The spots of paint on the curbs above the sewer grates in San Francisco have a purpose. Those spots are put there by a city worker after treating the sewer below to prevent mosquitoes from breeding in the dark dampness below. The technician marks the curb after each treatment with a different color for tracking to make sure all sewers get treated.
Walking around Civic Center, admiring the new 92-ft Venus statue at Trinity Place (on 8th just off Market) it's easy to overlook this mid-century industrial beauty on at 8th and Mission.
Built in 1948, it was designed by San Francisco architect William Merchant. Merchant trained with John Galen Howard, architect of the University of California Berkeley, and Bernard Maybeck, best known for the Palace of Fine Arts. Merchant did a restoration of the Palace of Fine Arts in the 1960s.
Merchant got Galen Howard's son, John Boardman Howard to do the sculptures on the front of the building. The one on the right represents Light and on the left is Power. The undulating fence along the Mission Street side dresses up the building's B-side which would otherwise be plain and forbidding.
Flatirons are trianglar shaped buildings. The name comes from their resemblence in shape to the iron you use to unwrinkle your clothes. When a street cuts through the city grid at an odd angle, it creates triangular-shaped lots (called a "gore" lot) that provide the perfect place to build a flatiron.
Perhaps the most famous flatiron is in New York, where Broadway hits Fifth Ave and 22nd Street. Built in 1902 it was designed by the famous Chicago architect Daniel Burnham. It has become one of the most photographed buildings in the city.
But New York has only a few flatirons. San Francisco has dozen or more of these distinctive buildings because it has two boulevards -- Market and Columbus -- that cut diagonally across the city. this creates gore lots in various sizes that are filled with distinctive triangular buildings, large and small.
The Phelan Building on Market St. at O'Farrell is perhaps the closest to New York's famous flatiron, with the same three-part Beaux Arts style. But the Phelan Building at 11 stories is half the size of its 22 story New York cousin. Designed by architect William Curlett (who also did the Mutual Savings Bank on Market at Third) it was built by James Duvall Phelan in 1908, after the 1906 fire destroyed a smaller flatiron built by his father on the same site. Like his father, Phelan was a banker and later became a politician. serving two terms as Mayor of San Francisco before the 1906 disaster and later representing California in the U.S. Senate. The building is still owned by the Phelan family today.
But the Phelan building not the city's only flatiron by a long shot. Perhaps the most well known San Francisco flatiron sits on the corner of Columbus and Kearny in the city's North Beach neighborhood. It's distinctive copper dome makes it city landmark. The building was under construction during the 1906 earthquake and finished shortly afterward. It was built by lawyer Abe Ruef, who served time in San Quentin after the 1906 earthquake after being convicted of bribery. The building was under construction during the 1906 earthquake and finished shortly afterward. In the 1960s it was owned by the Kingston Trio who recorded some of their most popular albums in its basement studio. Today it's owned by film director Francis Ford Coppolla who uses it as offices for his film production company, his literary magazine and a restaurant on the first floor. He also has a private apartment in the dome on the top floor.
Directly across the street from the Transamerica Pyramid, sits the original Transamerica Building at the gore point of Columbus and Montgomery. Designed by Charles Pfaff, It was built in 1909 for the Fugazi Bank. The third story was added in 1914. A.P. Giannini, founder of the Bank of America, later bought it for his Transamerica Insurance Company, making it the original Transamerica Pyramid. Today it's owned by the Church of Scientology.
Not all flatirons are historic. A modern take on a flatiron can be seen on Market Street at Pine. Built in 1987 it was designed by Skimore Ownings and Merrill. Echoing the three-part design of Beaux Arts buildings, the bottom floor is retail space, the middle floors are office and the top seven floors are luxury apartments. Note how the Front Street side of the building is curved -- this is for wind control.
A new City Explorer tour, the Angles of Market Street, will explore some of these flatirons and more. It will be available on the City Explorer San Francisco app this summer.
Summer is officially underway and it’s time to get outside! There’s a couple of things you need for a great picnic. One is a nice stretch of grass, preferably with a view. Another is food, obviously. All five of these parks offer places to pick up a sandwich-- or something more interesting -- so you can just grab it and go. Bathrooms are a must have. And if there’s a playground for the kids, that’s even better. Here’s our favorite places to picnic in San Francisco.
