san francisco’s ferry building -- 4/1/24

Today's selection -- from Portal by John King. The Ferry Building has become one of the iconic images of San Francisco:

“Visitors to the St. Louis World’s Fair in the summer of 1904 had no shortage of attractions to choose from. They could stand behind a glass wall and watch butter being churned at the model creamery within the Palace of Agriculture. They could visit the Pennsylvania State building to gaze at the original Liberty Bell, that storied survivor of the American Revolution, here being guarded by policemen who had accompanied it from Philadelphia. Less rarefied pleasures lined The Pike, a mile-and-a-half-long populist promenade including an abundance of eateries and—if you were willing to pay twenty-five cents, rather than the dime required for the ostrich farm or the Temple of Mirth—a personal audience with ‘Beautiful Jim Key,’ billed in the fair's official guidebook as ‘an educated horse.’ 

“More civic-minded visitors had another option, a stroll along the two-block Model City not far from the fair's main entrance. This corner of the fair aimed ‘to illustrate the highest ideals that have been realized along particular lines by the most advanced cities in the world,’ according to the guidebook, the tone set in part by ‘buildings erected by municipalities for the accommodation of municipal exhibits.’ Among the cities taking part was San Francisco, which had a prime spot directly north of the exposition gates—a site where, to display its attractions, the West Coast's largest city built a seventy-five-foot-high replica of the Ferry Building. 

“Not the most faithful replica, to be sure; the original's long linear base was reduced to a vaguely classical rectangle, sixty feet by forty feet. The clocktower lacked a clock. The deep arcades were absent. Inside, people interested in learning about the city by the bay could study a twenty-square-foot relief map of the bay region and a huge globe ‘illustrating the commercial potential and advantages of our city,’ reported the Examiner. There were paintings of local wonders and photographs of local manufacturing plants, plus panoramas showing the city's growth at ten-year intervals. Some rooms were outfitted like a tycoon's study, complete with overwrought wood paneling; others held booths celebrating regional writers, California's wine trade and-perhaps a nod to Midwestern farmers who happened to stop by?— a ‘graphic exhibit of San Francisco's hay and grain trade.’

The San Francisco Building and its Model City neighbors at the 1904 World's Fair. Missouri Historical Society, St. Louis, Photographs and Prints Department. 

“Odd though this cameo might be in a world's fair remembered mostly for Judy Garland's 1944 movie musical Meet Me in St. Louis, it shows how quickly the Ferry Building came to be recognized as a defining symbol of what then was the nation's ninth largest city. ‘The exposition management advised the selection of the Ferry building ... which the management very truthfully says is the best of its kind in the United States,’ the Chronicle reported when the selection was announced. And not a symbol in a nostalgic way, as cable cars are in the twenty-first century, but of progress. Innovation. ‘Seattle, Portland and Los Angeles are keen on the point of competing for Oriental trade and expansion for Pacific Coast manufactures and industries of all kinds, and San Francisco cannot afford to stay out of the race,’ the Chronicle wrote beforehand. The Examiner hailed the finished product for ‘illustrating and advertising the attractions of our community to the “benighted east.”’ 

“The role played by the Ferry Building in St. Louis was a three-dimensional, large-scale variation of its frequent appearance on postcards, book covers, and knick-knacks of all sorts. By virtue of location and design, this public depot announced the city to the world. It was a calling card, a cultural password, a one-of-a-kind landmark in a one-of-a-kind setting.”



John King


Portal: San Francisco's Ferry Building and the Reinvention of American Cities


W.W. Norton & Company


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