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From wharf rat to crown jewel

The Ferry Building has been restored to prominence on San Francisco's waterfront.

September 08, 2003|Michael J. Ybarra | Special to The Times

SAN FRANCISCO — In the 1955 science-fiction movie "It Came From Beneath the Sea," a giant octopus slithered out of San Francisco Bay and pulled down the landmark Ferry Building.

What actually happened two years later was almost as bad. The double-deck Embarcadero Freeway rose like a great concrete beast and cut off San Francisco's historic waterfront from the rest of the city for more than three decades, until the 1989 earthquake weakened the freeway and the hated structure was torn down. The city could again see the Ferry Building, but it was in sad shape: The great hall that runs the length of the edifice had been subdivided and crammed with offices, its skylights roofed over, its mosaic floors covered with linoleum. Beaux-Arts details had been lost to cheap mid-century fixes. The once beautiful building looked like a bag lady on a bad day.

Now, after years of wrangling and a $100-million architectural rehabilitation, the Ferry Building has been restored to its former splendor. The grand concourse is again open to the public, streaming with sunlight and people. A bustling farmers market fills the surrounding sidewalk with life. For the first time in years, the soaring clock tower tells the correct time more than twice a day.

"The building is really a living thing," says developer Chris Meany, whose firm, Wilson Meany Sullivan, teamed with Equity Office Properties Trust and the Port of San Francisco for the venture. "Working on this project has been the most rewarding experience of my life. Everyone loves this building."

The Ferry Building is the pivot of the port's ambitious plan to redevelop its waterfront.

"Its not just an icon anymore," says Byron Rhett, director of planning and development for the Port of San Francisco, which owns the structure. "People are using the building again. It's a symbol of what we're trying to do." The building began reopening in stages in March, and although some of the retail stores on the lower level are still operating out of boxes, more than 90% of the space has been leased, Meany says.

"The Ferry Building is the major focus of the waterfront," adds J. Gordon Turnbull, president of Page & Turnbull, one of the architects that worked on the rehab. "It's a real direction-giver to the city. San Francisco doesn't have a Grand Central or a Union Station. This shows people what the connection between the city and the water can be."

When the Ferry Building opened in 1898 that connection was obvious. At the foot of Market Street, the city's major thoroughfare, the gray-green Colusa sandstone building was San Francisco's gateway to the world. The continental railroad ended in Oakland, and passengers and freight finished the journey by ferry. Fifty thousand people a day flowed through the terminal. "A famous city's most famous landmark," columnist Herb Caen called it.

Arthur Page Brown, an alum of McKim, Mead & White, designed the three-story building that stretched along the shore for the length of more than two football fields, and that was topped by a 240-foot clock tower modeled after the Cathedral of Seville.

The building was one of the few to survive the 1906 earthquake. Tugboats hosed down the structure while fire raged across the street, destroying most of downtown. The Army used it as its headquarters while the city was rebuilt. Troops were back at the Ferry Building in 1934 when radical labor leader Harry Bridges and his longshoremen went on strike, shutting down the port for almost three months and eventually the entire city as well (in 2001, the new plaza in front of the building was named in Bridges' honor).

Then came the Golden Gate and Bay bridges, which were built in the late 1930s. Cars replaced ferries as the main way to get to the city.

In 1955, the Ferry Building was remodeled. The concourse was closed to the few remaining ferry passengers; another floor was inserted into the space, which was filled with offices.

"The Ferry Building was a casualty of the automobile age and the neglect of public space," says Turnbull. "The port began to think that the building couldn't be used for much." Next, the Embarcadero Freeway severed the building from the rest of the city. By the 1980s, even most container ships were avoiding San Francisco's waterfront and heading for the Port of Oakland instead. The only stretch of shoreline that saw much foot traffic was Fisherman's Wharf.

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