Five years later, the Ferry Building looks better than ever.
It’s hard to remember the decades when this 1898 landmark with its campanile-like clock tower was an artifact of a bygone age. In April 2003, the first shops opened behind the sturdy sandstone facade, and history started anew.
Now it’s a reborn symbol of San Francisco – not the blue-collar city on a bridge-free bay, but an international metropolis where food is a religion for residents and visitors with money to spend.
And while it’s easy to scoff at the frills – no longer need I search in vain for a $32 bottle of truffle-infused olive oil – the architectural and urban design basics still shine. This is as good as a $100 million development project gets: Nothing else here in the past decade better shows how to breathe life into the city without diluting its essence.
So the next time you find yourself at the foot of Market Street, ignore the artisan chocolate and Slanted Door’s cellophane noodles. Instead, check out the surroundings; they’re a lesson in what urban renewal should be.
Preserve what’s essential: Believe it or not, one proposal to “revive” the Ferry Building in the 1950s included a concept in which the tower would remain, but the 275-foot-long wings on either side of the classical entrance would be demolished to make way for a grand waterfront plaza. This would have destroyed the architectural balance and made the tower into a glorified relic – like the Doggie Diner heads that old-time San Franciscans fought so hard to save a few years back.
Add what’s needed: A great part of the Ferry Building experience is the 30-foot-wide walkway between the structure and the water. It’s a strip where people meet, where tourists linger, where city and nature mingle. Guess what: It didn’t exist when commuter ferries pulled into gangways extending from the building or when this was a shabby office building for the Port of San Francisco, isolated from the rest of the city by the Embarcadero Freeway.
Don’t be afraid to mix old and new: That walkway isn’t the only 21st century addition to our 19th century landmark. The ground-floor arcade fills in storage areas that were off-limits to the public; the developers then sliced two long incisions in the second floor to create wide-open views of the historic steel trusses and skylights above.
On the water side of the building, the second-floor addition that extends 10 feet toward the water is new space clad in metal with clean, modern lines.
“That’s the dilemma in preservation: At a certain point you have to be flexible” in adapting to new uses and economies, according to Jay Turnbull, whose firm, Page & Turnbull, was the preservation architect on the project, with SMWM as the lead architectural firm and BCV Architects doing retail design. “Some rules were broken, but the building is still magnificent.”
Don’t go overboard: Turnbull also worked on a 1984 scheme for the building that involved the firm of noted architect I.M. Pei. Hoo-boy. That “restoration” would have ripped open the nave to make the roof all glass, layered on deep additions along the water and gussied up the ground level with curvy glass storefronts that would have been like any upscale galleria in Anywhere U.S.A.
Thank goodness that vision never became reality. What we have instead strikes the right balance between restoration and reinvention. The interior changes take their cues from the real thing; the exterior addition is a low-key accent that provides shelter when there’s rain.
Keep it simple: The street-level marketplace has a floor of plain concrete; spill coffee or step on a grape and you’re adding to the character, not messing up the decor. The same goes for the communal tables in the central area; they’re tough wood.
Meanwhile, that second-floor addition rests on a procession of slender iron columns that once supported the enclosed walkways leading into the ferries – recycling at its best.
Have something for everyone: Are aspects of the Ferry Building too precious? You bet your $132 “connoisseur” sample plate at Tsar Nicoulai Caviar Cafe. And yes, MarketBar and Slanted Door restaurants are pricey.
But this isn’t just an elongated version of the new bayside restaurants to the south, Epic Roasthouse and Waterbar, with their wallet-daunting menus? You can buy a $4.99 milkshake at Taylor’s Refresher, or a $6 beef sandwich at Golden Gate Meat, or a fresh organic orange for less than a dollar. There’s a serious bookstore and an old-fashioned Italian deli.
Be part of the real city: This isn’t architecture per se, but it can’t be overlooked: You need to offer people more than novelty or buzz. Here, 1.7 million commuters annually pass through the six ferry berths behind the landmark. Farmers’ markets are another attraction – including one on Tuesdays aimed at nearby residents and workers, rather than tourists munching on free samples.
Contrasts can be good: In the purist world of urban design, everything is pretty much the same as everything else. Don’t go taller, don’t turn heads and don’t mix styles or architectural moods.
Views are sacred. Let nothing impinge on open space.
All these guidelines have merit, but they aren’t sacred edicts. Consider: The Ferry Building forms a wall along the water that is 660 feet long and 65 feet tall (not including the clock tower, of course). So much for views.
Look what we get in exchange, though – a unique and irreplaceable hinge between two enthralling realms. Bay Area urbanity engages with Bay Area geography in a way you won’t find, say, in the wide swaths of parkland planned elsewhere along the water.
I’m not arguing for a wall of buildings on the water, or a platoon of towers. But we shouldn’t shy away from anything different because it’s different. We should be open-minded enough to see if it might make things better.
If that’s the case, then make it the best that you can.
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