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Heritage 50: Splendid Survivors, Part 1


San Francisco Heritage is celebrating its 50th anniversary all through 2021. Each week we will share a short chapter of our history.

A well-used copy of Splendid Survivors by Michael Corbett.

“Perhaps the single most important effort underway at Heritage is the planning, funding and initiation of a comprehensive survey of the historical and architectural resources of San Francisco’s downtown.”Heritage Newsletter, November 1976

by Woody LaBounty

In 1974, during individual preservation struggles with national and international corporations over the Alaska Commercial Building, the City of Paris department store, and the Fitzhugh Building, Heritage hatched a broader strategy to “anticipate individual threats with an overall plan.”1

The plan: a downtown survey accompanied by a study that would evaluate the economics of retention and rehabilitation of important downtown San Francisco buildings. The hoped-for outcome: increased protections and broader preservation tools such as changes in tax laws, transfer of upward-development rights (“air-rights”), and the creation of historic districts. The added plus: giving developers information on structures and districts considered historic before they committed time and money to a project. The overall goal: guidance to “encourage growth in a manner […] least destructive to the traditional character of the city.”2

By March of 1977, Heritage had raised enough money to begin the work, contracting with Charles Hall Page & Associates, a new firm founded by Heritage’s co-creator. Michael Corbett served as project director and Robin Thomas Sweet as graphic designer. Randolph Delhanty, Joan Draper, and Jeremy Kotas made up a review panel for the survey, and other Heritage staff and volunteers—Ward Hill, Stephanie Turkington, Dale Copland, and Bill Hobson—helped in myriad ways to compile and organize all the data.3

Map of survey areas from Splendid Survivors by Michael Corbett.

A year-and-a-half later, more than 900 parcels had been surveyed and rated on their “architectural, historical, and environmental qualities,” most in the primary project area of the Financial District, Retail District (Union Square), and both sides of Market Street from the waterfront to 8th Street. A select survey of additional buildings was added in the radial adjacent areas of Nob Hill, the Tenderloin, Civic Center, and South of Market. It was considered the first comprehensive architectural survey of a major downtown in the United States.

When the survey started, not one downtown San Francisco building was on the California State Historic Resources Inventory, a list of cultural resources considered significant by the state. At the conclusion of the Downtown Survey, 374 individual buildings, eight historic districts, and four thematic groups were identified as eligible and submitted to the State Office of Historic Preservation.

Bio of architect Frederick H. Meyer from Splendid Survivors.

More than just an inventory, the project included a compilation of building histories, architect biographies, field photographs, and evaluations of styles, condition, and importance. Belying the misrepresentation of preservation as anti-growth, a number of “sites of opportunity” were also designated as good development targets for remodeling and new construction. This was all conducted with outreach to and partnerships with real estate interests, business alliances, community organizations, and government agencies, including close cooperation with the city planning department.

The three main products of the Downtown Survey were an inventory report with a summary of the findings, a technical report on the survey framework, and hundreds of files of information on the parcels examined and evaluated. At the time, Heritage considered the project its “most significant contribution to the preservation of historic San Francisco architecture.”4

Three “B-rated” buildings on Kearny Street listed in Splendid Survivors by Michael Corbett.

In 1979, the completed inventory of 790 downtown buildings constructed before 1945 were published by California Living Books as Splendid Survivors: Downtown San Francisco’s Architectural Heritage. More than 3,500 copies sold in the first few months and the San Francisco Chronicle hailed it as a “landmark of urban literature.”

For all the acclamation and positive reviews, the project’s genesis was to serve preservation and address the ongoing and escalating threats to potential historic buildings and districts. While Michael Corbett was refining the last drafts of Splendid Survivors, a dozen new high-rises were under construction downtown and six others proposed. The battles for the Alaska Commercial and Fitzhugh buildings had been lost and the City of Paris would go on to be demolished in 1981.

The question of whether the Downtown Survey could make a difference was an open one, but it would be answered quickly.


1. “Heritage’s Role in Downtown Commercial Structures,” Heritage Newsletter, Volume II, Number 2, 1974.

2. “Inventory to be Published,” Heritage Newsletter, Volume VII, Number 1, March/April 1979.

3. “Inventory to be Published,” Heritage Newsletter, Volume VII, Number 1, March/April 1979 and Michael Corbett, Splendid Survivors: San Francisco’s Downtown Architectural Heritage, (San Francisco: California Living Books, 1979), xiii.

4. “Over 900 Buildings Studied,” Heritage Newsletter, Volume VI, Number 2, July 1978.

The birth (and rebirth) of the first subway station in the west


Exterior of Forest Hill Station, 2021. Photo by Walter Thompson.

