San Francisco is home to history richer than Bill Gates. Much of this history can be found in the architecture and stories behind the many famous buildings that create the San Francisco skyline. Sure, you can probably find a beautiful building on each block in San Francisco. What’s rare about this guide to my favorite spots in San Francisco is the emphasis upon the history that these buildings have brought to the city streets.
Throughout the Victorian era, the Gold Rush and the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, city commissioners, the United States government and a multitude of artists, architects and designers dedicated their time and energy to buildings that still stand in the city today. Despite devastating earthquakes in the 1900s, a few historic buildings withstood the disasters.
I’ve lived in San Francisco my entire life and while I have passed these buildings over a hundred times, I’ve never known their stories. Now, I’ve learned that while the appearance of these buildings is nothing short of breathtaking, the history these structures hold within their walls is even more fascinating.
1. The Conservatory of Flowers
Location: Golden Gate Park - 100 John F Kennedy Dr, San Francisco, California
History: This building is like nothing you have ever seen before. That’s because you probably haven’t seen anything like it: the Conservatory of Flowers is the oldest remaining wooden conservatory in the country.
Completed in 1879, this greenhouse is home to a botanical garden with a multitude of exotic plants. It is the oldest building in Golden Gate Park and is visited by tourists year-round.
It was designed by a manufacturing company called Lord & Burnham and is modeled after traditional Gothic style. When visiting this stunning, white greenhouse, you will see over 2,000 different species of plants and flowers. Today, you can even attend a yoga class on the field surrounding the building.
2. Fort Mason
Location: Marina District: Bay St & Laguna St, San Francisco, California
History: Fort Mason is a former United States Army post constructed in 1864 and named after Richard Barnes Mason, a former military governor of California. The fort functioned as a coastal defense unit for over one hundred years: first for the civil war and prominently throughout World War II.
You can just picture the rich history that occurred within the walls of Fort Mason. Two of the most famous wars that were fought on California soil were fought within this fort. Today, the fort still stands as a historic monument that is commonly visited by tourists and locals alike.
3. The Painted Ladies
Location: Across from Alamo Park - Steiner St &, Hayes St, San Francisco, California
History: Between 1892 and 1896, a row of Victorian Style homes were built across from Alamo Park. At the time, Victorian Style houses were no stranger to the streets of San Francisco, but what made this row of houses exponentially more popular was the vibrant colors they boast.
Architect and developer, Matthew Kavanaugh, followed a design style that was growing in popularity throughout the country called “painted ladies” by choosing bright, stand-out colors for the homes. Since then, they have appeared in many films and television series such as the popular 1980s television show, “Full House”.
4. The Old San Francisco Mint
Location: 88 5th St, San Francisco, California
History: The San Francisco Mint is a branch of the United States Mint which controls the production of all coins within the U.S. This San Francisco building was originally constructed in 1854 due to the population boom during the California Gold Rush.
Since then, the San Francisco Mint was moved to a different location. However, the “Old Mint” withstood the 1906 Earthquake and is now known as “The Granite Lady”. It is built with white marble and is modeled after traditional Greek Revival architecture.
5. Coit Tower
Location: 1 Telegraph Hill Blvd, San Francisco, California
History: This tall, white tower that graces the skyline of San Francisco is all thanks to a benefactor and famous San Francisco patroness, Lillie Hitchcock Coit.
The tower stands 210 feet tall and offers unreal views of the entire city from its 360-degree balcony. Located on Telegraph Hill, the tower is rumored to have a large population of coyote tenants!
6. Haas-Lilienthal House
Location: 2007 Franklin St, San Francisco, California
History: Originally owned by a wealthy, San Francisco family, the Haas-Lilienthal house was built in 1886 and modeled after Queen Anne style architecture. It was built during the Gilded Age and is the only home from the true Victorian Era still standing in San Francisco.
This extravagant home is now considered one of 34 “National Treasures in America”. This sounds like some real ghost hunting material to me!
7. Inn at the Presidio
(Left Photo Credit: New York Times)
Location: The Presidio - 42 Moraga Ave, San Francisco, California
History: This brick building was built by the U.S. Army in 1903. It originally served as quarters for unmarried officers and was named The Pershing Hall Bachelor Officers’ Quarters (BOQ). Think ABC’s “The Bachelor” house but bigger.
The architecture is known as Georgian Revival-style and was named after General John J. "Blackjack" Pershing, who served at the Presidio of San Francisco beginning in 1913. Today, the building still stands as an inn where guests can reserve rooms with views of the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges.
8. Transamerica building
Location: Financial District - 600 Montgomery St, San Francisco, California
History: As the youngest building on this list, the Transamerica building doesn’t have a crazy-rich history, but the concept behind the architecture does. The building was commissioned by Transamerica CEO John (Jack) R. Beckett with one sole desire: he wished to allow light onto the streets below.
This was a unique request from a corporate CEO, but architects obliged. In this foggy California city, a peak of sunlight is appreciated by all. Built in 1969, this building has allowed sunlight onto the historic Montgomery block for almost five decades.
