Many highlights of my misspent youth featured rooftops: first my own, where I hid out under the eaves to read, then those of friends and unsuspecting neighbors. In high school, we played elaborate and ill-advised rooftop games of tag, and once, memorably on vacation in Mexico, we sprinted across vacation bungalows, leaping skylights and bounding the three foot gap between buildings on the way to the beach. In the city, I have fled to the rooftops of every place I've lived. The quiet altitude, traffic and voices far below, makes for the perfect urban escape, even if it was mostly gravel covered apartment roofs.
I was always jealous of the little private patio gardens I spied on my illicit forays and I longed for Manhattan's elaborate rooftop gardens or London's rooftop gazebos, and have wondered where they existed in our fair city. As it turns out, we have quite a few public rooftop options, accessible up unmarked elevators and past curious security guards.
Amongst the skyscrapers
Lunchtime, downtown. A clingy morning fog added gloom to the streets of the Financial District. In the shade between towering buildings on both sides, damp little plazas and gardens were full of people, bundled against the chill, sipping coffee and eating sandwiches. Time to go up. Post Street offers access to two easy rooftop gardens. Just past the restaurants on the third floor of the Crocker Galleria, tile stairs lead up to large patio on the roof of the Wells Fargo building. The spot is allegedly popular with the local lunch crowd, but on my visit it was nearly empty just a bit after 1 pm. On the other side of the shopping center, closer to Sutter Street, another set of stairs leads up to smaller patio. What it lacks in view, it makes up for with a dash of style. Black lacquer benches are placed around a tiled patio partially covered by wooden shade terraces. Even though it is more closed in, I liked the feel of it. I am pretty sure, though, that if I were that guy I to picking my nose at my desk directly across the street from the entrance, I might invest in some blinds.
Two other gardens downtown are actually tucked up into the skyscrapers themselves. They are open to the public as part of the city's efforts starting in 1985 to include "privately owned public open spaces" (POPOS) within the design of all new buildings downtown. Some have opted for ground level plazas and gardens, or added interior atriums. Others opened roof gardens. This year the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research group (SPUR) published a guide to these unpublicized but publicly accessible spaces.
Although they are open to the public, in a few cases it still means marching into Financial District buildings and asking for directions from the security desk. In both cases I was quickly pointed to the elevator bank with only the slightest arch of an eyebrow. Both 150 California and 343 Sansome have small rooftop patios, on the fifth floor of the former and the 15th floor of the latter.
The Sansome building's patio was high enough to make an approach to the edge tinged with the slightest bit of vertigo, and was actually populated by about a dozen fellow view-seekers. A relatively plain tiled patio with planter boxes, it benefits from the varied heights of the surrounding buildings, and a sliver of a view of the Bay between skyscrapers.
On two sides it is possible to spy on other, presumably private, roof gardens, including one tree-filled atrium across the way that looks positively delightful. The view also takes in other promising rooftop garden candidates, and left me thinking how lovely it would be to look out across garden after garden in the sky.
In the 1950s, the famous Emporium building on Market Street hosted annual rooftop Christmas carnivals with games, rides, and a miniature train for the kids on a patio overlooking the glass dome. Closed and off limits for years, with the reopening of the building as the Westfield Mall, the roof is once again open to the public — although, sadly, sans mini-trains and carnival games.
This one was little trickier to find. I wandered around the mall for a while, exploring elevators before I figured out the deal. I was too chicken to enter the blacked out office doors, so I wandered into the Bloomingdale's entrance and lucked out when I found the elevator bank marked "Sky Terrace."
Once I found the secret-squirrel route to the 9th floor, I emerged onto a tidy patio overlooking the old glass dome, which I had entirely to myself. Lots of little tables and potted plants were set out for lounging. The view is mostly of nearby industrial rooftops, but there are some nice angles, and the dome itself is pretty neat.
Spotting Waldo, South of Market
I had been hoping to find a nice little rooftop cafe or something, but thus far my rooftops had been pretty empty, so I headed to the new(ish) sculpture garden on the top story of the SFMOMA building. You need a museum ticket to enter, but it's easy to find at the end of the top story gallery, and the coffee at the "rooftop coffee bar" was hot and tasty. I was a little disappointed to find that the high walls obstruct any view from the patio itself, but the new glassed in spaces that adjoin the garden are bright and sunny, and I particularly liked the walkway into the coffee bar that looks over cluttered and crowded south of Market rooftops. As I stood staring at the various contraptions and tubes on top of the roof opposite, I suddenly noticed a cutout of Waldo, of "Where's Waldo" fame, in his red striped sweater— perhaps making that rooftop a sculpture gallery as well.
A Roof with a View
I've long been a sucker for the over-sized opulence of the Fairmont Hotel and the instant rain showers and Gloria Estefan soundtrack of the Tonga Room, so I was surprised and excited to find out that they have a rooftop garden that I had never seen. Down a long corridor from the lobby, I found access to what was the original Julia Morgan-designed building's roof overlooking Powell and California streets.
The sweet little rooftop garden — free and open 24 hours — lies about seven stories up. It’s decorated with a lawn, fountain, and palm trees, framed by the newer tower that rises at its back, and featured a nice skyline view peeping over and between neighboring buildings (I am told that the view from the 8th floor penthouse patio is more remarkable).
I am charmed by the history, the worn edges and the worn-out looking tourists letting their kids run around the garden above the sounds of crowds on the street and the cable cars rattling up California. I ended the day there, enjoying the grass and taking in the view as the light faded, looking forward to flaming cocktails and tropical rainstorms below.
DO IT YOURSELF
A good place to start looking for rooftops is with SPUR's handy printable map of public spaces, available online or at their offices at 654 Mission. Both the 150 California and 343 Sansome gardens are open and free daily during business hours, reached easily by lobby elevators, although you may want to drop by the front desk first if you want to avoid curious stares. To get to the Sky Terrace atop the Westfield Mall, enter though the Bloomingdale's doors on Market, take the elevators immediately to the 4th floor, then follow the signs for elevators to the 9th floor. The sculpture garden in the SFMOMA requires an admission ticket, but is easy to find and rewarding to boot.
Photos courtesy of