1940 scale model of S.F. fi­nally home for dis­play

San Francisco Chronicle Late Edition - - FRONT PAGE - By Sam Whit­ing

The San Francisco scale model fin­ished in 1940 has been mostly hid­den away ever since — un­til now.

The model is fi­nally set to get the dis­play it de­serves on Jan. 25, when the wooden re­lief map will go into cir­cu­la­tion at the San Francisco Pub­lic Li­brary. The model in­cludes ev­ery struc­ture in ev­ery neigh­bor­hood, and to the neigh­bor­hoods it will go. The Main Li­brary and all 27 branches, plus a tem­po­rary branch at the San Francisco Mu­seum of Modern Art, will each get the por­tion that per­tains to their area.

The in­stal­la­tion is on­go­ing, with the first seg­ments — Ma­rina, Pre­sidio, Golden Gate Val­ley, North Beach, Park, Main and SFMOMA — set up last week on saw horses and un­der Plex­i­glas. The ex­hibit will be on view through March 25.

If the San Francisco build­ing you live in was here in 1938, you will be able to find it in your lo­cal li­brary as a lit­tle carv­ing packed in with

the oth­ers on your block, de­tailed down to the shape and color of the house.

“With this model, ev­ery­thing you love about San Francisco is rep­re­sented and ev­ery­thing you hate about San Francisco is rep­re­sented,” project man­ager Stella Lochman says as she walks along and picks out the Noe Val­ley hospi­tal where she was born, all of the schools she at­tended, and the dive bars she hangs out in now.

“It holds all of the dif­fer­ent his­to­ries, both per­sonal and civic,” says Lochman, 33.

The scale model, com­mis­sioned by the City Plan­ning Com­mis­sion to put artists to work dur­ing the Great De­pres­sion, ranges from San Bruno Moun­tain to Yerba Buena Is­land to the Pre­sidio.

As­sem­bled, it is 37 by 41 feet, and see­ing it that way is like watch­ing a model rail­road. You can study the in­te­rior only by stand­ing at the edge and lean­ing over.

But the model was built to come apart, and see­ing it in smaller quad­rants el­e­vated off the floor make it eas­ier to hone in on the de­tail — from the tiny goal­posts on the foot­ball field at Galileo High School to the long-gone roller coaster at Play­land-at-the-Beach to the lit­tle Key trains on their loop­ing track mak­ing the turn off the Bay Bridge into the Trans­bay Ter­mi­nal.

“When it is in seg­ments you can see your own block, and that is the magic to it,” Lochman says as she care­fully ex­am­ines her apart­ment build­ing at 20th and Hamp­shire streets.

“The roof is still puke green,” she says, “but it’s a his­toric puke green.”

Since May, the model has been in a South of Mar­ket ware­house owned by the li­brary, be­ing cleaned by a horde of vol­un­teers. The free ex­hibit in the li­braries, called “Pub­lic Knowl­edge: Take Part,” was or­ga­nized by SFMOMA.

On a scale of 1 inch equals 100 feet, the model city is 11 inches tall at its high­est point (Mount David­son) and com­posed of 6,000 re­mov­able lit­tle blocks, each cor­re­spond­ing to a city block. The blocks are formed into 140 sec­tions, each on a stand. Walk­ing be­tween them at the ware­house you can see the Lau­rel Hill Ceme­tery, not yet re­moved to Colma.

Also among the van­ished and mourned are the Fox Theater, the Mont­gomery Block and the Rainier Brew­ery (later the Hamm’s plant), not yet de­mol­ished or re­mod­eled beyond recog­ni­tion. Adolph Sutro’s es­tate is gone, hav­ing been freshly de­mol­ished. The Sun­set is still sand dunes, run­ning down to the zoo and Fleish­hacker Pool. Glen Park has streets, but that’s about it.

The street­car lines are rep­re­sented, in­clud­ing the push-pull ca­ble car on the steep block of Fill­more Street, as is the South­ern Pa­cific switch­ing sta­tion in Visita­cion Val­ley and the tun­nels un­der Potrero Hill.

“It’s an ar­chi­tect’s dream, but also a train en­thu­si­ast’s dream,” Lochman says.

Like so much that was built to last in the city, the scale model was a fed­eral project un­der the Works Progress Ad­min­is­tra­tion. San Francisco ar­chi­tect Ti­mothy Pflueger sug­gested it in 1935, and the City Plan­ning Com­mis­sion spon­sored it. Plans were drawn us­ing ae­rial pho­to­graphs and sur­vey­ors. Con­structed in a church that has not been iden­ti­fied, it took 300 crafts­peo­ple two years to build.

Over the long years of its ab­sence, mys­tery has en­shrouded the model: Was it a make-work project that was de­stroyed? If not de­stroyed where has it been for all of these years? One story placed it in stor­age some­where in the bow­els of the Civic Cen­ter, and an­other story had it un­der­neath the stands at Me­mo­rial Sta­dium in Berke­ley.