9. Palace of Fine Arts
Location: 3601 Lyon St, San Francisco, California
History: The Palace of Fine Arts is one of many structures built for the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition (a world’s fair held in San Francisco). The “palace” was built in order to present famous works of art, however, the well known dome outside of the exhibit has become a celebrated work of art on its own.
The Palace of Fine Arts is one of the only original structures still standing from the Exposition in 1915. It marks a great boom in San Francisco tourism and attraction during the beginning of the 1900s.
10. The Legion of Honor Museum
(Right Photo Credit: Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)
Location: 100 34th Ave, San Francisco, California
History: The Legion of Honor was also built alongside the Palace of Fine Arts dome in preparation for the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition. It was a gift from Alma de Bretteville Spreckels who was the wife of Adolph B. Spreckels, a famous racehorse breeder and sugar trader. The two were both San Francisco natives.
This white-tiled building is a replica of the French Pavilion originally designed by French architect Pierre Rousseau in 1782. This exact replica was temporarily built for the exhibition and designed by American architects George Applegarth and Henry Guillaume.
Following the exhibition, the French government allowed Spreckels to commission a full remake of the French Pavilion at a location known as Land’s End. The structure was eventually opened in 1924 in honor of soldiers who fought in World War I.
The name of the museum, The Legion of Honor, is used to describe both the building and the collection of art within its 21-inch walls.
11. San Francisco City Hall
Location: 1 Dr Carlton B Goodlett Pl, San Francisco, California
History: The original San Francisco City Hall building was designed for 27 years by Canadian architect Augustus Laver and American architect Thomas Stent. The building was eventually finished in 1899 only to be destroyed seven years later by the 1906 earthquake.
City commissioners looked to rebuild the City Hall before the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition. The building was modeled after neo-classical design which is often seen in traditional Grecian and Roman architecture and was designed by American architect Daniel Burnham.
Today, the Hall is known for its recognizable dome that rises 307.5 ft above the surrounding Civic Center complex. Many famous events take place in the Civic Center Historic District. Most recently, the world-renowned San Francisco Gay Pride Parade found it’s end at the Civic Center Plaza.
12. Columbus Tower
Location: 916 Kearny St, San Francisco, California
History: This famous green tower situated near the Transamerica building has stood as a cornerstone of San Francisco History since 1907. Construction began before the 1906 earthquake but was halted during the tragedy.
Originally named the Sentinel Building, the building housed San Francisco politician Abe Ruef. In 1949, poet, actor and notorious nightclub owner Eric Nord opened “hungry i”, a nightclub situated in the basement of the Sentinel Building that would become significant to the history of stand-up comedy. Nord sold the club to Enrico Banducci, an entertainment manager within San Francisco. Banducci molded hungry i’s reputation into what many know it as today: a booming, comedy nightclub that often had lines around the block. In 1954, Banducci moved hungry i to the International Hotel.
The building was practically useless for four years until 1958 when Rob Moor (a dutch businessman) and his wife Nella Moor bought the building with the goal of restoring it. They renamed the building Columbus Tower and sold it to a popular music group, The Kingston Trio, in the 1960s. The Kingston Trio utilized the building as a recording studio within the basement which was used by many other famous bands and artists throughout the 60s and 70s.
In 1973, Francis Ford Coppola, famous director of “The Godfather”, bought the building to use as a film studio. Today, Coppola still uses this building alongside NPR and PBS producers, as well as sound designers from Pixar and Skywalker Sound. If you want to visit the Columbus Tower, a European-style restaurant called Cafe Zoetrope is open to the public on the first floor.
13. The San Francisco Ferry Building
Location: 1 The Embarcadero, San Francisco, California
History: The San Francisco Ferry was opened in 1898 in order to serve the population boom following the California Gold Rush. It was designed by American architect A. Page Brown who gained inspiration from Parisian architecture for the main part of the building. The clock tower portion of the building was modeled after the 12th-century Giralda bell tower in Seville, Spain.
During its peak, the ferry building is said to have had as many as 50,000 commute by ferry each day.
The building is famous for its elegant arches and overhead skylights that ferries would habitually pass through. Since the 1930s, the building has been restored and closed to the public many times. Today, it still serves as a ferry port but also acts as a marketplace with food and products for purchase to anyone who wants to visit. While ferry transportation isn’t as common as it used to be, it is easy to picture a young, booming San Francisco transportation port in the 1920s while shopping for local cheeses and wines.
14. The Windmills
Location: Golden Gate Park
Dutch Windmill: 1691 John F Kennedy Dr, San Francisco, California (pictured above)
Murphy Windmill: 48th Avenue and Lincoln Way, San Francisco, California
History: Due to its location upon sand dunes, Golden Gate Park has always required substantial irrigation for its rolling green hills. Originally, the park used two windmills, the Dutch Windmill (pictured above) and the Murphy Windmill, to pump water to the grass and many plants.
The Dutch windmill was built in 1902 while the Murphy Windmill was built in 1908. The two windmills worked together to pump approximately 70,000 gallons of water into the park each day. Today, the windmills no longer function as irrigation systems, however, they are historic landmarks that are often visited by locals and tourists alike.