San Francisco's Ferry Building gleams again

Happy ending
Peter Fish


SAN FRANCISCO - I loved the Ferry Building long before I saw it in person. I loved it from repeated, obsessive viewings of the 1955 film It Came from Beneath the Sea, wherein a giant radioactive octopus swims into San Francisco Bay and, after taking out the Golden Gate Bridge, wraps its tentacles around the Ferry Building's graceful tower to - well, you can guess the rest.

Over the years, It Came and similar films taught me a little-known aesthetic rule: movie monsters are not drawn to mediocre architecture. Think of King Kong and the Empire State Building, or the London landmarks crunched by the Giant Behemoth. That octopus paid homage to a building as essential to San Francisco as dim sum or fog.

"The Ferry Building was the city's great meeting hall," says architect Jay Turnbull, whose firm, Page & Turnbull, has helped rescue the structure from decades of neglect.

Completed in 1898 at the foot of Market Street, the Ferry Building combined elegance with strength. Its 240-foot clock tower was modeled after the Giralda at the Cathedral of Seville, and it was anchored to earth by 378 pine pilings. (These details are from Nancy Olmsted's 1998 book, The Ferry Building: Witness to a Century of Change-out of print but worth hunting down.)

For generations the building was San Francisco's front door. At its busiest, in the 1930s, 43 ferryboats brought up to 60,000 passengers here each day. Businessmen, shoppers, and tourists elbowed through the 656-foot-long Grand Nave as ferryboat bells chimed and newsboys squawked and, far above, the tower's great clock kept time.

Then, decline. The Golden Gate and Bay Bridges were built, and car commutes replaced ferry rides. In 1957, a more grievous wound appeared: the Embarcadero Freeway darkened the waterfront and imprisoned the Ferry Building behind concrete and exhaust fumes. No radioactive octopus could have done worse.

Rescue began with an act of God. The 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake caused engineers to declare the Embarcadero Freeway unsafe, and down it came. Suddenly, the Ferry Building was visible again. After five years of planning and construction - "not unusual for a public building of this size in San Francisco," Turnbull says - a restored Ferry Building is opening this spring.

I toured the Ferry Building with Lex Campbell, the Page & Turnbull designer who oversaw much of the restoration. We stood in the Grand Nave, warmed by filtered sun falling through the skylights. Campbell pointed out things that had been changed, and saved - the elegant mosaic-tile floor with the Great Seal of the State of California at its center. There was trickery that might have pleased the director of any monster movie, like the fiberglass replacements for ornate arches of terra-cotta and brick, lighter weight but visually indistinguishable from the originals.

Architects have a joke: the only times you're happy on a job are when you get the commission and when it's all over. But Campbell said that wasn't the case with the Ferry Building. "I never went home and said, 'I'm so tired of this job,'" he says. "It's a really special building."

The new Ferry Building is the center of San Francisco's revived waterfront. Ferries dock here. Inside, shops sell local cheeses, olive oil, and other foods for which Northern California has become famous. Best of all, the estimable Ferry Plaza Farmers' Market will relocate here.

San Francisco is a fractious place; its citizens meet and argue and sue for decades over projects that other cities would complete in a year. And yet, sometimes, when San Francisco finally does something, it turns out to be wonderful.

At the climax of It Came from Beneath the Sea, the giant octopus is defeated by harpoon-wielding scientists, but the Ferry Building is left in ruins. In the real world, the concrete octopus is long gone and the Ferry Building gleams. Sometimes life is better than the movies.

The Ferry Building, San Francisco; www.ferrybuildingmarketplace.com.