Monday, July 13, 2015

Happy Birthday To Two California Landmarks!

Happy Birthday to two very important California landmarks! Let's start here in my own backyard in Northern California, at the edge of San Francisco.

The Ferry Building was commissioned in 1892 when California voters passed a bond issue for a new ferry terminal. Designed by A. Page Brown and influenced by his studies at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, the Union Depot and Ferry House (as it was originally called) was imagined as a beautiful European-styled structure based on an arched arcade; inside, a gorgeous Great Nave was to function as a baggage and receiving area. Brown included a 245-foot-tall clock tower modeled on the 12th century bell tower in the Seville Cathedral in Spain to serve as a welcoming beacon on the Bay.

To support the 56,000 tons of cement it would require, a concrete seawall was created. Then over 5,000 fresh cut, 80 foot long Oregon pine piles, each with a girth of 16 inches, were driven 20 feet into the bay. 111 concrete piers were sunk to the same depth. And finally, all these elements were joined together by a series of 2-foot thick, groined concrete arches reinforced with steel rods. Brown's foundation—which has supported the entire steel-framed structure in such a remarkably dependable manner through not only one but two earthquakes (the Great Earthquake of 1906 and the tragic Loma Prieta Earthquake of 1989)—became the largest such foundation for a building over water anywhere in the world.

It opened this day in 1898, receiving its first ferry passengers from across the San Francisco Bay. Happy Birthday Ferry Building!

The Ferry Building, still standing in 1908, two years after the Great 1906 Earthquake.

But then in 1958, something unfortunate happened to the poor Ferry Building. In the boom of post-war construction and urban growth, The Embarcadero Freeway, an elevated 1.2 mile stretch of double-decker concrete road was erected directly in front of the Ferry Building, effectively cutting off visual contact, and making it harder for anyone to get to the building or even the water, to gaze out at the Bay. I recall the Embarcadero Freeway quite well: it was useful enough but also provided a supremely dramatic entrance into The City, especially at night, with the freeway winding around glittering buildings so close one could practically reach out and touch them, and dropping one into Chinatown or near the Wharf. But pity the people below in the dark, dank, cave-like space which had become a haven for crime and the homeless. By the 1970s, ferry use resumed as a way to combat the growing traffic congestion problem and people once again needed access to the Ferry Building. But as writer William Thompson put it, the Embarcadero Freeway "shunted pedestrians through a dark, sooty gauntlet between downtown and the San Francisco Bay."

A postcard from the 1ate 1950s/early 1960s showing the newly completed Embarcadero Freeway.

But it was not until the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake that the freeway's fate was sealed. Heavy damage sustained in the quake left it unsafe for use, and despite cries from certain sectors for it to be rebuilt (particularly from the merchants of Chinatown who feared disappearing revenue without easy access), it was demolished in 1991. A better decision could not have been made. Revenue did not disappear, and predictions of street gridlock never materialized.

With its flagpole askew, the iconic Ferry Building Clock Tower's mechanism
stopped at the time the Loma Prieta Earthquake struck on October 17, 1989.
The Embarcadero Freeway being disassembled in 1991.

I also recall quite well feeling a marvelous expanse and seeing sunlight fall along the Embarcadero proper for the first time after the freeway was gone! Just marvel at the difference: below is the Ferry Building and the now-beautiful Ferry Plaza, with greenery and stunning palm trees along a promenade. The city's collection of vintage streetcars have been restored and now run along the Embarcadero. It is an open and welcoming gateway between the Bay, with its lovely view of the SF Bay Bridge to Yerba Buena and Treasure Islands, and downtown San Francisco. The Plaza hosts craft and food booths and the Ferry Building hosts a farmers market, renowned throughout the country as one of the top farmers markets to visit.

Here is a superb Before and After view from Coit Tower of the Ferry Building and the Embarcadero Freeway. Click on the photo to go the original page featuring the interactive version of these images.

In 2003, a four-year major renovation was completed and the Ferry Building was restored to its former glory. The interior of the building had been chopped up into ill-conceived office spaces but today, the Great Nave is once again great: it is home to The Marketplace, a wonderland for foodies, which brings together the greater Bay Area's agricultural wealth and famous specialty food purveyors under one roof: stores like cook-and tableware supplier Sur la Table, flower stalls, book stores, mushroom vendors, green grocers, Blue Bottle Coffee, Acme Bread Company (supplier to world-famous Chez Panisse just across the Bay in Berkeley), Cowgirl Creamery, and restaurants like Hog Island Oyster Bar, and Charles Phan’s nationally-acclaimed Vietnamese restaurant The Slanted Door.

The Great Nave under renovation.
An outpost of the celebrated Cowgirl Creamery.
Hog Island Oyster Bar
The Slanted Door

And the bountiful and sprawling Farmers Market wraps around the front, sides, and rear of the building, with a glorious view of the Bay Bridge while you shop for purple carrots and French breakfast radishes! It is open Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10AM to 2PM and on Saturdays from 8AM to 2PM.

And now let's travel south to Hollywood and wish a Happy Birthday to the iconic, world famous Hollywood sign! Originally reading "HOLLYWOODLAND," the sign was an advertisement for a local real estate development in the Hollywood Hills. It was dedicated on this day, July 13th, in 1923. The sign was lit up at night by 4,000 light bulbs and flashed in segments: "HOLLY," "WOOD," and "LAND" individually at first, and then lighting up entirely as "HOLLYWOODLAND."

The sign became a landmark of the area and although it was only built to stand for a year and a half, it was allowed to stay. In 1949, the "LAND" suffix was removed to reflect not the housing development but Hollywood itself. Unfortunately, by the 1970s, the sign's flimsy wood and sheet metal construction had deteriorated and the sign was in serious disrepair.

In 1978, a restoration campaign headed by Playboy magazine founder Hugh Hefner raised the necessary funds to completely rebuild the sign, this time out of longer lasting materials: steel letters on steel columns supported by concrete foundations. Many celebrities gave money to sponsor individual letters. Gene Autry bought an L, Hugh Hefner bought the Y, and rock star Alice Cooper bought an O in memory of his good friend and Hollywood legend Groucho Marx! In 2005, the sign underwent a refurbishment with the letters being stripped back to their metal, and repainted with a fresh coat of optical white.

The sign was designated a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument in 1973 and is protected by the not-for-profit Trust for Public Land, while the site and land are part of Griffith Park. Happy Birthday, Hollywood sign!

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