San Francisco’s Beaux Arts City Hall was not built to be just another city hall. Having crumbled during the [‘]06 quake, residents wanted to show the world that San Francisco was still an American powerhouse, so this current City Hall was designed (1915) to be as handsome, proud, and imposing as a government capital building. In fact, most visitors are shocked to learn that its mighty rotunda is larger than the one atop Congress in Washington, DC. (Only four domes are bigger: the Vatican, Florence’s Duomo, St. Paul’s in London, and Les Invalides in Paris). Should another horrible earthquake strike, a 1999 seismic retrofit saw to it that the structure can swing up to 27 inches in any direction; if you look closely at the stairs entering the building, you’ll notice they don’t actually touch the sidewalk because the entire building is on high-tech springs that had to be slipped, two by two, beneath a structure that already existed and was conducting daily business.
City Hall’s most imposing attraction is indeed its fabulously ornate rotunda, a blend of marble (on the lower reaches) and painted plaster (high up), swept theatrically by a grand staircase where countless couples pose daily for their “just married” shots right after tying the knot (Fri is the busiest day for that). You’ve probably seen this staircase before. It featured in one of the final shots of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981) as a stand-in for the U.S. Capitol. It was here, in 2004, that thousands of gay couples queued to sign up for their weddings; the first couple in line was an octogenarian lesbian couple that had been together for 51 years. Also, in 1954, Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe were married here and posed for photos on these steps. Not all the famous happenings at City Hall have been so hopeful. In 1978, the famous assassination of Mayor George Moscone and city Supervisor Harvey Milk occurred in two places on the second floor; the resulting trial, in which their killer got a light sentence because, as his lawyers argued, he was high on junk food (the so-called Twinkie Defense) became a lynchpin of outrage for the gay rights movement. In the rotunda, look up: Sculptures of Adam and Eve can be seen holding up the official seal of the city.
Across the hall at the top of the grand staircase, the sumptuous Chamber of the Board of Supervisors is worth a peek if it’s open; its walls of Manchurian oak, plaster ceiling created to mimic wood, and doors hand-carved by French and Italian craftsmen make this one of the most opulent rooms in the city. Sunshine laws dictate that it must be open to the public unless in a special session, so pop in for a gander.
Also check out the Light Court off the main rotunda on the ground floor, where you’ll find the head of a statue of the Goddess of Progress; she was atop the prior City Hall, in fuller figure, but this is all that survives. The light bulb sockets in her hair were later additions. The well-done 45-minute tours (Mon–Fri at 10am, noon, and 2pm) are free. Reservations are not needed for groups less than eight people.
- Erika Lennert