In a previous post, I wrote about the graveyard of ships that lies outside the straits known as the Golden Gate, the only entrance to San Francisco Bay. Here is a photo of it, taken at relatively low tide (I did not consult tide tables. I just happened to be there.) You can see some of the off-shore rocks that become submerged at high tide.
According to the National Park Service, there have been "countless" shipwrecks in these straits since the Gold Rush of 1849 first brought ships to San Francisco Bay. Many natural features make this entrance perilous, including a channel hundreds of feet deep beneath the bridge. But one feature causes more wrecks than any other: fog.
Among the victims of fog was the the Ohioan, which ran aground in 1936 about where this picture was taken. It's cargo was salvaged for months, and it's skeleton lay exposed for two years. Parts of it can still be seen at low tide.
You can read about other infamous wrecks at the Park Service page linked above.
When the new building on the left was proposed, members of the church on the right fought against approval of its design because it would block sunlight from some of the clerestory windows that let light into its sanctuary.
As you can see, it does. Since the new building is on the south side of the church, the effect is greatest in the winter. You can also see the new building was modified to pull its top story back to let more light in through the windows of the cupola.
Some church members went so far as to say the sunlight was an essential element of their worship and that therefore blocking it compromised their freedom to worship as they pleased. The builders said if that were true the church's architect was wrong to put those windows so close to the property line.
Shade is often an issue for zoning and approval as the city becomes more crowded. It seems a shame for owners of an older building to be told they are losing daylight. But access to sunlight doesn't mean you have partial ownership of the land next door.
Approval of the new building may have gotten a boost from the character of the neighborhood. Across the street are tall industrial buildings housing the Anchor Steam Brewing Company,
The tall buildings in the upper-right corner of the picture are on Russian Hill, more than a mile east of where I was standing in Cow Hollow. Yet they seem to rise up and loom over the houses close to me.
Because it's built on hills, San Francisco is full of view like this. About four years ago, standing in about the same spot, I looked north and saw an ocean liner on the Bay seeming to loom over the houses down the hill from me.
Trying to understand what makes view like this so uncanny, I found an article on the psychology of perception. It seems we have several ways of understanding the sizes of objects.
For instance, if I'm standing close to a house, it fills most of my visual field, so it looks big. If I stand far from it, it fill less of my visual field so it looks smaller, but I know the house is the same size as it was, so I correct for that mentally.
But when I know a distant object (tall building) is bigger than closer objects (houses), and closer objects are going down hill, and distant objects are going uphill, I have a lot more mental correcting to do. So, I guess, that makes the view more fun to look at.
Fortunately we do all this without having to think about it.
This picture is not crooked. The house is standing up straight. The street is steep. That's why the cars look funny. This is the northern part of Fillmore Street, descending into Cow Hollow on the way to the Marina District.
In a city built mostly on hills, parking gets interesting. In general, turn you wheels toward the curb when you parallel park. That means, turn them as if making a left turn if your car is pointed uphill; turn them as if making a right turn when your car is pointed downhill.
If you don't, the parking authority will write you a ticket. Putting the transmission in park and setting the emergency brake won't always keep a car from rolling down hill. If your wheels are turned to the curb, apparently the car will stop before it can get rolling. I've never tried it.
But on really steep streets like Fillmore, parallel parking with wheels turned to the curb won't do the job, so we park perpendicular to the curb. On the signs it actually says, "90-degree parking only."
This way you can be sure the car won't roll down the hill on its wheels, but if you open the passenger-side door suddenly, it feels as if the car is going to roll over on top of you.
I've written several times about The Presidio, a former army base turned into a National Park. I have featured the view of San Francisco Bay from the Main Post and The Walt Disney Family Museum.
I've been volunteering there to introduce people to the four sculptures in the park by Andy Goldsworthy. I've featured two of them here, Tree Fall and Earth Wall.
But I haven't written about the neighborhood along the southern border of the park, Presidio Heights. These hillside homes are highly desirable because they look over the treetops of the forest planted by the U. S. Army and have a view of San Francisco Bay.
But it's not all sweetness and light. You can't walk more than a block or two among the mansions without coming upon a scene like this. Indeed sometimes you'll find two houses in the same block with a tool shed and a dumpster parked in front.
You should not conclude from this that the neighborhood became run down and has to be rehabilitated. I doubt Presidio Heights has ever been anything but splendid.
No, the orgy of remodeling is driven by the boom times in the city's economy. People with big houses have big bucks to spend swapping out the oak flooring for cherry, adding a roof garden, and doubling the size of the kitchen.
No one seems to mind the cluttered streetscape. I wonder how they would react if someone parked an RV at the curb.
