Monthly Archives: January 2011

Soap Box Saturday: The Creation of a Civilization

As I look around San Francisco at the magnificent towers and grand buildings, I can’t help but wonder about the people who built these great edifices.  Was it strictly a desire for more wealth? Are they trying to build something that will be a testament to their success?  Do they want to take their resources and build something with their name on it that will outlast their mortal body?  Are they civic minded and only thinking of how it contributes to the development of the city?  I’m sure there is not one universal motive, but it does make me wonder what the prevailing reason is for building a shrine to yourself.

Even as I explore some of these buildings with obvious disdain for the egotism involved in the process of making a monument, I can’t help but realize that without them civilization would not have progressed.  Being a student of history, I have learned that a society needs its scoundrels in order to move forward and grow.  We need the opportunists, the financially aggressive, the seemly cold-hearted real estate developer, and the basic overall white collar villain in order to push the boundaries and wake us up to future possibilities.  Keep in mind that at times they can be very lovable and generous in their charitable contributions.  So, we love them, fear them, and need them.  If we did not have this personality characteristic in the gene pool, we may still be rubbing sticks together to make fire.

A perfect example of what I am talking about is Andrew Carnegie, 1835-1919.  He was a great man who left a legacy of wealth that continues to feed the hearts and minds of the common man with art, entertainment, and literature.  Starting life as a poor, immigrant factory worker, Andrew Carnegie’s fortunes rose to epic proportions through the development of steel.  He not only revolutionalized the world with the use of steel, but he also gave back to the community by building Carnegie-Melon University; Carnegie Hall; and many other libraries, museums, and universities throughout the United States.  If you see the name Carnegie on a building, it probably has its roots in the charity of Andrew Carnegie.  No one can dispute his impact on our society.  He is well known for his statement that he was born a poor man and he wished to return to the grave a poor man.  Another one of his great sayings is, “I would as soon leave my son a curse as the almighty dollar.”  Later on in life his view on money must have changed.  After all, you can’t take it with you when you leave this world.

Andrew Carnegie was well loved for his generosity, but i think there was another side to this story that is overlooked.  How did he make all that money?  How did he rise from the ranks of a factory worker to reportedly becoming the second wealthiest man in the United States?  There is only one answer; there is more to this legend than meets the eye.  Can someone amass that amount of money without stepping on the backs of others?  In order to bring opportunity to his investments, did he coldly cut off the prospects of others who were diligent workers and just looking for a break?  How much money did he make off the backs of poorly paid steel workers living paycheck to paycheck?  How many people actually feared Andrew Carnegie and viewed him as a terrible man with seemingly limitless power?

To bring my point home and finish this Soap Box Saturday post, Andrew Carnegie was loved, feared, and desperately needed by our society in order to move us forward.  I’m not saying that Andrew Carnegie was a bad man, that is very a subjective judgment.  I’m saying that he was a necessary man.  Our society needs its greedy; egotistic; and, in an attempt to atone,  its charitable builders of empires.  If for nothing else, we need them to give us grand structures to marvel at for years to come.

Andrew Carnegie, Captain of Industry


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Filed under San Francisco History

Historical Sunday: The Haight/Straight Theater

As I was flipping through one of my favorite San Francisco history books, I discovered some fascinating information on an address of a building in the Haight district.  This versatile structure started life as the Haight Theater in 1910, and it had the following transformations:

  • Nickelodeon
  • General movie theater
  • Gay film theater
  • Assembly of God church
  • The Straight Theater – (Music Venue)

The final embodiment of this structure, the Straight Theater, ran into trouble with the neighborhood and zoning issues when it tried to open a music venue.  To get around it and still keep to their original purpose, the owners called it a “school of dance.”  Grateful Dead band members were listed as “dance instructors” when they agreed to perform at the opening of this newly remodeled site.

The most fascinating change that the building underwent was going from serving as a gay film theater to an Assembly of God church.   

The theater closed in 1969, and the building was demolished in 1979.  The replacement building houses the Goodwill Store.  There is a season to everything, and when we are talking about historical buildings in America, their time can be very short lived.   


