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Interesting Facts About SF City Hall

As San Francisco city hall wedding photographers, we have spent a considerable amount of time wandering around this beautiful building. Over the years we have learned quite a bit about the historical aspects of city hall plus some unique items of interest. We thought we would share some of our knowledge to help our brides and grooms learn more about this amazing place. It is also thought that knowledge of the building's history will make the bride and groom appreciate the place they are getting married even more!

Old SF City Hall Construction and Planning

It took a while for a permanent location for San Francisco City Hall to be decided on. The early history of the building was marred by scandal and political disagreements. From 1849 to 1850, SF city hall was effectively located at the Office of the Alcalde which was basically the San Francisco Mayor's office. The location was then moved to Kearny Street for a very short time before going to the Jenny Lind theater which was also at Kearny Street by Washington. Finally in 1872, the very long construction of Old City Hall began and was located at Larkin near Grove Street.

If you are standing on the steps of the current City Hall building and looking out over the plaza square (the Park) to the right, you can see where Old City Hall once was. It was just to the right of where the public library is now and used those grounds for the surrounding area. It was completed 27 long years later in 1899 at a cost of $6 million. An extremely large sum of money in those days! Some ruins from the building probably still exist underground in that area. Can you imagine a construction project taking 27 years to complete? Probably most of the people that started the project either retired or gave up!

Earthquake Destroys SF City Hall

Unfortunately, Old City Hall only stood for 7 short years with the 1906 earthquake taking it down to the ground in mere seconds. What took 27 years to build completely shook apart in 26 seconds. Here is a link to discover more details on how this devastating earthquake rocked the city and destroyed Old SF City Hall. Though most experts admitted that this was a devastating and very strong earthquake, many felt that the building was not built very well and this just added to the scandal surrounding it's construction. Yes, this was a powerful enough earthquake to badly damage the building, but should the old San Francisco city hall have completely come down? Most felt that no, it should not have been completely destroyed. It became abundantly clear shortly after the earthquake that many shortcuts were taken with the construction of the building. It is doubtful that any true earthquake testing took place and if it did, it obviously was not done correctly.

Greedy contractors with little over-site got away with murder. More upsetting was the fact that the builders had made guarantees that the structure was designed to stand up to a large earthquake. Obviously, this was not the case as the only part of the building still standing after the earthquake was the French inspired Dome. The image of the dome standing alone with rubble surrounding it became a favorite among photographers in San Francisco and beyond! You can see it pictured below in this iconic photograph taken shortly after the earthquake and the fire that tore through the city. Of course the question now was, will city hall ever be rebuilt?

The photo below is one of the more famous pictures from the earthquake. These images of San Francisco were taken at one of the worst times ever for the city. The stark contrast of the whole building in rubble as the dome still stands has made this photograph famous. These kinds of photos were rare from that era because cameras were not widely distributed into the public's hands yet. Imagine what it would have been like to been there during the earthquake and actually watch the building shake apart so easily. There was very little left of the building as you can see below.

Picture of San Francisco City Hall Destroyed by 1906 EarthquakeOld San Francisco City Hall after the 1906 Earthquake and resulting devastating fire

New Building Finally Approved for City Hall Location

Because they were tired of all of the corruption that accompanied the building of Old City Hall, San Francisco voters turned down a 1909 bond issue to build a new place for the Mayor. There was just no stomach for further dishonestly and corruption with regard to building. Then along came James "Sunny Jim" Rolph the new mayor of San Francisco. Mayor Rolph promised to bring the community together and build a new City Hall without corruption. After some amount of controversy, construction began in 1912 with the approval of a $8.8 million bond issue by the San Francisco voters. The Mayor smartly limited the design competition to architects with practices based only in San Francisco. The winning design was chosen in 1912 and Arthur Brown's idea won. His design was patterned off of the many buildings in Paris using the same type of Beaux-Arts architecture that is still prevalent there today.

