City Hall Avenue, Around 1913

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Almost no one is still with us who actually saw the street named City Hall Avenue.  It ran parallel to Market Street, half a block north, and stretched just two blocks between Leavenworth and Larkin Streets. The massive but poorly built City Hall and neighboring Hall of Records filled the north side of the street.

Because of the municipal buildings, it was an important street, at least until April 18, 1906, when the giant earthquake shook the shoddily built City Hall to the ground. As an important street, it rated a streetcar line, the Tenth and Montgomery line of United Railroads, a meandering route that started at Tenth and Bryant, crossed Market, zigzagged on Polk and Grove to run along City Hall Avenue, then turned north on Leavenworth to Post, Post to Montgomery (where those two streets intersect Market Street), and then north via Montgomery and Washington to Kearny Street.

In the photo above, looking west from Leavenworth Street and dated around 1913, City Hall Avenue looks like a ghost town. The old City Hall is gone, with plans being made to build the grand new one we love today two blocks away. The Hall of Records, not too badly damaged in the quake, has been fixed up and is back in use, but it too is headed for demolition as a new vision for a grand Civic Center takes shapes. The only other buildings in the shot were thrown up after the earthquake and look temporary, which they turned out to be. The overhead wires and tracks turn from Leavenworth Street (to the right in the photo) onto City Hall Avenue.

14938351_10209745024253921_2384041602252333076_nThe map to the left shows the street grid of the time, with City Hall Avenue just to the right of Market Street, with a plaza connecting the two where Hyde Street is today.

So why put a photo without streetcars on a streetcar site? Because streetcars were pretty rare on this line by this time.

With the abrupt shift from cable cars to streetcars on Market Street after the quake, and establishment of other streetcar lines, the meandering Tenth and Montgomery line became an anachronism, just a few years after its opening in 1900. It only drew decent ridership during rush hours, with so few riders the rest of the time that United Railroads kept the small single-truck “dinkys” (identical to preserved Car 578) on the line, while other lines got bigger streetcars. Before long, service was cut to the minimum necessary to retain the city-awarded franchise to use the streets.

When City Hall Avenue itself was ripped up within a few years of this photo, United Railways rerouted this line along existing tracks on Larkin and McAllister Streets, and it held on until 1931. Very few photographs have come to light of the early days of streetcars on this line but at least we have the tracks, and a vanished street, to look at.

Thanks to John A. Harris for posting the photo on the Facebook group San Francisco Remembered, and to Kevin Walsh for posting the map there with his comment. Thanks too to Emiliano Echeverria, who corrected a couple of facts in the post, which is now updated.

  • Paul Tominac

    This is a lovely post, as usual, but factually challenged. City Hall did not, as is so often, and cheerfully, repeated, collapse.

    City Hall—the old one, beginning with the cable cars in the 1870s, was built differently than planned. All of its intended ornament was scrapped. The dome, a rather circumspect French affair—the building is French Renaissance after all—was replaced by a more robust version in the manner of the US Capitol—or even, shall we suggest, Sacramento…

    In 1906, and records back me up, witnesses inside, during the calamity describe a building horribly set upon, but not collapsing—yet party to a terrific separation—all the exterior ornament was falling off, to a thunderous note.

    Indeed.

    As built, the original opulent design had been cut back, and a more severe brick building was built, and then ornamented after the fact, and it is this ornamentation that fell off. Also, the newer, taller, and larger dome, and drum, exceeding its foundational support, shed its exterior cladding, leaving the phallic symbol rather, well, naked.

    As to the actual structure, an interlocking series of vaults and wings; yes, the easternmost corner—along McAllister towards Market—and the southernmost corner—beyond the dome and also close to Market, but farthest from the interlocking structures of the form, did indeed fall down, around the edges, to varying degrees.

    But…

    City Hall did not collapse. And, in fact, for years, until its demolition, the naked iron beam framing leading up to its dome was even illuminated at night, a spectacular ruin for all to see, but not a total ruin as is so often believed.