Again, the story begins with geography: San Francisco’s peninsular locale made it challenging to get into and out of by train; since “railway termini,” as one contemporaneous source put it, “are to the 19th century what monasteries and cathedrals were to the 13th,” pre-earthquake civic leaders decided to focus their monumental ambitions on a grand bayside facility. To realize it, they tapped A. Page Brown, a gentleman architect whom King describes as primarily interested in “navigating social circles and building his business,” but whose sterling credentials included a stint with the celebrated New York firm of McKim, Meade & White.
What Brown gave his adopted home was remarkable: a giant Beaux-Arts arcade, with three double-height triumphal entry arches and a whopper of a clock tower on top. The Ferry Building bore the changes of time with stoic grace: In 1936, the Bay Bridge was completed — followed closely by the Golden Gate — ending the city’s dependence on waterborne transit. In 1959, the Embarcadero Freeway effectively walled the Ferry Building off from its urban surrounds. And then, in 2003, our protagonist was reopened as a food hall and office complex, with a new public plaza and transit connections that have made it, in the author’s telling, “the crossroads of an increasingly global city.”
Though doubtless purchasable at the Ferry Building Marketplace’s ground-level bookstore, King’s history is not just for souvenir hunters. Serious and rigorous, the book furnishes a gimlet-eyed glimpse of San Francisco’s continuing struggles — and what lies beneath them. In the final section of “Portal,” the city’s post-Covid crises are aired at length, as is the ever-imminent danger of yet another “Longest Minute”-scale earthquake, which would find the foundations (physical and otherwise) as shaky as ever. But then the Ferry Building, like the city, has weathered calamity before: The 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake actually provided the pretext for demolishing the much-hated elevated waterfront freeway, opening up a “new landscape of possibilities,” King writes, and returning the landmark to the city.
It also, oddly, turned the building’s architect into a prophet. In 1894, 12 years before the Great Earthquake, A. Page Brown declared that a disaster was just what San Francisco needed to step up its great-city game. “Phoenix-like,” he wrote, “there would arise, perhaps, a city which would eclipse any American seaport.” He was, to a certain extent, right — and he could be again.
THE LONGEST MINUTE: The Great San Francisco Earthquake and Fire of 1906 | By Matthew J. Davenport | St. Martin’s Press | 433 pp. | $35
PORTAL: San Francisco’s Ferry Building and the Reinvention of American Cities | By John King | Norton | 308 pp. | $29.99