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Heart of San Francisco Walking Tour
Item 8 of 16
Built as a replacement for the original City Hall building that was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake, construction on San Francisco's City Hall began in 1913 and was completed on July 28, 1916. The 500,000 square foot space is notable for its architectural grandeur- drawn from the Beaux-Arts style popularized during the American Renaissance period of the late 1800's and early 1900's. Over the years, City Hall has been the location of many historic events ranging from the assassinations of Mayor George Moscone and City Supervisor Harvey Milk on November 27, 1978 to San Francisco's first same-sex marriages in 2004.

  • San Francisco's City Hall photographed from the Civic Plaza
  • City Hall's lobby
  • City Hall lit with the colors of the rainbow flag for Pride month
  • Aviator Charles Lindbergh addressing crowds in front of City Hall after his landing in San Francisco on September 16, 1926
  • Mourners gather around the caskets of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk in City Hall (November 28, 1978)
  • Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk. Milk was the first openly gay elected official in the state of California.
  • SFPD officers breaking up a riot at City Hall after the unpopular Dan White verdict
  • Soaked students protesting HUAC's presence in City Hall on May 13, 1960
  • Anti-HUAC student protesters being hosed down the stairs of City Hall by police on May 13, 1960
  • Phyllis Lyon (left) and Del Martin (right) receiving the first marriage license for a same-sex couple in the state of California.

After the destruction of San Francisco’s original City Hall during the 1906 earthquakes, the government and people of San Francisco were determined to have a new building completed in time for the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition. Therefore in 1912, Mayor James “Sunny Jim” Rolph lobbied heavily to get an $8 million bond approved for the land purchase and construction costs of a new City Hall building. The bond was authorized on March 28th of that year. The Mayor then held a competition for the building’s design. The winning design, done by little-known local architect Arthur Brown Jr., was a Beaux-Arts style “palace” which corresponded with the “City Beautiful” movement of the larger architectural American Renaissance during the time period. Ground was broken for the new project on April 5, 1913. On October 25th, the building’s cornerstone was laid. Mayor Rolph and other members of San Francisco’s government moved into offices in the building two years later, and on July 28, 1916, the last pieces of scaffolding were removed. 

City Hall quickly became the center for civic life that San Francisco had hoped for. On September 16, 1927, Charles Lindbergh landed his famous plane “Spirit of St. Louis” in a field in San Francisco. He was subsequently treated to a parade accompanied by thousands of people down Market Street, ending at City Hall where he addressed the city in a speech. This parade marked the beginning of a San Francisco tradition of ending every parade at the steps of the Hall. 

City Hall also became a spot known for its demonstrations. Most notably, from May 12-14, 1960, when the notorious House on Un-American Activities Committee (also known as HUAC) held hearings in San Francisco’s City Hall to investigate alleged “communist subversion” in the city, a large group mainly consisting of students from local universities gathered outside of the City Hall to protest the committee’s presence. On the second day of the protests, San Francisco Police used fire hoses to spray down hundreds of demonstrators on the staircase. The next day, police were met with a crowd of over 5,000 protestors. This event paved the way for the more well-known Free Speech Movement at UC-Berkeley’s campus four years later. 

It was also in the offices of City Hall that, on November 27, 1978, Former Supervisor Dan White- furious at Mayor George Moscone for not giving him his job back after he had resigned- shot and killed both Mayor Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk. Milk, who had been elected earlier that year, was the first gay man to hold public office in the state of California. Dianne Feinstein (who would later become San Francisco’s Mayor and then a prominent United States Senator) made the famous announcement of the assassinations on live television. An impromptu candelight march was organized in the Castro District- the largely gay neighborhood where Milk lived- and stretched all the way down to the steps of the City Hall building. Dan White’s eventual conviction of the lowest charge possible for the crime- voluntary manslaughter- led to the “White Night” riots outside of City Hall. White later committed suicide in 1985, a year after his release from prison.

The Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989 damaged the building and rotated the rotunda eight inches out of alignment. After extensive repairs and restoration, City Hall was reopened in 1990.

Over the course of its existence, City Hall has been billed as one of the top event venues in San Francisco thanks to its grandeur and ample space. The building has also been featured in multiple blockbuster films such as Raiders of the Lost Ark, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1977), Dirty Harry, A View to Kill, and Harvey Milk biopic, Milk.

It has also hosted many wedding ceremonies- perhaps the most notable of which occurred in 1954 when actress Marilyn Monroe was married to baseball star Joe DiMaggio by a judge there. Another historic wedding at City Hall happened fifty years later when, on February 10, 2004, Mayor Gavin Newsom ordered San Francisco county clerks to start issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Two days later, lesbian activists Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin, who had been a couple for over 51 years, were the first same-sex couple to receive a marriage license in the state of California.

In 2016, LED lights were added to the exterior of the rotunda. They are lit specific colors on nights that correspond with a national holiday or event. Most notably, it is lit the colors of the rainbow flag during Pride, and red, white, and blue on Election Day.

Associated Press. "GORGEOUS MARILYN MONROE MARRIED TO JOE DIMAGGIO." San Bernadino Sun (San Bernadino) January 15th 1954. 1st ed, 1-1.

City and County of San Francisco. A Palace for the People, City and County of San Francisco. Accessed October 23rd 2020. https://sfgov.org/cityhall/.

Hartlaub, Peter. San Francisco City Hall is a masterpiece, in the shadow of a fiasco, San Francisco Chronicle. June 8th 2015. Accessed October 23rd 2020. https://www.sfchronicle.com/oursf/article/Our-SF-City-Hall-is-a-masterpiece-in-the-shadow-6310234.php.

Hartlaub, Peter. Six best uses of San Francisco City Hall in the movies, San Francisco Gate. November 22nd 2010. Accessed October 23rd 2020. https://blog.sfgate.com/parenting/2010/11/22/six-best-uses-of-san-francisco-city-hall-in-the-movies/.

Lytle, David. LGBTQ Guide: San Francisco City Hall a landmark in history of struggle and triumph, San Francisco Chronicle. September 6th 2018. Accessed October 26th 2020. https://www.sfchronicle.com/travel/article/LGBTQ-Guide-San-Francisco-City-Hall-a-landmark-13161475.php#:~:text=Fast%2Dforward%20to%20Feb.,Del%20Martin%20and%20Phyllis%20Lyon..

The People’s Palace: San Francisco City Hall 100 Years. Yager, James. United States. 2015. https://vimeo.com/144156561.

Image Sources(Click to expand)

https://sfgov.org/cityhall/

https://www.wedding-spot.com/venue/12403/SF-City-Hall/

https://blog.academyart.edu/in-photos-happy-50th-san-francisco-pride/

https://opensfhistory.org/news/2017/09/18/lindbergh-in-sf-a-closer-look/

https://www.sfchronicle.com/oursf/article/Our-SF-City-Hall-is-a-masterpiece-in-the-shadow-6310234.php

https://www.sacbee.com/opinion/california-forum/article220868945.html

https://www.sfchronicle.com/oursf/article/Our-SF-City-Hall-is-a-masterpiece-in-the-shadow-6310234.php

https://www.foundsf.org/index.php?title=The_House_Un-American_Activities_Committee_(HUAC)_Hearing_and_Riot_of_1960

https://www.foundsf.org/index.php?title=The_House_Un-American_Activities_Committee_(HUAC)_Hearing_and_Riot_of_1960

https://www.sfchronicle.com/travel/article/LGBTQ-Guide-San-Francisco-City-Hall-a-landmark-13161475.php#:~:text=Fast%2Dforward%20to%20Feb.,Del%20Martin%20and%20Phyllis%20Lyon.