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Model History

Seal for W.P.A. Scale Model of San Francisco

What is the San Francisco scale model?

The San Francisco scale model is a detailed wooden model of the city of San Francisco at a scale of one inch to one hundred feet, making for a total size of roughly one thousand square feet, fully assembled. It was built by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in the late 1930s and took two years to build. While it is not “art” in the traditional sense, it is a meticulously crafted historical artifact and part of the living history of San Francisco.

When and why was the model made?

The brainchild of prominent San Francisco architect Timothy Pflueger, the model was made by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) for the San Francisco Planning Commission between 1938 and 1940. It was made to be used as a city planning tool, a tourist attraction and for educational purposes.

There were many WPA projects in the Bay Area at the time, including the Bay Bridges, the Caldecott Tunnel, and the development of Treasure Island. (Even more changes were planned, including a proposed subway line down Market Street.) The model was to be used to develop and evaluate these proposed plans. Each city “block” was made on the model as a literal wooden block that can be lifted out, allowing for hands-on interaction with the city, and making the model easy to update as the city changed.

This model is one of several city scale models in the United States, the most famous of which is the Queens model of New York, which was made for the 1964 World’s Fair. It depicts all five boroughs and is on display at the Queens Museum.

W.P.A. Scale Model of San Francisco on view at the Golden Gate International Exhibition, 1939; From the San Francisco Historical Photograph Collection, San Francisco Public Library.

Where has the San Francisco model been since it was made?

When it was still being completed, a section of the model was displayed on Treasure Island at the Golden Gate International Exposition in 1939. Beginning in April 1940, it was displayed at City Hall. In 1942, the model was packed away when the room in which it was displayed was repurposed for World War II administration. Over the next decades, sections were sometimes updated by city planners, including the addition of public housing in the Western Addition and Chinatown.

In the late 1960s, the model moved to the University of California, Berkeley, where the downtown portion was used as a planning tool for urban design studies by the Environmental Simulation Laboratory, a research center led by Professor Peter Bosselmann. The model was used by Professor Bosselmann and the Planning Commission to evaluate proposed developments in the downtown area of San Francisco and to study how the area could be developed without sacrificing the character of the city. The rest of the model, comprising roughly two-thirds of the city (primarily the western and southern neighborhoods), was put into storage, where it remained until SFMOMA approached UC Berkeley about this project. To our knowledge, the model has not been on public view—and certainly not in its entirety—since 1942.

How did SFMOMA end up with the model?

SFMOMA has worked with UC Berkeley and the San Francisco Public Library to borrow and display the model for the purposes of Bik Van der Pol’s project. An agreement was reached thanks to the patience and hard work of several advocates, including the artists, UC Berkeley faculty, and SFMOMA curators and staff, who have been working to get the model once again publicly exhibited.

What did Take Part do with the model?

Over the summer of 2018, the model was cleaned and assessed by SFMOMA staff and volunteers, neighborhood by neighborhood. Volunteers included librarians, city planners, writers, historian, activists, artists, and friends. Throughout the process, we held many conversations about the character, changes, and futures of our neighborhoods and the city as a whole, which informed how we have thought about using, or “reading,” the model in its next phases.

After several months of meetings with librarians and community stakeholders about how the model could be best dispatched as a tool for civic engagement, sections of the model were publicly exhibited throughout the branches of the San Francisco Public Library, from January 25 to April 28, 2019. Each neighborhood was displayed in its corresponding library, including the twenty-seven neighborhood branches, the main branch, and the temporary branch at SFMOMA. Events and programs were developed according to each neighborhood’s interests and focus on key themes, broadly related to publicness and civic participation. Everyone was invited to gather around the model, learn about the city’s hidden past, and discuss their neighborhoods. Activities for a range of ages included site-specific storytelling, town hall discussions, history nights, virtual tours, neighborhood walks, bike rides, mapmaking, and more.