The Fantastic San Franciscos That Never Got Built

Feb 06 at 3pm

Imagine you're on Twin Peaks, looking out onto the San Francisco skyline. In front of you is a sweeping view of our great metropolis, the Bay around it, and on the slopes of the hill before you ... a giant illuminated water cascade flowing down to the Castro. Yes, Twin Peaks could have been the site of a sprawling water cascade, designed in part by Bay Area architect Bernard Maybeck in 1933. And Maybeck wasn't the only one hoping to put a small bit of utopia on this scenic spot. Earlier in 1926, architect Henry Seawell painted his colorful vision of Twin Peaks over his Lowell High School student's assignment. Like Maybeck, he had visions of a more refined San Francisco.

Maybeck, Gosling, and Merchant’s Twin Peaks Monument, 1933 (top). Photo from the SFPL. Henry Seawell’s Twin Peaks vision, 1933 (above). Painting from the SFPL. 

Seawell and Maybeck both longed for a different kind of San Francisco, one inspired by the grand vision of architect and city planner Daniel Burnham. Over a century ago, Burnham sought to turn San Francisco into the "Paris of the Pacific," and his plans gained followers over the years. I heard about Burnham in the recent Architecture and City Festival’s Unbuilt San Francisco, and wanted to learn more about the first in a line of twentieth-century architects who tried to remake our quickly-growing metropolis. Who was this guy and why did he try to turn this city into Paris? And why didn't it happen? Well, it turns out an event no one could have expected killed his plans.

Burnham, born in New York in 1846, had already gained both fame and notoriety for his landscape designs within Washington DC, Cleveland, and Chicago when the Association for the Improvement and Adornment of San Francisco invited him to our city in 1904. This quasi-political association, formed that same year, had the happy goal of making San Francisco “a more agreeable place in which to live" and Burnham was going to help them do this. 

Burnham gladly accepted the challenge of applying his utopian-like style to what was then a San Francisco trying to get rid of its seedy Barbary Coast reputation. He started to lay out his plans from his secluded bungalow on the top of Twin Peaks, which included everything from functional districts like Civic Center connected by wide tree-lined boulevards to a grandiose Athenaeum at Twin Peaks complete with a 300-ft. statue. Here is a selection of some of his plans:

Burnham’s Athenaeum on top of Twin Peaks, 1905. 

Plan for a massive amphitheater in current-day Cole Valley, 1905. 

However, Burnham did leave out some important things that you probably need to think about when planning a city. For example, his vision had little to do with housing. Also, even though the city embraced Burnham’s ideas, people initially dismissed the staggering cost of it all: a whopping $50 million in 1904, around $1.2 billion today.

But it was nature that ultimately threw a wrench into his development plans. Two years after Burnham started his project, the 1906 earthquake hit San Francisco. All of his original drawings were destroyed in the old City Hall, and subsequently were never considered again.

What do you think the city's identity would be like today if Burnham had been allowed to carry out his plans? If anything, his attempt reminds us what it is like to propose visionary changes to this small city; despite all the impracticalities of the Burnham Plan, the city at the time embraced it, and people were excited at the prospect of an entirely new urban center. Today, San Franciscans are a lot more timid when it comes to change. But the Association’s original goal of making San Francisco a more agreeable place in which to live will always be an important issue, with or without the utopian visions.

Since Burnham, many architects have sought to transform San Francisco's landscape with their own intriguing designs. Here is a selection of other drawings of San Francisco projects left on the cutting room floor, from the San Francisco Public Library's contribution to Unbuilt SF:

Drawing of proposed elevated trains in Market Street, 1937. 

Sketch of proposed SOMA parking building spanning five blocks, 1947. 

 New Sutro Baths, Indoor Beach exterior, 1934.

If you want to find out more about Burnham's grand 1905 plan, here are some more great articles from SPUR and Western Neighborhoods Project. Also, you can flip through his original plan here

Finally, visit Historypin's Year of the Bay project to see all of these designs and more mapped out in their intended locations. 

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