City Hall, 1901


Photo: Detroit Photographic Co./Wikimedia Commons

The first grand city hall of San Francisco was planned as a complex of buildings that would rise on a triangular park. Construction was slated to last for three years; the project took about 25 years, with seven chief architects over that time span. The floors allegedly didn’t align, the chimneys didn’t draw, the sewage backed up and when the whole development was destroyed in 1906, people discovered just how poor the construction was (many of the walls were full of sand).

Cliff House, 1903

Cliff House - Ed Bierman

Photo: Ed Bierman/Flickr

The message reads, “Arrived Marysville this morning. Expect to leave here tomorrow. Love as ever, Pa Pa.” The county seat of Yuba County, Marysville as a community dates back to the Gold Rush era and is located about 125 miles from San Francisco.

Conservatory at Golden Gate Park, 1904

SF Golden Gate Park Conservatory

Photo: jasonwoodhead23/Flickr

The Conservatory of Flowers is a greenhouse and botanical garden that houses exotic plants. It was completed in 1878, making it the oldest building in Golden Gate Park.

City Hall, 1906

SanFranciscoShatteredCityHallPostcardAmJournalExaminer (1)
Photo: American-Journal-Examiner/Wikimedia Commons

The aftermath of the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906. The image of the “shattered” city hall — the dome 300 feet high, barely held up by the remains of the building — became a famous symbol of the city’s biggest natural disaster. As the largest municipal building west of Chicago, the structure took about 25 years to build and was open for less than a decade before the quake destroyed it.

“The Beach,” 1908

SF Beach Great White Fleet

Photo: Richard/Flickr

This was part of a batch of 70 postcards collected by John W. Millaway, 1st Sargent, United States Marine Corps, in preparation of the world circumnavigation by the Great White Fleet in 1907 to 1909. He visited many of the ports on the Fleet’s trip, addressing each card to his girlfriend, “Miss Miriam Purnell.” Only one of the postcards was actually mailed.

Children’s Playground, Golden Gate Park, 1915

Children's Playground Golden Gate Park Ed Bierman

Photo: Ed Bierman/Flickr

Those vintage swings were major.

San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, ~1936

San Francisco Oakland Bay Bridge Eric Fischer

Photo: Eric Fischer/Flickr

The Bay Bridge started construction in 1933 and opened on November 12, 1936, six months before the Golden Gate Bridge.

Chinatown, Grant Avenue looking north, 1920s


Photo: Roadsidepictures/Flickr

Located at 532 Grant Avenue between Pine and California streets, Shanghai Low restaurant dated back to 1913 and made a brief appearance in Orson Welles’ 1947 noir The Lady From Shanghai.

Palace of Fine Arts, 1930-1945

Palace of Fine Arts

Photo: The Tichnor Brothers Collection/Boston Public Library

Originally constructed for the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition to display art, the palace was rebuilt in 1965 and underwent a seismic retrofit in 2009. One of the few surviving structures from the Exposition, it’s currently a ridiculously popular location for weddings and wedding party photographs.

San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, Golden Gate Bridge, 1930-1945

Bay Bridge and Golden Gate Bridge

Photo: The Tichnor Brothers Collection/Boston Public Library

With the opening of the Bay Bridge in 1936 and the Golden Gate Bridge in 1937, a huge celebration was in order. Hence, the Golden Gate International Exposition, a World’s Fair to fête the exemplary spans, as well as San Francisco’s increasing economic, political and cultural power in the Pacific Region (postcards below):

The Giant Pacifica, Golden Gate International Exposition, 1939-1940

Giant Pacifica

Photo: The Tichnor Brothers Collection/Boston Public Library

The Exposition theme was “Pageant of the Pacific,” as it displayed the bounty of the nations by the Pacific Ocean. A giant 80-foot statue of Pacifica, goddess of the Pacific Ocean, reinforced the theme.

Tower of the Sun, Golden Gate International Exposition, 1939-1940

Tower of the Sun

Photo: The Tichnor Brothers Collection/Boston Public Library

The Tower of the Sun was the crown jewel of the fair, with a slender, 400-foot-tall octagonal spire capped by a statue of a phoenix. Arthur Brown Jr., who also designed City Hall, crafted the tower in the Beaux Arts style.

Market Street, 1944


Photo: Dave/Flickr

Designed in 1847 by Jasper O’Farrell, San Francisco’s first surveyor, Market Street is a diagonal 120-foot-wide boulevard, unabashedly tilted in a city of streets flowing north-south or east-west. Market also aims straight at the hills of Twin Peaks, which Spanish settlers once called “Los Pechos de la Chola” (The Breasts of the Maiden).

Golden Gate Bridge, 1953

Golden Gate Bridge Adam Campbell

Photo: Adam Campbell/Flickr

The Golden Gate Bridge has always been painted orange vermilion, or “International Orange.” Consulting Irving Morrow chose the warm color to complement the bridge’s natural settings, emphasizing the cool tones of sky and water. Also, the orange provides better visibility for passing ships; the US Navy originally wanted the span to be coated with black and yellow stripes, so ships could easily steer clear.

Embarcadero, ~1954

SF Postcards - embarcadero eric fischer

Photo: Eric Fischer/Flickr

The Embarcadero is the boulevard leading to the piers and docks of the Port of San Francisco, from Fisherman’s Wharf to China Basin. The tunnel portal at the very bottom of the photo was a two-lane underpass on the streetcar loop, built in 1924 and then demolished to make way for the Embarcadero Freeway.

Powell and Market streets, 1954


Photo: sturm_sf/Flickr

This entry is not a postcard; it’s a reel taken from a vintage View-Master stereoscope (a sightseeing device recently remastered by Mattel and Google). The image shows the cable car turntable at the Powell and Market streets — still the heart of downtown San Francisco today — with Car 501 turning back to Nob Hill. Note the Woolworth’s in the background.

Market Street, mid-1950s

Great White Way San Francisco Todd Lappin

Photo: Todd Lappin/Flickr

Now, the Mid-Market area is associated with urban blight and Twitter, but it used to bask in the glamor of the cinema; up to about 1966, Market Street between 5th and 8th streets was called “The Great White Way of San Francisco,” because of the constant lights — mostly from movie theaters — illuminating the roadway from dusk to dawn. That cluster of six blocks off Market once held more than 25,000 theater seats, or a quarter of the total seats in the city.

Alcatraz Island, date unknown

Alcatraz Island

Photo: GOGA Park Archives/Flickr

Nicknamed “The Rock,” the island was home to the forbidding Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary from 1934 to 1963. It is also the site of the oldest operating lighthouse on the West Coast.

BART, 1970s


Photo: brian kusler/Flickr

During BART’s first week of service in 1972, it carried about 100,000 passengers; now, more than 400,000 people ride BART daily. The postcard claims that BART is the “Most Modern Transportation System in the World,” insert retrospective eyerolling here. We just wish that modern vision had included 24/7 service; we’ll let that slide, though, because this photo of BART employees in the 1970s is perfection.

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