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California and the West

S.F. Just Can't Get Enough of Its City Hall

Restoration: After years of controversy and a $300-million tab, building is pride of residents and newest tourist attraction.

July 21, 1999|VERONIQUE de TURENNE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SAN FRANCISCO — Throughout the renovation of their historic City Hall, San Franciscans complained: too ambitious, too costly, too slow, too much.

Local newspapers dubbed the restoration "Taj MaWillie," a jab at Mayor Willie Brown's grand plans for the national landmark. Everything from how many workers the 500,000-square-foot edifice would eventually house to the 24-karat gold leaf used to gild the dome became fodder for public debate.

Four years and $300 million later, San Francisco can't get enough of its City Hall.

Scores of couples say their vows at the top of the grand marble staircase each month. Dozens of tour groups walk through each week and stand where Marilyn Monroe married Joe DiMaggio in 1954. Film crews beg to shoot there. Charities, corporations and well-heeled residents vie to lease the first-floor rotunda for parties at $4,000 to $12,500 a pop.

"The people's palace--that's what it was called back in 1915 when it was built," said Kerry Painter, building manager. "And that's what it's become again."

The people come from everywhere.

On a recent summer day, 30 visitors followed a docent on a morning tour through the chambers and corridors of the gleaming building. As the docent described the 307-foot dome, marble floors, Manchurian oak walls, gilded banisters and glittering leaded-glass windows, a woman translated to her friends in Swedish. Beside them, a man whispered to his companion in Italian.

The group paused in one of two 7,000-square-foot light courts, airy public spaces topped by enormous skylights. They gasped when the docent explained that a 1950s "modernization" project had shrouded the skylights with concrete for more than 40 years.

"Typical," said Ellen Schumer, a fourth-generation San Franciscan who leads as many as 25 tours a week. More than 7,000 people have signed up for the free tours since the building reopened in January.

"This building is so beautiful, so full of history, everyone is drawn to it; everyone is amazed by it," she said. "Even a sophisticated man like (former presidential candidate) Michael Dukakis, who was here several months ago and asked for a tour, said there is nothing else in the United States that looks like this. He was incredibly impressed."

Visitors also are delighted by the tour of the mayor's suite, which winds through Brown's office, whether he is in or not. Many of the mayor's guests are startled when the office door opens and a group of tourists in sneakers cruises through.

"Oh my God--he's here!" a woman on the tour cried as the group entered the oak-paneled office and glimpsed the mayor deep in conversation with a guest. Brown glanced up, smiled briefly and got back to business.

Outside the suite, Greg Simmons of Santa Rosa laughed out loud.

"I was so shocked to see him sitting there looking so regal, I forgot to look at anything," he said, then turned to Schumer. "Can we go through again? I missed the Lalique chandelier and Eleanor Roosevelt's desk."

He also missed the sight of Brown doing janitorial duty. Famous for his impeccable taste and attention to detail, the mayor often roams City Hall pointing out coffee spills and complaining about messy desks.

When not attending to housekeeping matters or City Hall business, Brown likes to join the county clerk and her 23 assistant commissioners in hearing "I do's" from the dozens of couples who marry at the head of the grand staircase each week. Some wedding parties arrive in gowns and tuxes, best men and bridesmaids armed with tiny bottles of soapy water to blow celebratory bubbles--throwing rice is forbidden. Others, dressed in shorts and T-shirts, marry on the spur of the moment, catapulted into matrimonial fervor by the thrill of being in the city or in the building. Although a beautiful space, it is also a public one, and couples can encounter unexpected interruptions.

"One couple was right in the middle of saying their vows when a group of protesters marched up the stairs, chanting," building manager Painter recalled. "The wedding paused for a moment, the protesters all clapped and said 'Congratulations,' and then the wedding continued. That's something to tell your grandchildren about."

Grandparents may recall the genesis of the building. Six years after the 8.3 magnitude earthquake of 1906 severely damaged the existing City Hall, voters approved a bond measure to build a new one. In 1915, the new building opened. Designed by Arthur Brown Jr., who also designed the Coit Tower and the city's opera house, City Hall cost $3.4 million to build and took just two years to finish.

In 1989, the Loma Prieta earthquake seriously damaged the 74-year-old building. Urged by Brown, who envisioned restoring the worn and aging landmark to its former glory, San Francisco voters approved a pair of bond measures to restore the building and to make it earthquake-safe.

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