I visited San Francisco's Old Mint over the weekend for the annual SF History Days, a chance for every organization in town to pass out brochures about how they preserve the city's history.
Walking by, it's easy to think this building is just another old court house, but it's architecture and history are extraordinary. To begin with, it's not the oldest mint in town. The first one, built in 1854 for turning gold from the Gold Rush into coins, occupied a modest brick building which still stands on Commercial street.
This grand building replaced it in 1874, when the amount of money in the city was much greater. At a time when gold was used in everyday transactions, this was the U. S. Government's factory for stamping out coins. It once held one third of the Treasury's gold reserves.
Those front steps are steep and hard to climb, the harder for robbers to run in and out. The foundation is built of granite and concrete to prevent tunneling into the vaults. It has its own water supply, accessible in a central courtyard.
But my favorite feature is the gallery that graces the old counting room.
It looks like a decorative feature, but it had a practical purpose. Back when people brought gold dust, bullion or coins to the mint, this room was set up for weighing and counting the precious metal as it changed hands. Men with rifles were stationed on the gallery high above to discourage any attempts to rob the mint.
In 2003, the federal government sold the building to the City of San Francisco for one dollar. There's been talk of converting it to a museum of the city's history, but at the moment it opens only once a year for San Franciscans to gather and trade information on that subject. It seems a shame to have it sitting empty.
My recent post, A Visual History of San Francisco, was all about the buildings. A recent visit to Fort Point reminded me that the city's history is more a product of its natural setting than its architecture. Seen from Fort Point, the city appears miniature compared to the bay that surrounds it, even though this photo shows only a small part of the bay.
Fort Point stands at the southern side of the entrance to San Francisco Bay. Spanish explorers called this entrance "la buca," the mouth.
In 1846, an early settler, John C. Fremont, decided to call it the Golden Gate because it reminded him of the Golden Horn at the harbor of Byzantium. That name proved prophetic when gold was discovered two years later, touching off the Gold Rush.
The U. S. Army built Fort Point on this spot for the same reason the Spanish built a presidio here in 1776. Aim a few cannons at la buca, and you control the harbor and defend the city.
That fort, completed in 1861, still stands. It is now beneath the Golden Gate Bridge, completed in 1937.
The sign for AMC Theatres will soon be gone from this grand old building on Van Ness Avenue. A few years ago AMC took over the Sundance Cinema six blocks away and we had to wonder how long they would compete with themselves.
Years before that, AMC turned this four-story building into an eighteen-screen mutiplex. We've ridden up and down the escalators many times and watched many movies here. And we may see more. Word has it another company will re-open the theaters under its name.
One sign will not be leaving the building. In the stone over that fancy entrance is carved the word "Cadillac." It may seem strange now, but this was originally an auto dealership.
Back when cars were new, Van Ness Avenue was home to many dealerships. Quite a few still operate there. As I took this photo, I stood in front of a Land Rover/Jaguar dealer in an art deco building. No sign of its original brand.
Around the corner from "Cadillac" is a building of similar vintage, though not as large. Over its door is carved the word "Packard."
I walked by this place on my way to Blackbird Guitars in the Mission district. I'd never heard of Whiz Burgers even though they've been around "Since 1955," as the sign says (too small to read in this photo). I assume the name was meant to suggest how fast they could deliver food.
Growing up in Ohio, I saw plenty of hamburger stands of all brands built in this style: a shed roof over one big room with a glass front. Mostly I saw them near strip malls with big parking lots in front.
I never expected to see one shoe-horned into a corner lot in a densely packed urban neighborhood. Other street corners in the area have restaurants built into corner retail spaces beneath apartments.
I guess back in 1955, the city let developers level a corner lot to build their standard model hamburger stand. Somehow, I don't think they would today.
Whiz Burgers is still whizzing along. As you can see, there was a customer at the window when I took the picture, and later folks were sitting out at the picnic tables.
My friend, Liz, and I visited Blackbird Guitars in the Mission District. This factory, about the size of a typical auto body shop, builds acoustic guitars and ukuleles using sheets of linen fiber strengthened with resin.
Blackbird says their product is sustainable because it doesn’t require harvesting hardwoods like mahogany and rosewood, which come from rainforests. True enough: flax, the source of linen fibers, is a part of traditional agricultural.
We gave their guitars and ukes a good workout, and they are very fine instruments. For all the romance about traditional wood construction, there is no reason good-sounding instruments cannot be made from other materials.
Playing guitar remains an important part of my writing life. After pounding out as many pages as I can, I play a few tunes. When I sit down to write again, it seems as if my brain has organized the words that come next.
