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Architectural rubbernecking in San Francisco.

Architectural rubbernecking in San Francisco

Like shiny-sided refrigerators standing in some open-air warehouse, boxy high-rises have gone up all over San Francisco's Financial District in the last two decades. There have been unwelcome consequences: jarring contrasts in scale, loss of sunlight at street level, the creation of windy urban canyons, a spreading visual monotony.

In response, city planners last August offered San Francisco a new Downtown Plan--with proposals that have received national attention because of their implications for other cities.

If accepted after public debate this spring and a city supervisors' vote this summer, the plan will attempt to control growth. It will also specifically encourage future architectural development to emulate the sculptural form and visual richness of older district buildings.

To acquaint you with some of the qualities the plan commends in many older and a few recent designs, we suggest a walk-- on your own or with a group.

Slow down and look up, a stone menagerie returns your gaze: above the tunnel vision of the workaday rush, you'll encounter glowering eagles, broad-browed California bear, schools of Pacific dolphin, even a rampant unicorn or two. A kaleidoscope of styles pleases the eye: stout Ionic columns with hair-roller capitals, moderne swags that might have been borrowed from some flapper's brooch, businessman's Gothic and banker's Corinthian, a hieroglyphic language of corporate symbols.

This treasury of architectural embellishment does more than please the passer-by. It also serves to bring human scale to architectural mass.

As you scan larger buildings from street level to skyline, look for three component zones, labeled in the photograph on page 90; ornament has different functions in each zone. You'll see styles and thematic concerns of several eras. It is to be hoped that contemporary architects will find their own idiom.

Another goal of the plan is to preserve significant buildings of the past in what would become "conservation districts'; of the buildings we show, Mills, Matson, Southern Pacific, PG&E, the Bank of California, and Hunter-Dulin would be protected. Alaska Commercial has been lost, and Rincon Annex will soon be redeveloped with additional stories.

An architectural saunter downtown

Weekends are a good time for a leisurely, unobstructed look. Weekdays give you the vitality of the district in full commercial tilt (with more restaurants open).

Start at the Ferry Building and thread back and forth on north-south streets between California and Mission, ranging as far west as Kearny; for a broader sweep of lower Market, you can then take a bus down Market to Embarcadero parking or transit. Or create your own route.

Another option is a guided walk.

Every Thursday at noon. Heritage docents lead two 45-minute walks through the Financial District, starting from 130 Sutter Street and from Clay Street at Montgomery. Cost is $1; call (415) 441-3046.

Every Saturday at 1 and March 7 and 21 at noon, City Guides (San Francisco Public Library) take groups through the Lower Market area, starting at 65 Market Street. Free; call 558-3770 or 558-3981.

Taking a closer look at the plan

While applauded in many quarters, the plan has not won universal favor. Some critics say that it has "no real teeth' to implement its goals. Others fault it as failing to deal in a realistic way with its impacts on transit and housing. There's the contention that, in moving the bulk of high-rise development south of Market, it simply relocates the problem. And it by-passes seismic considerations. "Still,' one crite admits, "it's better than anything we've had in the past.'

To obtain a copy to study, write to the Department of City Planning, 450 McAllister St., San Francisco 94102. Or check city libraries.

Following publication of the draft environmental impact report, public hearings will be held several Thursdays in March; call (415) 558-4656 for details.

Photo: Focusing on 1896 Ferry Buildings, at the foot of Market Street (top), 1950s photograph takes in San Francisco's picturesque downtown skyline. By 1983, 36 million square feet of high-rise office space had been added

Photo: Sheltered in marble archway of pre-earthquake Mills Building (11 on map, page 91), noon-hour walking tour studies facade across street

Photo: Bold concrete arches frame arcade of 1982 Federal Reserve Bank (4 on map). Architects: Skidmore Owings & Merrill

Photo: Egyptian bearing symbol of commerce stares from sidewalk-level window grille at 1922 Security Pacific Bank (9 on map)

Photo: Tranquil classicism pervades palazzo-like loggia of 1916 Southern Pacific Building (2 on map), by Bliss and Faville

Photo: Eagles and oxen alternate across 1926 Hunter-Dulin Building (12 on map), by Schultze and Weaver

Photo: Walrus heads from razed Alaska Commercial Building now ornament 1977 California First Bank (7)

Photo: Three-zone system of 1921 Matson Building (5) is echoed by 1925 neighbor at right

Photo: Starkly art deco federal eagle glares down from aluminum niche at 1940 Rincon Annex Post Office (3)

Photo: Sculptural group (1925) announces services of PG&E (6). Above California bear are heroic-style linemen and hydroelectric dam

Photo: Upper levels

Arches and columns topped by ornamental entablature add visual interest to skyline. Set-back belvedere tower conceals elevator machinery

Photo: Midsection

Walls of terra cotta mimic masonry. Paired, recessed windows produce patterns of light and shade

Photo: Street level

Monumental columns and three-story arched entry lend grand scale to streetscape

Photo: Architectural walk starts at transportation hub near Embarcadero. Map numbers are keyed to photographs of these buildings: 1. Ferry. 2. Southern Pacific. 3. Rincon Annex. 4. Federal Reserve Bank. 5. Matson. 6. Pacific Gas & Electric. 7. California First Bank. 8. Bank of California. 9. Security Pacific Bank. 10. Bank of America 11. Mills. 12. Hunter-Dulin

Photo: Chateau-style rooftop of Hunter-Dulin Building (12) is overshadowed by nondescript shaft of 1966 Wells Fargo Building

Photo: Buildings meet sky in different ways: Corinthian capital and classical entablature top 1907 Bank of California (8); light-catching bays of 1968 Bank of America (10) create bold pinnacles and crags
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Date:Mar 1, 1984
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