San Francisco’s Embarcadero and Ferry Building, is a stunning example of successful urban renewal. The wide boulevard defines the San Francisco Bay side boundary of the city from the Giant’s baseball stadium to Pier 39.
Yerba Buena Cove occupied the space between the Embarcadero and Montgomery Street before a seawall and fill turned mud flats into dry land for what is now the Financial District.
San Francisco Belt Railroad
The State Belt Railroad of California ran the length of the Embarcadero—on top of the seawall—and extended to the Presidio through a tunnel under Fort Mason. Beginning operation in 1889 the railway was renamed the San Francisco Belt Railroad in 1969 and ceased operation in 1993. A five-stall roundhouse at Embarcadero and Sansome Street, the Belt Line Engine House and Sandhouse built in 1913, has been converted to office space. Connecting the Port of San Francisco to waterfront docks, warehouses and businesses the railroad had its headquarters in the Ferry Building.
Central Embarcadero Piers Historic District
Four piers directly west of the Ferry Building comprise the Central Embarcadero Piers Historic District. Piers 1, 1 1/2, 3 and 5, designed in the Beaux-Arts Style, opened in 1918. They were the only group of piers in the Port of San Francisco dedicated primarily to inland trade and transport and contributed to the growth of California’s agricultural industry. The Delta King, a 285 foot long paddlewheel steamboat that made overnight 10 hour trips between San Francisco and Sacramento from Pier 1 1/2, is now a hotel and restaurant in Old Sacramento.
The gray mansard roof on the Audiffred Building at Mission and the Embarcadero, reflecting a style more typically seen on the Champs Elysése in Paris, provides a clue to its designer. Hippolite D’Audiffred, a Parisian who came to San Francisco via Veracruz, Mexico, erected the building in 1889. Now City Landmark Number: 7, the historic building was home to the first permanent sailors’ union in history. It is said to have survived the fire following the 1906 earthquake when the saloon keeper of a bar occupying the building (The Bulkhead) bribed firefighters with whiskey and wine not to destroy it while creating a firebreak. A fire did eventually gut the building in 1978 but it has been beautifully restored and has housed the Boulevard restaurant since 1993.
The frieze around the ground floor of the Audiffred Building—featuring medallions depicting lighthouses, dolphins, sailing ships and anchors—was commissioned by A. P. Giannini. Giannini was an Italian immigrant who started the Bank of Italy (eventually Bank of America) in San Francisco and opened one of its first branches (the Harbor Branch) in the Audiffred Building in 1928.
A combination of events contributed to the decline of the Embarcadero neighborhood beginning with reduced traffic through the Ferry Building after the San Francisco – Oakland Bay Bridge opened in 1936 followed by the Golden Gate Bridge the following year. The switch to container freight about the same time caused much of the shipping that had come through San Francisco to move to the Oakland container terminal. The Embarcadero began a general decline that was accelerated with the construction of a double-decker freeway in the 1950’s. The elevated roadway separated the waterfront from the city and blocked views of the bay. A long running battle to remove the freeway was finally successful when the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake damaged the structure such that repair was more expensive than demolition.
San Francisco Waterfront Renaissance
Removal of the double-decked Embarcadero Freeway in 1991 sparked a renaissance along the San Francisco waterfront. The Embarcadero Center was revitalized, parks and piers were developed and renovated, South Beach and Rincon Hill neighborhoods benefited and the Market Street Railway F-Line was extended along the waterfront to Fisherman’s Wharf.
San Francisco’s Ferry Building opened in 1898. It survived the 1906 Earthquake and Fire but the clock tower—modeled after La Giralda, the bell tower and minaret of the Cathedral of Seville—required some rebuilding. With many cable car lines converging in front of the Ferry Building (later replaced by a loop for several streetcar lines) this was once one of the busiest areas of foot traffic in the world. Forty years of decline in the neighborhood were reversed when the Embarcadero Freeway was torn down after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake to be replace with a wide boulevard. A restoration project spanning several years was complete in 2004 and the Ferry Building reopened with soaring historic architecture, an upscale gourmet marketplace, ferry terminal and second floor office spaces. The more than 30 shops and restaurants which provide products and services to commuters heading for the ferries, out of town visitors and the many fortunate San Franciscans that live nearby are supplemented with a farmers market held at the Ferry Building Tuesdays and Saturdays year-round and Thursday evenings in the summer.
The Embarcadero has once again become a vital pedestrian, ferry boat, automobile and streetcar thoroughfare which takes advantage of its unique location in the City-by-the-Bay.
Historic streetcar service in San Francisco was first proposed in 1971 and began full operation in 1995 with the F Market historic streetcar line between Castro & Market Streets and the Transbay Terminal at 1st & Mission Streets. The extension to Fisherman’s Wharf was completed and service began in March of 2000.
The San Francisco Municipal Railway (SFMuni/SFMTA) operates historic streetcars, trolleys and trams (electric rail vehicles) from San Francisco and around the world on the F-line.
In tribute to San Francisco’s role as a global crossroads for commerce and the adopted home for people from all over the world Muni operates more historic streetcars that originated in other cities than any other transit agency in the world.
Trams built in Milan, Italy in 1928 and designed by Cleveland transit leader Peter Witt also run on the Embarcadero F-line. The San Francisco Railway Museum is across from the Ferry Building where Market Street meets the Embarcadero in the Hotel Vitale building. Celebrating the history of rail transit in San Francisco, The Railway Museum features historic artifacts, displays, archival photography and audio-visual exhibits. Entrance is free. A variety of railroad memorabilia can be purchased.
Herb Caen Way…
San Francisco’s beloved purveyor of “three-dot journalism” loved to walk throughout Baghdad-by-the-Bay … Although Herb Caen dubbed it the Dambarcadero, he lobbied against the removal of the elevated Embarcadero Freeway prior the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, but argued for it after … Herb Caen Way… is the name given to the 25-foot-wide pedestrian promenade along the embarcadero from South Beach to Fisherman’s Wharf … Herb Caen, 80, San Francisco Voice, Dies.
Pier 7: A fishing pier with 360-degree views of San Francisco, the Bay Bridge, Yerba Buena and Treasure Islands and the East Bay, Pier 7, originally built in 1901, was damaged in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, demolished then rebuilt and dedicated in 1990. Pier 7 is 840 feet long with a bulge in the middle and bulb at the end. Pier 7’s ornamental Victorian iron handrails and light fixtures, timber decking and wooden benches make it popular with photographers and television camera crews.
Pier 14: A former breakwater for San Francisco’s Downtown Ferry Terminal, Pier 14 is now a 637-foot public pedestrian pier. The $2.3 million project has been described as the most expensive stretch of sidewalk in the country. The revitalized pier 14 opened in June 2006 and was dedicated to former Mayor Art Agnos for his leadership in the revitalization of the Embarcadero.
Located on the Embarcadero at the foot of Folsom Street between Harrison and Howard Streets, Rincon Park is two acres of waterfront open space. Completed in early 2003 the property is leased from the Port of San Francisco and was developed by Gap Inc. in conjunction with their headquarters office building at 2 Folsom Street. Cupids Span, a 60-foot-tall painted fiberglass and steel bow and arrow sculpture by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje Van Bruggen, provides a whimsical artistic frame for stunning views of the Bay Bridge, Treasure Island, Yerba Buena Island and the Berkeley hills.
The Embarcadero is a popular gathering spot on New Years Eve. It’s a great place to watch the annual fireworks display with the Bay Bridge and Treasure Island in the background.