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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: Chinatown


Between the two World Wars, San Francisco had the largest Chinese American population in the country, the overwhelming majority confined to Chinatown. The scale model highlights many of the neighborhood landmarks from that period that remain iconic today: Portsmouth Square, Tianhou Temple, St. Mary’s Cathedral, the Telephone Exchange building and the YWCA, operative since 1911 but housed in the Julia Morgan-designed building since 1930. Today that building serves as the Chinese Historical Society of America Museum and Learning Center.

Neighborhood Mixtape: The Haight

A 40 minute mixtape by BFF.FM DJ Just Stella inspired by the neighborhood’s psychedelic past and it’s famous and not as famous residents.

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…

Neighborhood Mixtape: The Richmond

A 40 minute mixtape by BFF.FM DJ Just Stella inspired by the inspiring immigrants and ever present fog of the Richmond District.

Neighborhood Mixtape: The Tenderloin

A 40 minute mixtape by BFF.FM DJ Just Stella inspired not only by the neighborhoods bad reputation, but also by the Vietnamese and South East Asian community that calls the neighborhood home.

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…

Neighborhood Mixtape: Mission Bay

A 40 minute mixtape by BFF.FM DJ Just Stella inspired by the sports teams of Mission Bay

Neighborhood Mixtapes: Potrero

A 40 minute mixtape by BFF.FM DJ Just Stella inspired by the hills and lost industry of Potrero

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…

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