This piece is authored by Walter Thompson, journalist and host of The Golden City podcast. Heritage is excited to start engaging Walter to write monthly articles on issues across the city. Stay tuned for more! 

In 1910, San Francisco had 416,912 residents, but the overwhelming majority lived east of Twin Peaks.

Although a few thousand had settled in the Richmond district, a population map shows that approximately 7,000 people lived just south of Golden Gate Park and along 9th Avenue. About 1,400 more were clustered around Laguna Honda, the public hospital and care facility.

San Francisco rebuilt itself after the 1906 earthquake and fire, but the boom reconstructed lost areas and filled in existing gaps so quickly, most desirable land downtown had been developed. A few years later, speculators were buying sandy lots in the Sunset and San Miguel Valley.

Pacheco & Dewey circa 1912. Forest Hill construction. OpenSFHistory / wnp15.1508.jpg

Builders conceived residential parks for affluent, genteel people who wanted stately homes inside the city limits. But without transportation that offered easy downtown access, the land might as well have been in Marin or San Mateo. Lacking paved roads or streetcars, a rush-hour trip from the Outside Lands to downtown would have taken the better part of an hour.

Many local improvement clubs and associations that helped pay to repair critical infrastructure like streets and sewers after the earthquake began marshaling public support for a new project: a streetcar tunnel under Twin Peaks. On the evening of April 18, 1910, the fourth anniversary of the cataclysm that destroyed the city, delegates from several neighborhood, merchants’ and civic organizations held a convention to discuss the matter.

So many attendees packed the New Era hall at 2117-2123 Market Street, a Call reporter described it as “the largest and most enthusiastic assemblage of improvement clubs ever gathered together in San Francisco for any purpose.” 

Exterior of New Era Hall on Market Street

New Era Hall at 2117-2123 Market Street in 2020. Designed by architect August Nordin as a commercial building and social hall, was completed seven months after the 1906 Earthquake and Fire and is SF Landmark #277. Photo by NoeHill.

In September 1911, the Board of Supervisors approved a contract with Bion J. Arnold, a Chicago-based railway engineer. His team released a comprehensive study in March 1913 that called for major infrastructure projects like automobile parking in Union Square, “a supplemental Mission-Sunset tunnel under Buena Vista Heights,” and a “double-track bore suited for suburban trolley equipment and also high-speed multiple-unit trains” under Twin Peaks that could connect to a Market Street subway.

Sep 3, 1915. Construction. Twin Peaks Tunnel interior west end showing heading 1000 feet in. OpenSFHistory / wnp36.00869.jpg.

Tunnel construction began in November 1914, and on April 5, 1917, crews working on the east and west headings met underground. Their alignment and grades checked to within one-half an inch.

Sign marking future site of Forest Hill Station on August 20, 1915.August 20, 1915. Sign advertising Twin Peaks Tunnel and site of Forest Hill Station, Laguna Honda(Almshouse) Hospital in Background. OpenSFHistory/wnp27.4707.jpg.

Two miles long and twenty-five feet wide, the $4.25 million project cut the travel time from Sloat Boulevard to the Ferry Building to less than 30 minutes and “doubled the available residential area in San Francisco,” claimed a January 1918 Chronicle editorial. 

A month later, thousands of onlookers lined the streets and cheered as Mayor James T. Rolph rode a streetcar from City Hall to Laguna Honda Station (390 Laguna Honda Blvd.) wearing a motorman’s uniform. The enameled white bricks inside the station’s arcade and concourse were “similar to stations on the New York subway in nicety of detail,” found the Chronicle.

July 13, 1917. Laguna Honda Station (now Forest Hill Station) complete. OpenSFHistory / wnp36.01652.jpg

Forest Hill Station, Jan 8, 1919. OpenSFHistory / wnp36.01952.jpg

San Francisco’s transportation network became more cohesive in the next few decades as streetcar companies consolidated and came under city control. By the late 1970s, Muni was finally building the Market Street subway Arnold envisioned sixty years earlier, but after decades of neglect, the first subway stop in the West had devolved into “an old, dirty, smelly, dank relic from the dark ages of public transit,” wrote Chronicle columnist Carl Nolte.

In March 1979, neighborhood groups called for tearing down the since-renamed dilapidated station due to persistent crime and poor maintenance. Muni’s initial plan would have demolished the neoclassical station house facing Laguna Honda Boulevard to improve safety, ventilation and make it accessible for disabled riders, but the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission instead approved a $6 million renovation plan.

Completed in two phases, the project was a joint venture between architectural firm Esherick Homsev Dodge (now EHDD) and structural engineers Rutherford & Chekene. In January 1981, contractor Hugh R. Anton began raising the height of the station’s platforms to accommodate the new Boeing LRVs. 

