A History of Heritage

Discover SF (cropped)

For 45 years, San Francisco Heritage has been leading the civic discussion about the compatibility of rapid change with protecting our past. Heritage is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) membership organization with a mission to preserve and enhance San Francisco’s unique architectural and cultural identity. This includes advocacy for historic resources, education programs, and tours and rental of the 1886 Haas-Lilienthal House. Heritage’s tax identification number is 23-7135037.

Victorian being movedFounded in 1971 to stem the increasingly rapid destruction of the city’s architectural legacy, San Francisco Heritage (Heritage) was instrumental in establishing the framework of preservation protections that has allowed San Francisco’s downtown to evolve and flourish without sacrificing its distinct character. From Mission Dolores to the Transamerica Pyramid, from the Painted Ladies to the Ferry Building, San Francisco’s diverse array of landmarks—old and new, architectural and cultural—draws visitors from around the world and fuels the city’s creative and economic vitality.

Heritage came into existence in the wake of the redevelopment frenzy of the 1950s and 1960s, when entire neighborhoods were being leveled in the name of “urban renewal.” The city had no comprehensive inventory of historic resources and the Landmarks Preservation Ordinance was still in its infancy. The upstart organization had a remarkably swift and dramatic impact, not only staving off threats to individual buildings, but presciently surveying large swaths of the city to inform future planning efforts.

In the early 1970s, urban renewal policies galvanized the local preservation community. The possibility of saving Victorian houses slated for demolition in the Western Addition precipitated the formation of Heritage, which stepped in to rescue twelve structures in the largest building moving project in the history of San Francisco.

Heritage Hikes, Nathaniel Y. DownesIn 1973, while still in the process of rescuing the Victorians in the Western Addition, Heritage was entrusted with caring for one of its own. The Haas-Lilienthal House, a pristine 1886 Victorian mansion with most of its contents intact, was given to Heritage by members of the prominent Haas and Lilienthal families. Today it serves myriad functions: as a house museum, a popular venue for meetings, lectures and social events, and as Heritage’s administrative office, library, and archive. Through a variety of activities including Heritage Hikes for schoolchildren, the house is the centerpiece of Heritage’s education program and has become a powerful exemplar of responsible stewardship.


Splendid Survivors

Splendid Survivors coverIn the 1970s, San Francisco was entering what would become the greatest downtown building boom since the post-1906 reconstruction, with new development threatening many important historic structures. Preservation battles over buildings that did not have landmark status were generally lost, most notoriously the City of Paris department store on Union Square. (The Beaux Arts icon was demolished in 1981 after a four-year legal battle and a petition signed by 60,000 citizens protesting the building’s destruction.)

Realizing that fighting many individual battles would prove ineffective in the long run, Heritage pursued a comprehensive preservation strategy in place of piecemeal efforts to save threatened downtown historic buildings, starting in 1975 with an intensive architectural survey of downtown San Francisco. The results were published in 1979 as the acclaimed book Splendid Survivors: San Francisco’s Downtown Architectural Heritage, by Michael Corbett. It was one of the first such inventories compiled anywhere in the country.

The Splendid Survivors survey became the authoritative guide used by the city to define significant historic buildings in its pioneering 1985 Downtown Plan. Heralded nationally as a model for cities throughout the country, the Downtown Plan rated historic resources and created incentives for their protection. It mandated retention of 248 significant buildings, encouraged protection of nearly 200 others, and established six conservation districts to preserve the scale and character of significant groupings of historic structures.

Building on the success of Splendid Survivors, Heritage continued to canvass the city and expand upon its downtown survey. The organization, and others, went on to conduct surveys of the Van Ness Corridor, South of Market, North of Market, Civic Center, Chinatown, the Northeast Waterfront, and the Inner Richmond.


Port City

Port CityMuch like the genesis of the Downtown Plan, the nomination of the Port of San Francisco Embarcadero Historic District to the National Register of Historic Places was borne out of piecemeal threats to the port’s historic infrastructure. Alarmed by early planning policies that called for the removal of historic buildings to open up views to the bay, Heritage joined Port staff and a Port committee of waterfront stakeholders to explore the possibility of a National Register nomination in the late 1990s. Port leadership eventually embraced historic designation—and the tax incentives that can flow from it—as essential to waterfront revitalization efforts. Funded by the Port, the 500-page nomination qualified a three mile area for designation as a National Register historic district in 2006. In 2011, Heritage published the definitive volume on the history of the waterfront, Port City: The History and Transformation of the Port of San Francisco 1848-2010, also by Michael Corbett.


Protecting San Francisco’s Legacy Businesses

In the early 2010s, threats to popular San Francisco businesses like the Gold Dust Lounge, the Eagle Tavern, Tonga Room, Tosca Café, and Sam Wo called into question the role of traditional historic preservation protections in conserving community anchors that may not be eligible for landmark designation. Heritage responded by launching the Legacy Bars & Restaurants initiative in 2013. The program includes an interactive online guide, logo and window decal program, and a free printed pocket guide. In 2015, Heritage and Heyday Books released the acclaimed book High Spirits: The Legacy Bars of San Francisco  by J.K. Dineen.

Hotel Utah6237With the city’s local businesses, nonprofits, and other cultural institutions increasingly imperiled by skyrocketing rents and property values, encroaching new development, and incompatible adjacent uses, Heritage released “Sustaining San Francisco’s Living History: Strategies for Conserving Cultural Heritage Assets” in 2014. The 52-page report proposes solutions for stabilizing San Francisco’s tangible and intangible cultural heritage assets. In 2015, “Sustaining San Francisco’s Living History” received the prestigious Governor’s Award for Historic Preservation.

In 2015, Heritage co-authored legislation to establish the first official Legacy Business Registry in the country. Unanimously adopted by the Board of Supervisors, the registry recognizes locally-owned, community-serving businesses that have been in operation for at least 30 years. That same year, San Francisco voters passed Proposition J by a 57% majority to create the San Francisco Legacy Business Historic Preservation Fund. The fund provides annual grants to businesses listed in the Legacy Business Registry as well as to property owners who agree to extend the lease of a legacy business tenant by 10 years or more.


Campaign for San Francisco Heritage/Haas-Lilienthal House

HLH signIn November 2015 San Francisco Heritage publicly announced the first comprehensive campaign in its history, having already raised more than 78% of the $4.3 million goal. By securing and restoring its landmark headquarters, the Campaign for San Francisco Heritage/Haas-Lilienthal House will ensure the continued vigor and utility of the historic preservation movement in San Francisco and present a freshened and enhanced historic property for the enjoyment and edification of all.

Heritage’s dual focus is on San Francisco’s past as well as its future—what we share, remember, and carry to the next generations that will make their lives better. This campaign will enable the Haas-Lilienthal House to serve as an active and lively bridge across the generations, while reinforcing Heritage’s core mission to preserve and enhance San Francisco’s unique architectural and cultural identity.


Heritage Highlights Through The Years 

To celebrate Heritage’s 40th anniversary in 2011, we compiled a photo slideshow of the organization’s history. To enlarge the slideshow, click on the lower right-hand button to make it full-screen.


Further Reading:

“Life Begins At 40: Celebrating an Anniversary and Looking to the Future,” Heritage News, Fall 2011

The Year in Preservation – 2013

The Year in Preservation – 2014

The Year in Preservation – 2015

The Year in Preservation – 2016

Photo Credits: Discover SF! at Alamo Square (Heritage Staff); Moving a Victorian (Greg Buchanan); Heritage Hikes (Nathaniel Y. Downes); Haas-Lilienthal House Sign (Chen Design Associates); Hotel Utah (Spencer Brown)