Ground breaking occurred on April 5, 1913 with completion occurring around December 28, 1915. Just over 2 years to build as compared to the original version that took 27! Between the land for the site and the building itself, San Francisco City Hall ended up costing around $5 million and actually came in under budget. A bargain by today's standards, but quite a sum of money back in those days. My Grandfather was friends with Sunny Jim so I am told! He was a major contractor back in the day and Mayor Rolph and him were involved with projects throughout the Bay Area. We have some family archives that may have indicated that there was a pretty strong relationship there. Sunny Jim was reelected many times and also eventually became governor of California. His tenure as governor was much less successful. I am pretty sure my Grandfather knew him after he was governor and helped him out with some California state infrastructure projects.

Loma Prieta Earthquake and Other Damage to City Hall

When the 7.1 magnitude Loma Prieta earthquake hit on October 17, 1989 there were many that were expecting that we might lose San Francisco City Hall again. Especially in light of the fact that the dome twisted 2 inches and caused cracks throughout the building. But City Hall held tough and only minor visible damage was present. The very next year San Francisco voters passed a general obligation bond of over $300 million for restoration of SF city hall including a seismic retrofit of the entire building to fix any structural damage that might have been caused by this powerful tremor. More importantly, this would help prevent major damage in the event of another major quake in the future.

City Hall now possesses a system of hundreds of rubber cushions to help keep it safe in the event of another major San Francisco earthquake. The system of Stainless Steel with rubber inserts should allow the building to move just enough during an earthquake, preventing it from shaking apart. More damage occurred on February 13, 1998 when a four-alarm blaze started in city hall after welders left some of the wooden substructure smoldering. The fire was quickly put out and the damage repaired. The entire dome was resurfaced after this event and city hall opened again to the public about 1 year later on January 5, 1999. Another close call for San Francisco City Hall! I imagine that there were no weddings there for that whole time. What a shame! I am glad I wasn't at San Francisco city hall wedding photographer back then!

Photo of the Construction of new San Francisco City Hall BuildingEarly Construction of the New San Francisco City Hall

Retrofitting SF City HallRetrofitting San Francisco City Hall after the 1989 Earthquake

Marilyn Marries Joe at San Francisco City Hall

Yes, in 1954, blonde bombshell, Marilyn Monroe married Joltin' Joe Di Maggio in a private room at San Francisco city hall. Of course the privacy was short lived as the press and hundreds of well wishers mobbed the happy wedding couple as they tried to flee the building immediately following their nuptials. The 3rd floor hallway, (one of our favorite places to photograph wedding couples) was one of the areas they were trapped! They made their escape with some help from insiders and managed to get out to their car. Shortly after the wedding, they moved into a cute place in the SF Marina District, but then divorced after only 274 days of marriage. Many believe that it was Joe's jealousy of people ogling his wife that led to the divorce. After all, she was a major movie star at the time. Who could blame Joe for wanting her all to himself.

The wedding captured the imaginations of people all over the country, it was one of the major events to occur at San Francisco City Hall since it had been rebuilt. People still talk about it today! Joe DiMaggio was born in Martinez, California but got his start playing baseball for the San Francisco Seals. As most people know, he want on to a very successful baseball career with New York Yankees. Marilyn tragically passed away way too young and it is said that Joe still mourned and visited her grave regularly until he passed away. They divorced but he never stopped loving her. Joe is one of the more famous San Francisco celebrities and for a while, Marilyn Monroe made her home here as well. There are also pictures of them by Saints Peter and Paul's Catholic church which is where Joe liked to attend mass.

Marilyn Monroe Joe Dimaggio marriage at San Francisco city hallMarilyn and Joe getting married at San Francisco City Hall

Marilyn Monroe and  Joe DiMaggio leaving SF City Hall  in carMarilyn Monroe and Joe Di Maggio driving away after their SF city hall wedding

City Hall Dome Facts

With a height of 307 feet, the Dome of San Francisco City Hall is the tallest in the United States. It is actually 42 feet higher than the dome at our own nation's capital building in Washington DC. When viewed from the inside of the building, here are actually 2 domes visible. One appears to be inside of the other. this is a very unique feature of the SF City Hall Dome. The dome's surface is intricately finished in 23.5 Carat gold leaf. It was beautifully refinished during the earthquake retrofit of 1990.

