Monday, February 8, 2010

The Best Of Times

If you could choose to live in the San Francisco of any decade, which would you choose? Would you leave behind everything intrinsic to the present, things we probably take for granted, in favor of an earlier time? What aspects of the past would be powerful enough to make you want to go back?

Is it pointless to think about this? I'm going to stake an opinion and say that it isn't pointless at all. I think we owe it to the future to understand how and why the amazing things that happened in history were able to happen. If we look further than the obvious things, civil rights, or man on the moon, if we look at the beauty of an old iron gate, or an album cover, what can we take away?

If you really look at it, the divide between what was unquestionably possible in the past and what is considered possible now is pretty astounding. We have trite phrases like "those were the good old days", and "they don't make 'em like that anymore." What's so different now? Is it technical know-how that's been lost, or something else? What did people in the past have that we lack?

Fox Theater Interior, courtesy of the San Francisco Public Library

This is the inside of the Fox Theater, a movie palace that opened on Market Street near 10th Street in 1929. A collection of photos show how unbelievably ornate this place was. By 1963, it was dust, demolished and replaced by the current Archstone Fox Plaza apartment high rise.

The reasons why the Fox Theater was built had a lot to do with Hollywood politics, and the design was just one of many by prolific architect Thomas W. Lamb. But the almost unfathomable level of craftsmanship, pride, and attention to detail needed to produce something like this were part of that era's ethos.

We're sensitive enough now that we usually support protection and restoration of beloved landmarks that have managed to survive this far, but the will to produce something like the Fox Theater is not with us. Why was it so important to them to make a movie theater look like this? Why didn't they just quickly build a functional theater, pocket the money saved, and move on?

The 1896 Sutro Cliff House

When Adolph Sutro had the 1896 "Gingerbread Palace" Cliff House built, it could have been considered the public amenity gift of a lifetime. But he was just getting started. The indoor swimming pool complex which became the Sutro Baths were in development that same year, and he had opened the grounds of his own home as a place for the public to come and see the sights. This was property that he personally owned. Why didn't he put up fences and enjoy the scenic vistas in peace?

Playland-at-the-Beach, courtesy of the San Francisco Public Library

George Whitney made enough money running concessions on Ocean Beach to buy up the three blocks of property they operated on, plus the Cliff House and Sutro Baths. Why didn't he retire with his fortune? Why did he keep running Playland-at-the-Beach right up until his death? Those who remember it look back and say it was "never the same" after his death - to that extent he infused the place with his spirit. Why was it so important to him?

Woodward's Gardens, courtesy of the San Francisco Public Library

Robert B. Woodward was already running a successful hotel when he began to develop a combination zoo, aquarium, garden, greenhouse, museum, art gallery, and circus on his Mission area property. He ended up relocating his family to Napa, and installing every conceivable kind of amusement in what became known as Woodward's Gardens. Like Playland-at-the-Beach, the place died not long after its proprietor.

I'll stop before I get to the Egyptian pyramids and make the point. Those who became the forces behind San Francisco's landmarks and legends may have been kind souls, or they may have been strutting peacocks at heart. Whether it was altruism or vanity, it's clear that they cared about the opinions and experiences of other people. Adolph Sutro wanted people to see the Pacific Ocean from the romantic vantage point he imagined. George Whitney wanted that ice cream to taste good.

Old home on South Van Ness Avenue

We marvel at the exquisite charm infusing San Francisco's treasured Victorian houses. The builders wanted us to marvel at them. They thought about the lives of the people who would live in them, and the people who would pass them by on the street. They had something to say to everyone.

New homes under construction on Valencia and 18th Street

What are we saying?