Lafayette Park – Bay Views
The just-completed remodel of this park includes shady picnic tables with a view of Alcatraz and the Bay, a dog area, a new playground with a city view, and lots of seating. Whole Foods is just two blocks away on California and Franklin. Muni’s 1 California runs along the southern edge of the park, or take the California Street Cable car to the end of the line and walk three blocks to the park past some of the city’s best Victorians. Download City Explorer San Francisco’s tour of Victorians of Lafayette Park before you go.
Sue Bierman Park – On the Waterfront
Find this small oasis across from the north end of the Ferry Building, on the west side of the Embarcadero. It’s built on land that once held ramps to the infamous Embarcadero Freeway. Now there’s playground and a broad lawn with views of the Bay Bridge and the waterfront. And tucked into the far southwest corner there’s a Paris-style automated bathroom. The Ferry Building hosts a Farmer’s Market on Tuesday and Thursday 10a -2p and on Saturday there’s a mega market with over 100 vendors starting at 8 a. Get there on the Muni’s F-line historic streetcars or take BART/Muni to Embarcadero.
Yerba Buena Gardens – Downtown Oasis
Five acres of grass in the heart of the city, surrounded by museums – this is my idea of heaven. There’s even a walk-through waterfall that’s an inspiring memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Find food and bathrooms inside the Metreon mall on the west side of the park. And there’s a amazing children’s area - complete with playground, carousel, ice rink and a Creativity Museum -- located across the bridge over Howard Street on the roof of Moscone Center South. The Powell and Montgomery BART /Muni stations are just two blocks away. The Jewish Contemporary Museum and the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts are just two of the museums that will keep you busy until SFMOMA re-opens next year.
Dolores Park: City View
Weekends here can get a little crazy. But during the week Dolores Park can be surprisingly serene. The northern section of the park has just reopened with new bathrooms, tennis and sport courts, but the highlight is still the sweeping view of the city from the large lawns. Bi-Rite Market is a block away on 18th Street or get a sandwich at Rhea's Deli at 19th and Valencia. The southern half of the park is still under construction but the newly-redone children’s playground is open. Muni J Church drops you off right in the northwest corner of the park. Download the City Explorer San Francisco app before you go and take the Artwalk: Mission Murals tour.
Washington Square – History and Food
One of the oldest parks in the city. Come early to see the graceful Tai Chi groups that regularly meet here. The park is surrounded by great eating options even if you don’t want to stand in line at Mama’s, a North Beach institution. There’s Italian cakes and cookies at Victoria Pastry, the world’s best focaccia at Liguria (get there before 11 for best selection), sandwiches and espresso at Mario’s Bohemian Café, or grab a slice at Tony’s Pizza. Top it off with a one block walk north on Columbus to XOX Truffles. Keep your eyes out for the Telegraph Hill parrots, supposedly descendants of a flock that escaped during the 1906 earthquake. Muni 30 and 45 lines drop you by the Park; the 38 circles the Park and takes you up to Coit Tower. Download the City Explorer San Francisco app before you go; the North Beach tour takes you inside St. Peter and Paul, tells you about the secret hidden inside the Ben Franklin monument, and more.
The Sharon Building looks solid when viewed from the Palace Hotel across the street. But walk along New Montgomery back toward Market and you’ll see that the front of this building is no more than a shallow façade.
Architect George Kelham ingeniously used this skinny structure to hide the parking lot behind it. The bulk of the Sharon Building runs along the Mission St. side, but Kelham put the main entrance on New Montgomery across from the Palace, which Kelham also designed. Other works by the architect include the art deco Shell Building at 100 Bush and the full-on gothic Russ Building at 235 Montgomery.
The engineering of this odd structure was done by 30-year-old Henry Brunnier, who moved his fledgling firm into the Sharon Building when it was completed in 1912. The firm is still there today. It’s engineered several Bay Area landmarks including the original Bay Bridge, the Bank of America tower, and the cross on Mt. Davidson.
On the ground floor of the Sharon is the House of Shields a venerable bar dating from the buildings beginning. The bar in here was originally designed for the Palace, but was moved here to make room for the Pied Piper painting by Maxfield Parrish. The Sentinel on the corner is a great place to pick up a sandwich or salad. It was originally a cigar store and newsstand.
Hidden behind the Sharon Building on Stevenson is the Palace Garage, designed by the O’Brien Brothers. It is one of the few garages in the city that has a car elevator and turntable. When it opened in 1921, it had furnished waiting rooms for chauffeurs complete with showers and a dressing room.