City Hall was closed for nearly 3 years during this time period to allow for refurbishing and the retrofit. Again, no weddings and no professional photographers! The dome of Old City Hall was the only part of the building left standing after the devastating 1906 San Francisco Earthquake ruined the rest of the structure in just a few seconds (see photo at the top of page on the right). It is easy to see why so many couples want to come to this building to get married. The beauty and history are overwhelming. Getting married under the dome is romantic to say the least! For some great additional information about the Golden City Hall dome, click this link from the Chronicle.

Rotunda and Grand Staircase

The Rotunda floor at city hall features an intricate design and is made of Tennessee pink marble. If you look carefully you can see that the pattern on the floor mirrors the dome directly above. Another very creative aspect of the architecture here. At certain times of the day the marble reflects light in an amazing way, adding drama to wedding photos. It almost takes on a pinkish gold hue if that is even possible. The Grand Staircase was fire hosed down in May of 1960 to repel a student protest that occurred in the main Rotunda.

Albert Samuels designed a clock that overlooks the stairs. His Jewelry store was known as "The House of Lucky Wedding Rings." Quite appropriate considering the 30 or so wedding couples that walk down these stairs daily. Both of these locations are very popular with married couples and tourists! I have yet to photograph a wedding at San Francisco city hall where the couple did not want their photos taken on the Grand Staircase. The crowds can sometimes make it difficult but we always try. It just takes some patience and luck. If we can't do it, we will give you a Photoshopped version with no people or at least limited people.

Recent San Francisco City Hall History

Despite all of it's glory with being rebuilt, after 80 years the building was falling into disrepair. The Loma Prieta Earthquake was the final straw. Fortunately, Mayor Willie Brown, a visionary, pushed to have the old building restored and made safer. He wanted to make San Francisco city hall into a place where they would be proud to host major events and activities. As part of the restoration, a large amount of oak paneling, marble and limestone walls and floors, and many chandeliers were cleaned up and made to look like new. The old ugly acoustic ceilings were removed revealing the original marble that it had covered. Barriers were removed to reopen old skylights, giving the building an airy feel again. An incredible 50,000 stone pieces and 25,000 units of hardware were removed. Once safely taken out, they were fully cleaned, restored and put back in place. The meticulous attention that was paid to maintain historical detail earned rave reviews from architects, preservationists and residents.

Willie Brown received kudos for the risks he had to take to get it all done and of course there was always political disagreements about how to spend the money. The Mayor even devised a clever way to get the dome gold leafed again after the money he sought was voted down. He used $500,000 in private funds to get this done, but referring to the job as an art piece that could be seen throughout the city. This made it eligible for public funding. To read more about his vision and triumphs check out this article about the renovation of San Francisco City Hall. It didn't turn out to be quite the "Taj Ma Willie" that some of his greatest critics predicted, but it DID became a place that San Francisco could be proud of again! San Francisco City Hall now plays hosts to many major local events including the grand opening of the SF Symphony and the annual Google Party! As time goes on, it seems that even more events are being scheduled in the building.

Covid-19 Closure of SF City Hall

Facing a world wide Pandemic, San Francisco city hall was forced to close in March of 2020 not to reopen until June 7, 2021! The closure of SF City Hall resulted in the cancellation of multiple public events including the 35 plus weddings performed here on a daily basis. We personally had to cancel a large number of wedding photography books as did many other city hall photographers. Another long closure for this historic building. Happily, San Francisco city hall reopened in June of 2021 and things are mostly back to normal again. We all were required to wear masks for first 6 months of so, but those rules have been relaxed now. For more information about getting married at this historic building, return to the SF City Hall photography Home Page.