Diagram of Forest Hill Station renovation excerpted from Architectural Record’s January 1987 issue. “Ceramic tile waIls, aluminum ceiling panels, and cove-lighting brighten and unify the interior. Platforms were raised 18 in. to reach the floor level of new lightrail trains. Ridged, industrial tile at the platform edge prevents slips and forms a tactile warning for the blind. Acoustic insulation in the crevice between the platforms and the rails, and above the perforated ceiling, absorbs most vehicle noise. New ventilation shafts rise at either end of the station.”

The second phase began in May 1983 as S. J. Amoroso Construction Co. used soldier piles to build a retaining wall around Forest Hill Station, rebuilt the original elevators and sank a 70-foot shaft to add two new lifts for outbound travelers. As part of the work, Amoroso rerouted a stairway to eliminate a subterranean crossover and constructed an annex for the new elevators.

The south side of the station shown in 1926. This entrance was closed off with the construction of a new annex in the 1980s. OpenSFHistory / wnp36.04531.jpg

Forest Hill Station in 2021. The annex, now housing elevators, can be seen on the right. Photo by Walter Thompson.

Initially scheduled for 600 days, the work was stymied by delays and dragged on. While drilling the new ventilation shafts, crews stopped repeatedly to haul out old timber, concrete and debris left behind during the original cut-and-cover construction.

Muni continued to operate the station during the years-long renovation, forcing nearly 6,200 riders each day to weave their way around piles of dirt and construction materials. “They ought to stop work and leave it just like this,” said passenger Dwayne Robinson in an April 1985 Chronicle interview. “It’s old. It smells ancient. It could be a tourist attraction.” Well behind schedule, the renovated station reopened that same year.

The new stationhouse mimics the original station so closely, the renovation “strikes the casual observer as little more than a careful refurbishment,” found Architectural Record in its January 1987 issue. In SF Heritage’s 1989 Awards for Excellence in Architectural Conservation, Esherick Homsey Dodge and Davis/Rutherford and Chekene placed first for its “marriage of new technology to the historic fabric of the 1917 station.”

Interior of Forest Hill Station in 2021. Photo by Walter Thompson.

Citing the station’s Mission and Neoclassical Revival style, its close association with the city’s westward expansion, and the legacy of City Engineer Michael O’Shaughnessy, Forest Hill Station was named San Francisco Landmark #231 in September 2004.

New Legacy Business Registry Website Launches


We’re very excited to announce the launch of the brand new Legacy Business Registry website at legacybusiness.org! The SF Office of Small Business (SFOSB), who manages the legacy business program on behalf of the city, has been working hard on this new portal to help you discover and learn about San Francisco’s legacy establishments – the restaurants, bars, shops, nonprofits and more – that help maintain the city’s unique character.

You can browse businesses using the map, or search by business type, neighborhood, or name. Over the coming months, SFOSB will continue to update the site with more information and resources, so stay tuned!

We encourage you to use this website as a resource to explore legacy businesses – check out their websites, browse their products and services, and most importantly, spend your dollars on what they are offering.

We love this recent quote from #SFLegacyBiz Comix Experience: “We’re really crazy proud to be on this list and helping keep #SanFrancisco super cool for decades with other Legacy Businesses! legacybusiness.org”

Announcing Two New In-Person Broadway Walking Tours in April


In-Person Broadway Walking Tours
When: Sunday, April 4, 2021, and Sunday, April 18, 2021, at 12:30 PM PST

2640 Steiner Street, built in 1893 and featured in the film

2640 Steiner Street, built in 1893 and featured in the film “Mrs. Doubtfire.”

San Francisco Heritage will offer a docent-led walking tour of Broadway in Pacific Heights for two Sundays in April: April 4 and April 18.

The tour showcases the changing architectural panorama of the neighborhood, as grand single-family homes gave way over time to multiple-family, multi-story dwellings and apartment buildings. With the help of census records, the diversity of San Francisco’s population can also be seen through the people who worked and lived in these homes throughout the decades.

WHERE and WHEN: The tour on each day begins at 12:30 PM weather permitting, and starts inside the Haas-Lilienthal House (2007 Franklin Street). The tour covers approximately fifteen blocks and takes about 1.5 hours.

Cost: FREE Admission, but Donations are welcome.

Walking Tours are subject to cancellation due to weather.

Tour guests are welcome to take a self-guided tour of the Haas-Lilienthal House either before or after the walking tour (with admission fee, see the HOUSE TOURS page on the Haas-Lilienthal House website for more details).

Advance registration is not required, but reservations are encouraged so we know that you’re coming! RSVP for April 4 or 18 below via email below: