SAN FRANCISCO – I loved the Ferry Building long before I saw itin person. I loved it from repeated, obsessive viewings of the 1955film It Came from Beneath the Sea, wherein a giant radioactiveoctopus swims into San Francisco Bay and, after taking out theGolden Gate Bridge, wraps its tentacles around the Ferry Building’sgraceful tower to – well, you can guess the rest.
Over the years, It Came and similar films taught me a little-known aestheticrule: movie monsters are not drawn to mediocre architecture. Thinkof King Kong and the Empire State Building, or the London landmarkscrunched by the Giant Behemoth. That octopus paid homage to abuilding as essential to San Francisco as dim sum or fog.
“The Ferry Building was the city’s great meeting hall,” saysarchitect Jay Turnbull, whose firm, Page & Turnbull, has helpedrescue the structure from decades of neglect.
Completed in 1898 at the foot of Market Street, the FerryBuilding combined elegance with strength. Its 240-foot clock towerwas modeled after the Giralda at the Cathedral of Seville, and itwas anchored to earth by 378 pine pilings. (These details are fromNancy Olmsted’s 1998 book, The Ferry Building: Witness to a Century of Change-out ofprint but worth hunting down.)
For generations the building was San Francisco’s front door. Atits busiest, in the 1930s, 43 ferryboats brought up to 60,000passengers here each day. Businessmen, shoppers, and touristselbowed through the 656-foot-long Grand Nave as ferryboat bellschimed and newsboys squawked and, far above, the tower’s greatclock kept time.
Then, decline. The Golden Gate and Bay Bridges were built, andcar commutes replaced ferry rides. In 1957, a more grievous woundappeared: the Embarcadero Freeway darkened the waterfront andimprisoned the Ferry Building behind concrete and exhaust fumes. Noradioactive octopus could have done worse.
Rescue began with an act of God. The 1989 Loma Prieta earthquakecaused engineers to declare the Embarcadero Freeway unsafe, anddown it came. Suddenly, the Ferry Building was visible again. Afterfive years of planning and construction – “not unusual for a publicbuilding of this size in San Francisco,” Turnbull says – a restoredFerry 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 inthe Grand Nave, warmed by filtered sun falling through theskylights. Campbell pointed out things that had been changed, andsaved – the elegant mosaic-tile floor with the Great Seal of theState of California at its center. There was trickery that mighthave pleased the director of any monster movie, like the fiberglassreplacements for ornate arches of terra-cotta and brick, lighterweight but visually indistinguishable from the originals.
Architects have a joke: the only times you’re happy on a job arewhen you get the commission and when it’s all over. But Campbellsaid that wasn’t the case with the Ferry Building. “I never wenthome and said, ‘I’m so tired of this job,'” he says. “It’s a reallyspecial building.”
The new Ferry Building is the center of San Francisco’s revivedwaterfront. Ferries dock here. Inside, shops sell local cheeses,olive oil, and other foods for which Northern California has becomefamous. Best of all, the estimable Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market willrelocate here.
San Francisco is a fractious place; its citizens meet and argueand sue for decades over projects that other cities would completein a year. And yet, sometimes, when San Francisco finally doessomething, it turns out to be wonderful.
At the climax of It Came from Beneath the Sea, the giant octopus is defeatedby harpoon-wielding scientists, but the Ferry Building is left inruins. In the real world, the concrete octopus is long gone and theFerry Building gleams. Sometimes life is better than themovies.
The Ferry Building, San Francisco; www.ferrybuildingmarketplace.com.