In 1906, a major earthquake decimated San Francisco and destroyed more than 28,000 buildings, many as a result of subsequent fires. As the city rebuilt, it adopted a plan for a civic center, first developed in 1899 by English architect B.J.S. Cahill, to consolidate government buildings in a central location. The last building completed for the San Francisco Civic Center, the Federal Building was a critical component of the seven-building complex that included government buildings, a library, and an opera house. The Civic Center design incorporates City Beautiful planning, a concept that relies on Beaux Arts design principles and classically inspired, monumental architecture. San Francisco's Civic Center is one of the nation's most successful examples of the City Beautiful movement.
In 1927, the government allocated $2.5 million for the Federal Building's design and construction, although final costs reached a total of $3 million. San Francisco city officials donated a site in 1930. Architect Arthur Brown, Jr. designed the building, which was constructed between 1934 and 1936, under the auspices of Supervising Architect of the Treasury Louis A. Simon. Brown studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, the world's preeminent architectural school, graduating in 1901. He was the sole architect of the Federal Building, as well as the Opera House and Veterans Building, both significant components of the Civic Center. Brown and his partner John Bakewell, Jr. designed City Hall, a 1915 Beaux Arts architectural masterpiece. Also located within the Civic Center, the City Hall commission established the partners' careers.
In 1975, construction commenced on United Nations Plaza, designed by renowned landscape architect Lawrence Halprin and located next to the Federal Building. The one-acre pedestrian area was named to honor the establishment of the U.N., which occurred in the Veterans Building on June 26, 1945.
The Federal Building is a contributing element to the San Francisco Civic Center, which the Secretary of the Interior designated a National Historic Landmark in 1987. It was vacated in 2007 after a new federal building was constructed in San Francisco. The U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) is currently studying viable reuse alternatives.
The Federal Building is an excellent example of Second Renaissance Revival architecture, displaying style-defining features such as distinct horizontal divisions, a rusticated base, and classical ornamentation including columns on the exterior elevations. The building occupies the block bounded by United Nations Plaza, and Hyde, McAllister, and Leavenworth streets. It has a rectangular footprint with an interior courtyard that allows natural light into the interior. The six-story steel frame is encased in fireproof concrete with concrete flooring and roof slabs, features that officials and architects agreed were important precautions after the fires resulting from the 1906 earthquake. The street elevation walls are constructed of brick but faced with granite, with the exception of a section of the McAllister Street elevation, which is faced in terra cotta.
At the first two stories, the granite is rusticated to articulate the base of the building. The upper stories of the south facade, which faces United Nations Plaza, are covered with smooth-faced granite and dominated by a colonnade of detached two-story Doric columns that are aligned with Doric pilasters on the building. A classical balustrade supports the railing between the columns. Fenestration consists primarily of regularly spaced rectangular windows with multi-pane configurations. The attic story is set back from the wall plane of the building and is surrounded by a classical balustrade and topped by a molded cornice.
The main entrance, comprised of three arched openings, is located at the center of the south elevation. The central arch is topped by a keystone that contains a medallion with a carved shield motif, while the flanking arches each are topped by a medallion featuring an eagle holding olive branches. Secondary entrances are located on the southeast and southwest corners of the building, where the meeting points of the exterior walls have been designed as concave arc configurations. Round arches with ornate medallions placed on the keystones also mark these entrances, and Doric porticos are located above the second story of the corners. Male and female mascarons (carved faces) adorn the exterior. The carvings sport different horticulturally themed headpieces, including corn, wheat, cat tails, and oak leaves. The hipped roof is covered with light grey lead-coated copper.
The main entrance vestibule and first-floor lobby are the most grand and richly detailed interior spaces in the building. The terrazzo flooring features a marble border. Grey marble wainscot, rising to a height of more than twenty-seven feet, covers the walls. Above the wainscot, the cast-stone walls spring into the barrel vaulted ceiling, which features molded hexagonal, rectangular, and diamond-shaped decorative coffers and shell motifs. A detailed cornice and doorway surmounted with a triangular pediment add to the classically inspired design of the entry spaces.
