San Francisco City Hall History
Performing in San Francisco's Golden Gate Theater in 1999, British comedian Eddie Izzard joked that he "grew up in Europe, where the history comes from." It's indeed true that San Francisco is a very young city. Thus, SF City Hall is young too, but it has an old soul. This is probably one of the reasons that San Francisco City Hall is such an unforgettable and unmissable architectural experience: it exudes a bygone century's elegance and style, smack in the middle of a thoroughly modern city. In fact, the recent explosion of boxy, minimalistic residential developments around the Civic Center and South of Market have made the contrast even more stark.
The City Hall building is situated between Van Ness and Polk Streets, between Grove and McAllister streets. The 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire destroyed the old City Hall, and in its place, architect Arthur Brown, Jr. completed the current one in 1915.
Notably, San Francisco City Hall has appeared in several movies (including "A View to Kill"); it hosted Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio's wedding in 1954; it was occupied by student protests in 1960; the site of political assassinations in 1978; the centerpiece of the Marriage Equality fight from 2004 until 2013, when same-sex couples finally won the right to legally wed in California.
Architectural Details of City Hall - "A Guided Tour"
If you walk in through the Polk Street entrance, pass the security guards, and walk into the main atrium, you'll see several gilded, ornate lamps. If you look at the one immediately on the right, you'll see a plaque commemorating Bakewell & Brown, the architectural firm, and the date of 1915, when the building was completed.
It's rumored that Arthur Brown, Jr. was a stickler for detail. Apparently he even designed the doorknobs and the typeface that were used around the building. It's no wonder that the many captivating details draw the admiration of endless waves of tourists and wedding couples.
Imagine for a moment that you're now standing on the ground floor. You've just finished admiring the plaque near the lamp. If you scan across the floor you'll notice three other ornate lamps adorning the corners of the ground floor. Now, turn and look past the beautiful checkered floor design towards the Grand Staircase. From where you stand, you can observe the gilded railings and marble steps that lead up towards the Rotunda (where most wedding ceremonies take place) and the chamber where the Board of Supervisors meets. Walk up the stairs towards the Rotunda and look up! You'll see an enormous golden chandelier suspended from above. Look in front of you, and on the right hand side, you'll see the bust of Harvey Milk, the San Francisco supervisor who was assassinated in the building in 1978. The statue was unveiled in 2008, and since then, Harvey Milk - who fought so long and hard for equality for homosexual men and women - has witnessed multitudes of same-sex couples tying the knot. Turn around now, and look out from the Rotunda, past the top of the stairs, towards the Mayor's Balcony. Above, built into the building's wall, hangs a giant clock. Under this clock and behind the long gilded railing of the Balcony, many important civic and wedding ceremonies have taken place. In fact, the Mayor's Balcony is available for wedding couples to reserve.
From the Mayor's Balcony you can access the wings of the second floor. They are each populated by a gallery of large windows, and make an attractive setting for photographs, as well as for gazing out into the rest of the building. Ascend the few steps from the Mayor's Balcony, and you're on a gentle landing. There are two more statues - that of George Moscone, who lost his life on the same day as Harvey Milk, and that of Dianne Feinstein, Moscone's successor. Notice the gold elevator doors nearby. Take the elevator up to the third floor, which opens up to another hallway adorned with beautiful rectangular art deco windows. Tourists and wedding photographers alike are drawn to these windows for their beautiful geometry and quality of light. Once you've walked the third floor hallways, take the gold elevator up to the stunning Fourth Floor North and Fourth Floor South Galleries. These light-filled architectural marvels are also available to rent to host a private wedding ceremony. The huge windows above let in streams of light. On a sunny day, the South Gallery tends to get more direct sunlight, while the light on the North Gallery tends to be more subdued and soft, which is why many wedding couples and photographers prefer it. However, the intense, contrasty light of the South side should not be overlooked, as it can make for some quite dramatic photographs.
Take the elevator back down to the first floor, and don't forget to explore both the Van Ness and Polk Street entrances. Both have the iconic "City Hall" lettering above the doorways, but while the Polk entrance offers three ornate doorways, the Van Ness entrance boasts a set of elegant old-world turnstile doors. Exit from the Polk side and cross the street. Now turn around and take in the broad façade of City Hall up close. Now keep walking across the sandy plaza towards Larkin Street. Once there, turn around and admire the entire façade of the building from afar. You can't help but notice the iconic gilded dome of the building.
Visiting San Francisco City Hall
As you can tell, City Hall is a popular tourist and wedding destination. It's also a functional administrative building, full of lawyers and city officials, security guards and janitorial staff, community activists and local artists. The best time to visit City Hall is early in the morning, or late in the day, when most of these folks have cleared out. Having fewer people around the building means having more of its beauty to yourself, if only for a few picture-perfect moments. Lunchtime hours are the busiest and should be avoided. Thursday and Friday afternoons are especially busy. When you visit, don't forget that you'll need to clear security. Be nice and cooperative with the officers. Make sure you take everything out of your pockets before you pass through the metal detector.