Charged to preserve and enhance San Francisco’s unique architectural and cultural identity, Heritage aims to help manage change over time, advocating for smart growth through the protection and reuse of historic structures and landscapes. Acknowledging the symbiosis between cultural and material sustainability, Heritage collaborates with local, state and national partners on education, neighborhood outreach and public testimony to help preserve the built environment that defines San Francisco.

Heritage is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) membership organization. Since its founding in 1971, Heritage has built on its activist underpinnings and has dedicated itself to citywide advocacy and education. This includes special programs, regularly-scheduled tours and rental of the Haas-Lilienthal House and grounds (property donated to Heritage in 1973). Heritage’s tax identification number is 23-7135037.

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.

Early History

House in the Western Addition, 1974. Photo courtesy of the San Francisco Public Library.

In 1971, a group of like-minded individuals concerned with the demolition of historic buildings in San Francisco formed The Foundation for San Francisco’s Architectural Heritage. The group was particularly concerned with the Western Addition, which had suffered from post-war “urban renewal” policies that had leveled whole neighborhoods. Soon after its incorporation, Heritage entered into negotiations with the City of San Francisco Redevelopment Agency in cooperation with the Landmark Board to identify the best examples of remaining buildings scheduled for demolition, and to find a way to preserve them. By December 1977, Heritage was able to declare the Western Addition project substantially completed with twelve homes relocated in what may have been the largest house moving project in San Francisco history.

Preserving Historic Downtown

During this time Heritage was also involved with conservation issues in downtown San Francisco. In the mid-1970s San Francisco entered into what would become the greatest downtown building boom since the post-1906 reconstruction. This new wave of development threatened several important historic structures including the Alaska Commercial Building and the Fitzhugh Building. Rather than fight individual conservation battles, Heritage embarked on a course of action that would lead to a comprehensive preservation policy.

Union Square, 1971. Photo courtesy of the San Francisco Public Library.

The first step was to survey downtown and to identify architecturally significant structures. This survey was completed in 1978, and Heritage announced its intention to publish a summary of the findings. Former executive director Robert Berner expressed that such a book would provide “the best possible guidance for establishing policies and plans, which will encourage growth in a manner that will be least destructive to the traditional character of the city.” When California Living Books published Splendid Survivors: Downtown San Francisco’s Architectural Heritage, the book did just that. Heritage ratings were appearing in environmental impact reports, developers were seeking Heritage’s guidance and the planning department showed increasing awareness of the importance of historic buildings.

Yet development pressure continued unabated.

Historic Property Inventory

Downtown San Francisco development, 1985. Photo courtesy of the San Francisco Public Library.

In the early 1980s, continued erosion of the historic downtown core demonstrated that the process of educating developers, city officials and the public about the significance of San Francisco’s downtown architecture was not able to get ahead of the rapid rate of development. Developers also began to focus on resources in adjacent areas, posing a threat to even more historic structures.

With a two-year $35,000 grant from the San Francisco Foundation, Heritage began an extended survey into these threatened areas. Financial assistance from the National Trust for Historic Preservation allowed Heritage to contract with John M. Sanger Associates, Inc. to study the downtown conservation measures of other major cities. This study developed into Splendid Extended, an inventory of several thousand properties. In August of 1983, with the extended survey in its final stages, the City of San Francisco made the downtown plan public. Planning department staff used Heritage’s survey as a principle resource, supplemented by additional research and field study, to arrive at ratings for significant structures.

Preservation Loan Program

Among Heritage’s many preservation efforts was our joint contract with the City of San Francisco to assist low and moderate income property owners in the restoration and rehabilitation of architecturally significant houses. Funding through the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Economic Development helped set up the Preservation Loan Program (PLP) by the end of 1977. In just four years, PLP made possible the rehabilitation of nineteen significant houses in districts all over the city. Minorities and/or women heads-of-household made up 90 percent of the loan recipients.

By 1982, with the original loan pool nearly depleted, PLP shifted its focus and took a new name to reflect its new emphasis. The renamed Preservation Loan and Technical Assistance Program (PLTAP) worked increasingly with nonprofit housing development corporations on multi-unit residential rehab projects for low-to-moderate income people. Although Heritage no longer provides direct technical services, we advocate the rehabilitation and conservation of historic buildings for affordable housing wherever feasible.