Source:  The awesome “Historic Walks in San Francisco,” by Rand Richards

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History in the Making: The New San Francisco Public Utilities Commisssion Building

The New S.F. Public Utilities Commission Headquarters 2

People strolling along Golden Gate Avenue near the Civic Plaza will be witnesses to the birth of the most sustainable urban office building in the United States.  The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission Building, designed by KMD architects, has a number of energy efficient elements including solar panels and a built-in wind turbine.  For more information, click on the following link:

The New S.F. Public Utilities Commission Headquarters 1

I decided to document this historic event by taking these pictures of the construction process.  As I stood there watching the workers hoist wood and hammer in beams, I couldn’t help but wonder what the future held for this structure.  Will it be around for 100 years, or will it be declared tacky in 30 years and destined for the demolition ball?  Will it be published in books as an example of cutting edge design, or will it be the laughing stock of the city and dubbed the ugly duckling?  Will anything noteworthy ever happen in this building?  As I sat there and pondered its future, I also couldn’t help but wonder how it will die.  What will be the last thing that will be housed in this building before it’s declared obsolete and destroyed in order to make room for something newer and more exciting?

If you find yourself in the area, it’s worth a detour to watch this colossal building reach for the sky.

 A sketch of the finished product



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Filed under San Francisco Architecture

Historical Saturday: Hayes Valley

Native people, the Ohlone Tribe, were the first inhabitants of present day Hayes Valley.  During this period in history there was a seasonal creek that cut through the valley and gave life to various plants and wildflowers.  That creek still flows, but underground. 

Eventually the Natives lost their hold on this land, and the settlers started the town of San Francisco.  This neighborhood, on the outskirts of the village became a neighborhood full is full of Victorian style homes that were actually spared during the 1906 earthquake and fire.

Hayes Valley and Hayes Street are named after Thomas C. Hayes (1823-1868) a native of Ireland who at the age of 18 set out for the West Coast in search of gold.  He eventually became a politician, a militia man, and a large land owner around the Hayes Valley area.  He was very pro-Southern and pro-slavery, and he was also known for duels and violence.  In fact, he acted as a second in many duels that took place in San Francisco in those days.

It is possible that this section of town was named after this aggressive, racist man because in 1856 his brother, Michael Hayes, happened to be on the town’s committee that was in charge of naming streets and parts of the city.  The meek may inherit the earth, but it will be named after people with a very different personality type. 



*  Info from Historic Walks in San Francisco, by Rand Richards,  & Wikipedia.

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Historical Saturday: Haight – Ashbury District

There is a neighborhood in San Francisco called the Haight-Ashbury which is said to be the birthplace of the hippie movement and is still today a place known for its attitude of youth and alternative culture.

The Haight-Ashbury (pronounced hate) has a long history of recreating itself.  In the 1850’s the neighborhood was outside of town and consisted of mainly sand dunes.  Some ranchers set up business there, but the area didn’t begin to develop in earnest until plans for Golden Gate Park were laid out after 1870.  In 1883, a cable-car line came through the area and houses began being built.  Families of wealth liked to build their second homes on the corners, and the land between was filled in with small, middle class style homes.

Because of the popularity of the new Golden Gate Park, this neighborhood became somewhat of a weekend destination for leisure and relaxation.  It had  a baseball field, amusement park, saloons, hotels, and many bicycle shops.

During the 1906 earthquake, the Haight-Ashbury was hardly affected.  People poured into this neighborhood to find housing only to move out in the 1920’s and 1930’s to live in more desirable locations in the bustling city.

In the 1950’s and 1960’s, the city proposed a freeway that would run through the panhandle and would ultimately affect the livability of the area.  The citizens united against the freeway and caused the city to make other plans.  Their acts of political defiance preserved the neighborhood and the integrity of the panhandle park.   

The mid 1960’s introduced the counter-culture and the social rebellion to this struggling middle class neighborhood.  But what started out as a place for innocence, experimentation, and a desire to change the world ended up being something very different and destructive.  “Hells Angels, criminals, and opportunists of all kinds (including Charles Manson) arrived, and by late that summer the scene had turned ugly.  Harder drugs such as methamphetamine, or “speed” and heroin replaced the more benign (and legal until October 1966) LSD.  Things deteriorated quickly, and over the next few years the Haight, as Haight-Ashbury is more commonly called today, became a dangerous slum.  By the early 1970s about a third of Haight Street’s shops were abandoned and boarded up.”  -Historic Walks in San Francisco, by Rand Richards

As with most neighborhoods in this city, the area eventually became more gentrified and the homes were redone and restored.  There is still a bit of a hippie flair about the Haight, but it is more the tv version and less of the real deal.
How did the area get its unusual name?  It was named for the intersection of Haight and Ashbury streets where it is located.  I’m assuming the streets are family names, but I have not been able to find any information on that yet.

When you next visit San Francisco, be sure to put the Haight district on your list of places to go and experience.



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