Architecture tour of San Francisco’s Financial District

Many Bay Area residents only know San Francisco’s Financial District from afar, a cluster of towers north of Market Street with a pyramid popping out. But the onetime “Wall Street of the West” offers a crash course on 20th century architectural styles, with surprises that range from glorious to grotesque. […]

Many Bay Area residents only know San Francisco’s Financial District from afar, a cluster of towers north of Market Street with a pyramid popping out. But the onetime “Wall Street of the West” offers a crash course on 20th century architectural styles, with surprises that range from glorious to grotesque.

Like the unicorn and lion doing battle, each creature carved from marble. The 20-story tower sitting atop two classical banks. Redwoods clustered below a concrete skyscraper, and angelic cherubs that survived the 1906 earthquake.

The layer of styles and scales illuminate how cities evolve, including the mistakes along the way. They’re also a lot of fun. And if someone is whispering tips in your ear on what to look at, all the better.

That’s the idea behind something new The Chronicle is launching, GPS based audio tours reported and hosted by Chronicle journalists and published on the VoiceMap app. I was asked to prepare one, and didn’t hesitate to suggest the historic Financial District as my subject.

The route of the tour is straightforward — from Market Street up Montgomery Street to the Transamerica Pyramid, and then back down Sansome Street — with a few detours along the way to glimpse some architectural finds you wouldn’t want to miss.

The format is simple as well. The Chronicle is publishing these tours on the VoiceMap app, which relies on GPS to fill you in as you walk. Each of the two dozen audio tracks I recorded is activated when you pass within range of its precise location. As you move, the narration moves with you.

The walk is short, less than two miles start to finish, but that’s long enough to explore not only the dense dramatic landscape but the political and planning backstage dramas that help explain why the city looks the way it does.

You can also check out The Chronicle’s other audio tour, Secrets of Golden Gate Park: Graft, gunfire and a 90-year-old fish with Culture Critic Peter Hartlaub and Columnist Heather Knight.

Each tour is available for $6.99 and exclusively $3.99 for all Chronicle subscribers. Click here to access your discounted promo code before purchase. To purchase the tour, visit www.sfchronicle.com/audiotours. For the best tour experience, you’ll need comfy shoes, a well-charged phone and a pair of headphones.

To give you a taste of what unrolls along the way, here are six examples:

580 California St. in San Francisco’s Financial District has a unique detail: 12 mysterious figures along the roofline of the tower.

580 California St. in San Francisco’s Financial District has a unique detail: 12 mysterious figures along the roofline of the tower.

Jessica Christian/The Chronicle

580 California St.: This 23-story postmodern granite tower concludes with 12 faceless shrouded sculptures up high — figures that the architect wickedly likened to the elected inhabitants of San Francisco City Hall.

Diners have dinner along Belden Alley, where restaurants with outdoor seating fill the roadway in San Francisco.

Diners have dinner along Belden Alley, where restaurants with outdoor seating fill the roadway in San Francisco.

Carlos Avila Gonzalez/The Chronicle

Belden Place: Long before there were dining parklets, this one-block alley sprouted chic cafes that put out lunchtime tables and dared the city to intervene. Now it’s a destination for nearby workers, so compelling that it has held on despite the pandemic.

All that remain of the Alaska Commercial Building, which was torn down in the 1970s to make way for a modern tower, are a line of carved walrus heads.

All that remain of the Alaska Commercial Building, which was torn down in the 1970s to make way for a modern tower, are a line of carved walrus heads.

John King/The Chronicle

Tusked Survivors, California Street: Forget Pier 39’s sea lions. In the depths of the Financial District you can encounter a row of walrus heads carved from granite — all that remains of the Alaska Commercial Building that was built in 1908 and demolished 65 years later.

Intricate stonework details are seen over the facade of the historic Royal Insurance Building at 201 Sansome Street in the Financial District of San Francisco.

Intricate stonework details are seen over the facade of the historic Royal Insurance Building at 201 Sansome Street in the Financial District of San Francisco.

Jessica Christian / The Chronicle

Royal Globe Building, 201 Sansome St.: Talk about an unexpected sight you don’t want to miss: The entrance to this former office building is topped by a clock being wrestled over by a lion and a unicorn. Carved from gleaming white marble, better yet.

A footbridge allows pedestrians cross a "dry moat" surrounding the tower at 1 Bush St. in San Francisco.

A footbridge allows pedestrians cross a “dry moat” surrounding the tower at 1 Bush St. in San Francisco.

Jessica Christian/The Chronicle

1 Bush St.: No gargoyles, no unicorns, no walruses. This modest 20-story tower opened in 1959 and immediately redefined architectural expectations for this part of town — a taut study in metal and glass that remains one of the Financial District’s true landmarks.

The Russ Building, 235 Montgomery St.: An old-school skyscraper that looks as though Superman should be bounding into orbit from one of its brawny shoulders, George Kelham designed this Gothic triumph that opened in 1927 and for 35 years was the city’s tallest tower.

John King is The San Francisco Chronicle’s urban design critic. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @johnkingsfchron

 

The Chronicle has partnered with the VoiceMap app to create GPS-based audio tours of San Francisco reported and hosted by Chronicle journalists. To purchase a tour, visit www.sfchronicle.com/audiotours. For the best tour experience, you’ll need comfy shoes, a well-charged phone and a pair of headphones. Happy exploring!



https://www.sfchronicle.com/bayarea/article/sf-architecture-tour-financial-district-16664098.php

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