One claim was that the model’s first ap­pear­ance was at the Panama-Pa­cific In­ter­na­tional Ex­po­si­tion of 1939. But the model was not com­pleted un­til 1940. The de­fin­i­tive book on the fair, “Trea­sure Is­land: San Francisco’s Ex­po­si­tion Years,” by Richard Rein­hardt, makes no men­tion of the scale model. Ge­og­ra­pher Gray Brechin, who runs the Liv­ing WPA project at UC Berke­ley, re­cently said, “It was not likely at Trea­sure Is­land.”

But Lochman was able to dig up a photo that shows the down­town and water­front por­tion of the model be­ing fawned over by Zoe Dell Lan­tis Nut­ter, the expo’s “pi­rate girl” com­plete in a Robin Hood out­fit, in the Red­wood Em­pire pavil­ion at the fair. The pic­ture is stamped Feb. 14, 1939 — four days be­fore the grand open­ing. (Skep­tics think it may be a doc­tored pub­lic­ity photo.)

What­ever the story, this much is agreed upon: The com­pleted model was dis­played just once, in­tact, in the Light Court at City Hall. It cost $102,750 and its ded­i­ca­tion in the regis­trar’s of­fice was an­nounced by a pic­ture in The Chron­i­cle in April 1940.

When World War II broke out, that space was sud­denly in de­mand for the mo­bi­liza­tion ef­fort, and the model was dis­as­sem­bled and crated up.

“It was an or­phan. The city didn’t want it any­more,” Brechin says.

It found a home in the Col­lege of En­vi­ron­men­tal De­sign at UC Berke­ley, so it could be used to plan for the post­war ex­pan­sion down­town. For decades, a sig­nif­i­cant por­tion of the model was locked in a room at Wurster Hall, strictly for use by stu­dents. The rest of it was in 17 wooden crates in deep stor­age at a UC ware­house in West Berke­ley.

From there it moved to an­other UC ware­house in Rich­mond, and it would prob­a­bly be sit­ting there still but for an ed­u­ca­tion out­reach pro­gram called Pub­lic Knowl­edge, which in­volves SFMOMA and the pub­lic li­brary. A cu­ra­tor at SFMOMA knew the leg­end of the San Francisco model and dis­patched Lochman.

“They said, ‘Find the model, and find a place to put it,’ ” she says.

So Lochman con­tacted Brechin, who put her in touch with a fa­cil­i­ties ad­min­is­tra­tor at UC Berke­ley, which owns the model. Even when it ar­rived back in the city, in 22 wooden crates re­quir­ing two trucks, “there was still the mys­tery of what was in those crates,” Lochman says.

Amaz­ingly, all 120 seg­ments were ac­counted for.

The ge­nius of the model is that it lit­er­ally fits to­gether like build­ing blocks, with wooden pegs. Each city block can be lifted out of place and held in hand. The prob­lem with that is that 175 city blocks have re­mained in hand and been walked off with or other­wise dis­ap­peared over the years. These in­clude the blocks hold­ing City Hall and Seals Sta­dium, both of which were re­built then dis­ap­peared again. The new Golden Gate Bridge and part of the Bay Bridge have also van­ished. (Any­one hold­ing a miss­ing piece or even a photo or mem­ory of such is in­vited to email pub­lic­know [email protected]­com.)

Even with­out all of its pieces, this is con­sid­ered to be the largest and most in­tact of any of a num­ber of city mod­els built across Amer­ica by the WPA.

“I just want it given back to the pub­lic so they can see it, be­cause the pub­lic paid for it,” Brechin says.

“Pub­lic Knowl­edge: Take Part” is en­vi­sioned as a li­brary trea­sure hunt. A map is avail­able, to be stamped at each branch. There will also be four bi­cy­cle tours cov­er­ing six to eight li­braries per ride.

When the ex­hi­bi­tion ends in March, “the hope is to put the model back to­gether,” Lochman says. She has iden­ti­fied three lo­ca­tions big enough to hold it: the Light Court at City Hall, the Roberts Fam­ily Gallery at the new Howard Street en­trance to SFMOMA, and the Ferry Build­ing.

One lo­ca­tion she did not men­tion is Trea­sure Is­land, where the model got its first ex­po­sure. The Panama-Pa­cific In­ter­na­tional Ex­po­si­tion will cel­e­brate its 80th an­niver­sary be­gin­ning Feb. 18 and run­ning into 2020. There is plenty of room for the scale model on the floor of the his­toric ad­min­is­tra­tion build­ing.

“I think that is a lovely idea,” says Anne Sch­noe­be­len, vice pres­i­dent of the Trea­sure Is­land Mu­seum.

Liz Hafalia / The Chron­i­cle

Pho­tos by Liz Hafalia / The Chron­i­cle

Por­tions of the scale model of San Francisco not seen in 77 years will be vis­it­ing the branches of the city’s pub­lic li­brary be­gin­ning on Jan. 25.

Above: Coit Tower is vis­i­ble in the de­tailed scale model of San Francisco in 1938.

Left: The gi­ant model fits to­gether like build­ing blocks with wooden pegs. Each city block can be lifted out of place and held in hand.

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