Civic Center is a neighborhood within San Francisco's 7-mile by 7-mile city limits. It is centered on the 2-block Civic Center Plaza and its core is a formal symmetrical arrangement in the style of the City Beautiful planning movement of the turn of the 20th century. About 14 of the surrounding blocks can be considered the formal core, while several others with a wide variety of building types complete this mostly governmental and public-focused small area. It is surrounded by several other neighborhoods and can be considered the Southernmost of the downtown area: to the North is the Tenderloin. West of it is the Western Addition, Southwest is Hayes Valley, and South and East are occupied by South of Market. I consider Market Street to be the Eastern limit of the neighborhood, including the buildings on the street's Eastern side that face it; a block beyond this are a few more governmental buildings that could be considered an extension of the area but I consider them as part of South of Market. The terrain is quite flat. The neighborhood is fairly busy during the week, and very busy during multiple festivals held in the plaza, but at other times it can be rather quiet. This is in contrast to the surrounding neighborhoods that are composed of far more residential buildings in mostly high density.
The primary axis of the formal Civic Center arrangement begins as it branches off from the diagonal Market Street; The first block is the pedestrian-only United Nations Plaza, followed by a block of vehicle parking around a central grand statue grouping called the Pioneer Monument from 1894 (it was moved to this site from its original site a block away). The visual terminal is City Hall, on the other side of Civic Center Plaza which constitutes a third block along this axis.
The focus of Civic Center is this building, completed in 1915, that features the fifth-largest dome in the world (slightly larger than the United States Capitol dome in Washington, DC, it is 307.5 feet tall). It was built to replace the older City Hall which was largely damaged in the Great Earthquake of 1906; it is surmised that the grandeur of this one was intended to symbolize the ability of the city to recover from the catastrophe. The major public space within is the rotunda, but the Board of Supervisors chamber is also noteworthy with its impressive wood paneling.
Continuation of the East-West Axis:
City Hall occupies 2 blocks so that it interrupts the Civic Center axis; on the other side it continues as a pedestrian-only small park for an additional block.
San Francisco War Memorial Veterans Building:
The formal master plan of the Civic Center dates to the building of City Hall, at which time the surrounding buildings were intended to mirror each other in pairs, on either side of the axis. Of course, over the nearly 100 years of the development of the area this intention has not been precisely followed as architectural styles and programs have changed. However, the pair that did emerge as near-twins are this building and the San Francisco War Memorial Opera House on either side of the one-block continuation of the East-West axis. This building was completed in 1933 and contains veterans offices and performing arts offices beyond the lobby pictured here. The largest room within is the medium-sized Herbst Theater where various live concerts and lectures are held. It was in this theater in 1945 that the charter of the United Nations was signed.
San Francisco War Memorial Opera House:
This mirror image of the previous building was also completed in 1932 and features a grand theater beyond the barrel-vaulted lobby ceiling pictured here.
50 United Nations Plaza:
This Federal office building was completed in 1936 and is the only one of the grand buildings at the Civic Center core that does not have an equivalent on the other side of the axis, due to the way that the core meets the diagonal of Market Street (instead, a few mismatched commercial buildings fill that smaller triangular block.) This building is currently empty during a renovation. In 1945, the prospective members of the United Nations met here to draft their charter.
Department of Public Health:
One of the corner blocks that adjoins the Civic Center Plaza and is on the South side of City Hall is occupied by this building from 1932.
California Supreme Court:
The Department of Public Health's equivalent on the North side of City Hall at the corner is this much more modern building that respects the massing and materials of the former. A new midrise under construction can be seen in the background for the Public Utilities Commission.
California Supreme Court:
The North side of Civic Center Plaza is fronted by this 1922 building, which has a 1998 midrise addition behind it that reinforces its symmetry.
The South side of Civic Center Plaza is fronted by this 7,000-person concert venue that is the oldest of the grand core buildings, completed in 1915 before City Hall (although its interior is not lavish). Unfortunately, the wisdom of 1960's planning and zoning allowed the visual insult of the 354-foot Fox Plaza apartment building behind it.
Asian Art Museum of San Francisco:
Two buildings form the Eastern side of Civic Center Plaza, and again are forms that mirror each other across the East-West axis. This one is the Northern part and was completed in 1917, originally the Central Library. In 2003 it was reopened as this fine museum, with an interior remodel that is equal parts restoration and modern adaptation by Gae Aulenti.
San Francisco Public Library, Main Branch:
This modern building was opened in 1996, freeing up the original building across the axis for the Asian Art Museum to move in. The lead architect was Freed of Pei Cobb Freed and Partners.
California State Office Building:
To the North of the War Memorial Veterans Building described earlier is this 1985 edifice.
Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall:
To the South of the War memorial Opera House described earlier is the mirrored equivalent of the California State Office Building. It was opened in 1980, designed by Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill as well as Pietro Belluschi.
United Nations Plaza:
The final component of the core of Civic Center is a plaza that links Market Street with the East end of the formal axis. It was designed by Lawrence Halprin and opened in 1975. Its red brick paving treatment is an extension of the one used along the downtown segment of Market Street when it was redesigned by the same landscape architect during the 1970's when the subway stations were built. The theme of the plaza celebrates the formation and charter signing of the original United Nations in a few of the Civic Center buildings in 1945.
Other Noteworthy Historic Buildings of Civic Center:
The blocks of the neighborhood that surround the formal core have several other large buildings in various styles that differ from the stony grey Beaux-Arts examples. A few included here are actually in the Tenderloin, a few blocks away from Civic Center.
St. Boniface Catholic Church, 1908:
San Francisco Conservatory of Music, unknown date, originally Young Men's Institute, the school moved here in 2006:
California Hall, 1912:
Golden Gate Theater, 1922:
25 Van Ness, originally the Masonic Temple, 1911:
Orpheum Theater, 1926:
San Francisco Unified School District Building, 1927:
McAllister Tower, 1930:
San Francisco Mart, 1939:
All photographs taken in 2011 by geomorph.