor’s office were removed. While on a hard-hat progress tour of the building, I took Mayor Brown and his entourage into the now-dismantled dressing area and showed him the stained wood floor with visible holes where the bullets had ended up before being removed by the police in 1978 (this scarred area had been hidden under carpet). I asked if we should abandon our plans for that area. The Mayor said to go ahead with the spatial reconfiguration, but to have the boards removed and stored with the City Archivist.

    There Mayor Brown stood, in his expensive suit wearing a hard hat, and to my surprise he proceeded to illustrate how the assassination took place, and where each person was standing related to the stained wood. It turns out that Assembly Speaker (at the time) Willie Brown had just left the Mayor’s office through a back door moments before Dan White was brought in for his final meeting with Mayor Moscone. Shockingly, Willie Brown might have ended up as the third victim of White’s rage.

    A Site for Memorable and Groundbreaking Weddings

    Weddings have been taking place in City Hall since the beginning. One of the more famous City Hall weddings was of Marilyn Monroe to Joe DiMaggio. Also, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera got the marriage license for their second wedding there (and may have been married inside). In 2004 came the first set of same sex couple weddings, then again in 2008, and finally permanently in 2013. Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin were married in City Hall twice; they were the first same sex couple married in both 2004 and in 2008. My spouse and I were married in City Hall by the Mayor right after the Supreme Court ruling in 2013. It was important for us to be married there.

    The People’s Palace

    The 100-year-old building means a lot to me personally and professionally. I worked on it for many years. I am now a al-appointed Commissioner on a Commission charged with overseeing City Hall’s preservation. My husband and I were married there, and as organizer of the giant Pink Triangle installation, I can report that there has been a pink triangle in the rotunda for the entire hundred years. Architecture, preservation, the pink triangle, LGBTQ rights, and marriage equality all come together at San Francisco City Hall.

    My professional experiences at City Hall were a once in a lifetime opportunity for any architect, and working on it was something very special to me. I was lucky enough to also be working on the historic San Francisco Columbarium at the same time—another of the City’s great domed buildings. Following the $345 million restoration and seismic upgrade, San Francisco City Hall truly is the People’s Palace again.

    Patrick Carney, who worked on the restoration of City Hall, is a member of the City Hall Preservation Advisory Commission. Carney is also the organizer of the Pink Triangle at Twin Peaks on Pride Sunday, and is the co-founder of Friends of the Pink Triangle.