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San Francisco's once and future waterfront.

After 32 years behind a concrete fogbank known as the Embarcadero Freeway, San Francisco's downtown shoreline is becoming visible again. In the 1950s, San Francisco was one of the West's first cities to embrace the automobile age by walling off its downtown waterfront--The Embarcadero--with a double-decker expressway, and is now the first to tear it down, with a little nudging from the earthquake of 1989.

But what a difference the decades have made, especially along a 1-mile stretch of The Embarcadero south from the landmark Ferry Building to the Lefty O'Doul Bridge at China Basin. Office buildings, apartment complexes, and leisure-oriented activities from jogging to sailing are reshaping an area once known for its towering Matson Line freighters and looming copra, sugar, and coffee warehouses.

Gone are the ships and the strings of waterfront saloons, cafes, billiard parlors, barber shops, and clothing stores catering to seafarers and longshoremen. Gone, too, is the chance to see the occasional dazed monkey or lethargic boa constrictor emerging from the refrigerated hatches of banana boats just in from Central America. In their wake, after the removal of several piers, have come the rhythms of modern mariners: the weekend sort, who catch as ketch can.

Allow several hours to walk through this area. It's evolving so quickly it will surprise most San Franciscans; it's historic and scenic enough to recommend to first-timers. Numbers correspond to the map.

1. The Ferry Building. Look at the main entrance, in the center of the two-story arcaded facade that extends 661 feet along the waterfront: it's a triumphal arch, like the three-part Arch of Constantine in Rome. Architect A. Page Brown designed the building. From its completion in 1898, it was the gateway to the city until the bridges opened in the 1930s.

The 235-foot-tall temple-topped tower, designed to echo the Giralda tower of Spain's Seville cathedral, remains one of the city's most famous landmarks. It sports the clockface that launched a thousand ships. The four monumental dials, each with an 11-foot-long minute hand and 7-foot-long hour hand, give the clock a symbolic as well as prosaic function: it's doesn't just tell time, but also records the arrivals and departures of momentous eras in the city's history. The latest era, in which adaptive reuse and waterfront access are taking precedence over the automobile, has just begun.

2. 100 Spear Street. Propeller ahoy! You can't miss the 36,075-pound brass screw from a World War II tanker at the entrance. It makes a fitting introduction to the shipping exhibits, including five scale models, in the lobby. A diorama shows San Francisco's downtown waterfront on the eve of the Gold Rush in the fall of 1848, when Montgomery Street bordered the bay, graphically illustrating the Financial District's original liquidity.

3. Rincon Center. This contemporary city-within-the-city designed by Los Angeles architects Johnson, Fain and Pereira & Associates incorporates the former Rincon Annex Post Office, a simplified classical edifice designed in 1940 by Gilbert Stanley Underwood, the architect for Yosemite's Ahwahnee Hotel.

The original lobby is listed on the National Register because of its remarkable suite of 27 murals by artist Anton Refregier depicting significant scenes in California history. The vividly colored images were painted directly onto the walls' still-wet plaster surfaces--a fresco technique. The developers have preserved the lobby as a museum-vestibule leading to the new galleria shown on page 15.

A new twin-towered apartment building curves around a public sculpture court. Restaurants in the center include the eclectic Asta, Etrusca (Italian), and Wu Kong (Cantonese).

4. 100 block of The Embarcadero. Formerly obscured by the freeway, the block now offers a glimpse of late 19th- and early 20th-century San Francisco, when this section of the waterfront echoed to shouts of dockworkers, the clanging of

the Belt Line Railroad, and the blasts of ships' horns.

Note the Audiffred Building of 1889 along Mission Street, with its reconstructed mansard roof recalling the original owner's native France; and, at 166 The Embarcadero, the recently refurbished brick YMCA of 1926, with its terra-cotta ornament. Part of it has just opened as the Harbor Court Hotel. Side-by-side restaurants Bistro Roti and Harry Denton's (in the Harbor Court) now have unobstructed water views and are open every day.

5. The Waterfront Promenade. A favorite jogging and brown-bag spot for office workers at lunchtime, this granite-topped concrete seawall-walkway by architects Donlyn Lyndon and William Turnbull replaced derelict piers 14 through 22 in 1982. (Tinder-dry Pier 14 took only 2 hours to burn to the waterline in 1976.) The area had been the port's principal maintenance base.

6. Hills Plaza. Whisler-Patri Architects designed this partially completed plaza, a long block south of Rincon Center. Like Rincon, this is a block-long, apartment-commercial development incorporating the shell of an older structure, in this case the original Romanesque-arched, brick-faced Hills Brothers Coffee building designed by skyscraper architect George Kelham and built in 1933.

On the south, the original Hills Brothers tower, now under renovation, anchors one end of a garden plaza. A handsome, honey-colored brick arcade frames stunning views of the Bay Bridge. No restaurants have opened here yet, but this small plaza makes a fine spot for a picnic lunch or even a kaffeeklatsch. A contemporary art gallery has recently opened on the main floor of the complex, adjacent to the plaza. Hours are 11 to 5:30 Tuesdays through Fridays, 11 to 5 Saturdays.

7. Bayside Village and 8. Delancey Street. These two brand-new apartment developments offer a stimulating contrast in architectural styles. Bayside Village, by Fisher-Friedman Associates Architects, resembles an architectural model: the sharply sliced, pastel-colored units form stairstepping shapes.

At the heart of the complex is a diagonal, tree-lined walkway. At its Embarcadero end are a small market that's handy for picnic supplies and Embarko, a restaurant with outdoor seating. South Beach Marina Apartments, a similar development by the same architects, is across Brannan Street.

Delancey Street was built by and provides housing for the well-known drug rehabilitation organization of the same name. The architects, Backen, Arrigoni & Ross, took visual cues from nearby Mediterranean-style piers; tile roofs and stucco-like walls painted in ochres and rusts recall Spanish and Italian architecture.

9. South Beach Marina Pier. This new fishing pier behind the Sailing Ship Restaurant provides dramatic skyline views over the South Beach Marina.

Getting there

BART or bus will get you to The Embarcadero, but for full historic effect, arrive by ferry (Golden Gate, Red & White, or Blue & Gold). By car from westbound Interstate 80, exit the Bay Bridge at Main Street/Embarcadero; go right on Mission, then right again on Spear Street to Rincon Center Garage (on left). From eastbound I-80, take the Fourth Street exit onto Bryant Street, then go left on Main, right on Mission, and right on Spear to the garage. There are also metered spaces along The Embarcadero. At press time, freeway demolition was continuing in front of the Ferry Building, and though traffic was still allowed, the area remained congested from Market Street north.
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Date:Aug 1, 1991
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