Old San Francisco City Hall

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Mar 8, 2013

In the conclusion to my chapter about San Francisco’s great 19th-century detective Isaiah Lees, I wrote that

Lees faded relatively quickly from memory… That disappearance was undoubtedly hastened by the great earthquake that leveled much of San Francisco within a few years of his death; in many ways the city he had known and protected was gone and relegated to the past along with Lees himself. Today, a visitor to San Francisco would struggle to find any traces of either one.

Last year, though, one such trace did turn up as part of construction work at the city’s Civic Center. Per the Chronicle, itself another rare survivor of Lees’s era,

Crews working on a building project in San Francisco’s Civic Center have unearthed the massive foundations of the old City Hall, a ghostly reminder of San Francisco’s greatest disaster.

The imposing old City Hall collapsed in a shower of bricks, stone and steel in the 1906 earthquake. It was the largest municipal building west of Chicago and was so elaborate it took 25 years to build. The City Hall was supposed to be earthquake proof, but it collapsed in seconds after the great quake struck. It had been open for less than 10 years.

Its ruins were demolished in 1909, but workers digging under the sidewalk on Hyde Street near Fulton Street for a landscaping project struck something big Sept. 14 – bricks and concrete and steel reinforcing bars. They called archaeologists from the federal General Services Administration… It was the [1897] City Hall, all right.

The story quotes Rebecca Karberg, of the GSA, as remarking that “You really never know what’s under the surface.” Based on my own experience researching and fitting together the histories of Isaiah Lees and his peers—I couldn’t agree more.

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