Cast-stone arches separate the first-floor elevator lobby from the corridors. The original bronze elevator doors remain and bronze is also used on other historic elements of the elevator lobby, including a mailbox, clocks, telephone booths, and building directory and bulletin board frames. The lobby leads to an internal courtyard that is open to the sky. Walkways are interspersed with trees, shrubbery, and groundcover plantings.
Several significant interior spaces remain intact. The former Board Room for the U.S. Navy is located on the second floor. Paneled wainscot covers the lower portions of walls, while the upper areas are plaster. The former office of the General Inspector, Supply Corps is a rectangular room with rounded corners. Double-leaf French doors admit natural light and lead to an exterior balcony. A wood and plaster cornice tops the walls. The former Collector of Internal Revenue office contains a similar cornice and paneled wood wainscot covers the walls.
Another important interior space is the former naval Commandant's Suite, a circular ceremonial room, twenty feet in diameter, with adjacent offices, restroom, dressing room, and waiting room. The parquet oak floor contains a centrally placed U.S. Navy seal. An original fireplace with an ornate verde antique marble Rococo-style mantel remains in the room.
1927: Congress approves $2.5 million for new San Francisco Federal Building
1930: City of San Francisco donates site for building
1934-1936: Building constructed
1975: United Nations Plaza construction commences
1987: San Francisco Civic Center designated a National Historic Landmark
2007: Building vacated
Location: 50 United Nations Plaza
Architect: Arthur Brown, Jr.
Construction Dates: 1934-1936
Architectural Style: Second Renaissance Revival
Landmark Status: Designated a National Historic Landmark as a Contributing Building to the San Francisco Civic Center
Primary Material: Granite
Classical Facade with Upper-story Colonnade
Ornate Entrance Vestibule, Lobby, and Elevator Lobby
Naval Commandant's Office
The Federal Building is located on the north side of United Nations Plaza, at the corner of Fulton and Hyde streets. The rectangular building, which surrounds an open courtyard at ground level, sits atop a full basement and rises six stories along three sides. The fifth and attic floors do not continue along McAllister Street forming a "C" shape opening to the north, leaving a four-story facade for the building's north elevation on McAllister Street.
The building is 370' along its east-west axis and parallel to U.N. Plaza, and 222' along its north-south axis. The structural system is a steel frame with steel-reinforced concrete floor and roof slabs. The steel frame is encased in concrete fireproofing. The exterior walls are brick infill with granite facing, cornice and balustrades, except at McAllister Street, where terra cotta facing was used above the third floor. The courtyard walls are brick infill with terra cotta facing, cornice and parapet.
The Federal Building at 50 United Nations Plaza was conceived as a significant element in the San Francisco Civic Center. Constructed between 1934 and 1936, the Federal Building was the last structure to be completed in the seven-building complex. Both on the exterior and the interior, the Federal Building establishes a standard of design rarely realized in government office structures. This achievement is largely due to the efforts of San Francisco architect, Arthur Brown, Jr., who was responsible for the design of four of the seven major buildings in the Civic Center complex, including City Hall. As conceived by Brown, the Federal Building assumes its role as a major element in the spatial and architectural ensemble of the Civic Center. The building provides a strong visual link with City Hall as seen from Market Street, yet remains clearly subordinate to it.
While the architectural vocabulary of the building's exterior was largely determined by urban design considerations, the interior organization remains simple and rational. Although the nature of the program offered little opportunity for grandly conceived spaces, restrained embellishment occurs in the public spaces and in a select few of the office spaces. Elements within these spaces are expressed in the Beaux Arts vocabulary of the building's exterior. The high quality of materials and workmanship in these areas, as well as in many other spaces, has left them in excellent condition, with little maintenance required over the years.
Originally built to house various federal agencies, the building's use has not changed significantly through the years. The flexibility of its internal organization, as initially conceived by the architect, has allowed the interior spaces to expand and shrink as necessary, without significant alterations to the building's permanent architectural elements.