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Resurrecting the WPA Model of San Francisco

Composite image of the 1938 Works Progress Administration Scale Model of San Francisco by David Rumsey and Beth LaBerge.

 
By Gray  Brechin
This article was originally published in Calafia, the journal of the California Map Society and used with their permission.

A startling message landed in my inbox ten years ago from a University of California employee overseeing the move of artifacts from a Berkeley warehouse to another warehouse in Richmond.  Tamara Garlock wrote: “ We found a 1935 scale model of San Francisco originally created for the 1939 World’s Fair at Treasure Island” which, she said, was stored in sections in sixteen wooden crates.   Ms. Garlock had contacted me because she thought that, as the Project Scholar for the Living New Deal, I might have an idea of an alternative home for the model. The University recognized its value but also needed the considerable storage space those crates were taking up in order to hourse its immense Anthropology Museum collection…

Building Blocks: Ortega

The Outer Sunset felt like the end of the western world in 1938. The model shows paved roads neatly alphabetized across the landscape, though the area was covered with sand dunes until the housing boom that followed World War II. The dunes would remain untamed until the last one was covered with Saint Ignatius College Preparatory in 1969. The model depicts the first of the developments spreading south from Golden Gate Park and eastward from the beach. Also visible are the pedestrian tunnels at Wawona, Taraval, and Judah Streets that went under the Great Highway and gave access to Ocean Beach…

Building Blocks: Mission Bay

The San Francisco Bay waterfront was at the peak of maritime activities in 1938. In 1925, Del Monte Fruit built the China Basin cannery-warehouse to enable the unloading of banana boats directly into railroad freight cars. By 1938, fifty piers and ferry slips stretched from Aquatic Park to Mission Bay, including Piers 16, 18, 20, and 22—depicted on the model—which were used by steam ships, such as the Admiral Line of the Pacific Steamship Company. The bay also had more geological features in the 1930s than it does today, including Mission Rock, a onetime island that served as a longtime grain terminal before becoming part of an expanded Pier 50. At the nearby Ferry Building, the 1890-built Eureka, the largest auto and passenger ferry in the world at the time, carried three thousand people across the bay per trip from the 1920s through the 1940s. Most of the other buildings depicted on the model were demolished in the late 1960s and early 1970s, made irrelevant by freeways and modernization…

Building Blocks: Visitacion Valley

Visitacion Valley and its surrounding area were still in development when the scale model was built in 1938. Visible on the model is the line separating San Francisco and San Mateo Counties: The San Francisco side showcases a developing, working-class neighborhood with streets already laid out in a grid to accommodate its future residents, many of whom would come to San Francisco during World War II. South of the county line, industry is key, as evidenced by the Southern Pacific rail yard and the historic Seven-Mile House, built in 1858 to serve stagecoaches and, later, rail yard workers…

Building Blocks: Sunset

The 1920s saw mass building techniques honed to perfection in the Sunset, and by 1938, the Inner Sunset was well on its way to development. The model depicts this library, which opened in 1918 and was the eighth branch in the San Francisco Public Library system. On view are several schools, including Jefferson Elementary and St. Anne, which served the families of the growing neighborhood; the latter is tied to St. Anne of the Sunset Catholic Church (destroyed in 1905, rebuilt in 1908, and still visible today). Also visible is Grandview Park, affectionately known as “Turtle Hill,” which was designated in 1923 and offers panoramic views all the way to Point Reyes on a clear day—a reminder that this land was once all sand dunes. Leading up to the park are the mosaic stairways of Sunset Heights, here exposed, free of the houses and foliage that today conceal them from the uninitiated…

Building Blocks: Richmond

The Richmond is one of the best-preserved parts of the entire scale model. One can easily see how colorful and dense the neighborhood had become by 1938. Visible are the streetcar rails that serviced the area, connecting residents to downtown via Geary Boulevard and Balboa, Clement, and California Streets and offering greater access to Golden Gate Park and the bygone Bay District Race Track. The rail lines allowed Richmond District residents to commute easily to the center of the city, while the neighborhood’s southern counterpart—the Sunset—was still primarily sand dunes. Also visible is this branch library, built in 1914—the first San Francisco branch built with funds from Andrew Carnegie…