It’s not unusual for authors to write in sprints, alternating with some activity to refresh the mind. Some take walks. I know one writer who plays pool. Patricia Highsmith writes about how important naps are for a writer. “I go to sleep with the problem and wake up with the answer.”
I sometimes take naps or go for walks, but focusing my brain and my fingers on rhythm, melody, and harmony seems to have an equally clarifying effect.
,Market Street in San Francisco starts at the Ferry Building and runs southwest in a straight line all the way to Castro Street. Streets on the north side of Market run north-south and east- west. This creates lots of pointy street corners.
Architects usually design pointy buildings, "flatiron buildings," for these corners. This new one is at 15th and Market. Apart from its sleek, contemporary styling, there's nothing unusual about it except . . .
. . . the architects have given the corner rooms big windows that go all the way to the point. This gives the apartment-dweller a living room (presumably) with wrap-around daylight and nowhere to hide. They must have curtains that can travel from the solid walls out to the point to give privacy after dark. But for daytime, these flats are see-through.
This view of San Francisco reveals a lot about its history. The large domed building in the upper left corner is the Palace of Fine Arts, a pavilion left over from a world's fair the city hosted in 1915. That event was crucial to the city's recovery from the earthquake and fire of 1906 that nearly wiped it off the map.
The cluster of tall buildings to the right of the Palace is the Financial District, As soon as San Francisco become a city due to the Gold Rush of 1849, it became a banking capitol, the "Wall Street of the West." As banking grew through the 20th century, the buildings grew taller. You can see the pointy building known as the Transamerica Pyramid.
The cluster of tall buildings further right went up mostly in the last five years. They represent the explosion of the tech industry in the last twenty years. The tallest of them, and the tallest in the city, is the Salesforce Tower.
Across the middle of the picture, the low buildings with red roofs are part of the Presidio, which was a U. S. Army base from the time of the Civil War until 1994. Before that it was base for the army of Mexico when California was its territory. And before that it was the Spanish El Presidio de San Francisco, established coincidentally in 1776. Now it is a national park.
The railing seen across the bottom of the picture is part of one of the newest structures in the city. It's on a bridge spanning the highway below. A section of that highway has been covered with tunnels. Soon we will be able to walk over them from the Main Post of the Presidio down to the park along the Bay.
So I think it's fair to say, until the bridge was completed last year, no one had ever seen this view of the city.
San Francisco's Recreation and Parks Department takes care of big things like Golden Gate Park, Dolores Park, several golf courses, and a marina, as well as medium-sized things such as Alamo Square, Alta Plaza Park, and Lafayette Park.
Then there are the mini parks, nameless patches of green that turn up in residential neighborhoods inviting the passerby to pause and take a breath before moving on.
This one occupies about two building lots. On the left of the photo you see the wall of an adjacent house. to the right, just out of view, is the small Victorian house I wrote about recently. In fact, you can see a bit of this park in the photo of that house.
Though I have no credentials in landscape architecture, I will say these mini parks seem to be little masterpieces of design. In the photo you see a densely planted area. It has a path meandering through it. Behind me as I took the photo, the rest of the park is a a sparsely planted shade garden beneath mature trees.
I found no list of mini parks on the website for Recreation and Parks, but a search for "Mini Park" turned up a long list of articles about individual minis. The variety is amazing.
San Francisco is famous for its grand Victorian houses. For instance the "Painted Ladies" around Alamo Square are three and four stories tall, have become a tourist attraction, and are featured in an annual open-house walking tour.
But throughout the city there are pockets of lesser Victorians. On a walk yesterday, I chanced upon this little gem, just one-story tall and probably 25 feet wide. Nonetheless it has a fancy cornice to make it look taller, a hood over the door, a bay window, and lots of trim. The proud owners have given it a three-color paint job.
Local historians can date a house by its decorations. After the Gold Rush of 1849, the city was built up with plain square houses. In the decades that followed, as businesses flourished, new houses became more ornate.
Bay windows became popular after small factories were set up south of Market Street, where they could be fabricated. They were then carted to the building site and attached to the front of the house.
It's amazing to see so much ornament lavished on such a small house. It's even more amazing to see a one-story house surviving in a city where every square foot becomes more precious every day.
When we first walked down this section of Pine Street, I wondered why the builders of these houses put the front door so far above the street level. Why not just put it down one floor and call it a three-story house?
I met some folks who are local history buffs and asked about this. To begin with, those garages are not original. These houses were built in the late 1800s. Cars showed up about 40 years later, and garages were added.
Furthermore, these houses were built at the peak of a hill. At that time, the street was higher, much closer to those front doors. Later, the city re-graded the streets to flatten the peaks and make this neighborhood less hilly. For the homeowner that meant, "Build a longer stairway!"