Building Blocks: Parkside

Parkside was still slowly developing as a residential neighborhood in the 1930s, and it remained that way until after World War II. The opening of the Sunset Tunnel in 1917 and the introduction of the Taraval streetcar in 1919 brought an influx of initial residents, who bought the almost identical single-family homes lining the streets. Taraval Street was even then the center of commerce for the neighborhood. A bond measure passed in 1938 funded the building of Abraham Lincoln High School, which opened to the public in the fall of 1940. Surprisingly, the school appears on the model even though the building didn’t exist at the time of the model’s construction; its inclusion may be because Timothy Pflueger—a famed local architect and one of the main supporters of the scale-model project—was also part of the team that designed the high school…

Building Blocks: Ocean View

Comprising the neighborhoods of Ocean View, Ingleside Terrace, and Merced Heights, this area is known collectively as “the OMI” by locals. Despite their close association and proximity, however, the OMI neighborhoods have different histories. For much of the nineteenth century, Ocean View was known as Farmland; it grew up around the Southern Pacific Railroad but failed to attract a large number of residents until after the 1906 earthquake, when it became a largely working-class neighborhood of German, Swedish, and Irish immigrants. Merced Heights, located on a hill between Ocean View and Ingleside, was slower to develop and had only a handful of homes before World War II. North, the grid street design gives way to a loop with over 750 houses that were built as part of a “residential park” of the Ingleside Terrace neighborhood to attract well-heeled buyers…

Building Blocks: Noe Valley

In 1938, Noe Valley already had the Victorian architecture and charming small-town feel that characterize the neighborhood today. Cable cars ferried skilled laborers to the more upscale parts of the city where they worked as welders, builders, and foremen, as well as firemen and police officers. On the model, the valley is built up with single-family homes and apartment buildings nestled close to public transportation lines, while the hills are mostly undeveloped (they would remain that way until after World War II). The Southern Pacific Railroad crosses Dolores Street on an elevated track…

Building Blocks: Excelsior

The 1930s Excelsior afforded a virtual trip across the world in a matter of minutes: streets with names such as Paris, Lisbon, and Madrid—conjured by developer Emanuel Lewis to lure families from smaller, inner-city dwellings—lined the hill. (Other international street names, including China and Japan, were changed to Avalon and Excelsior following anti-Asian sentiment in the late nineteenth century that gave rise to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.) On the model, the neighborhood is in its infancy, with empty lots and blocks leading up to John McLaren Park. Visible is the Jewish Home of San Francisco at Silver and Mission Streets, originally built as a two-story Victorian in 1871 and rebuilt in 1923 in a Georgian Revival style designed by Samuel Lightner Hyman; it is now undergoing a massive expansion and renovation as part of the San Francisco Campus for Jewish Living. Also visible is the Granada Theater, built in 1922 in Italian Renaissance style, complete with murals, and closed in 1982…

Building Blocks: Golden Gate Valley

The neighborhood around this branch was already the site of some of the city’s most stately homes by 1938. Visible on the scale model is the Haas-Lilienthal House (2007 Franklin St.), built in 1886 by William Haas, which remains the city’s only intact Victorian-era home open to the public as a museum. The octagonal McElroy house, built across the street from its current location (2645 Gough St.) in 1861, was saved from demolition in 1952 and is also a house museum today. The grand Spreckles Mansion, across from Lafayette Park, was built in 1912 by Adolph Spreckels, whose family business empire included sugar cane plantations in Hawaii and a sugar refinery outside Salinas; the French Baroque chateau was designed by George A. Applegarth, a graduate of the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, and is now the home of romance author Danielle Steel…

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