Unbuilt San Francisco: The View from Futures Past at the California Historical Society

Unbuilt San Francisco: The View from Futures Past is one of four simultaneous exhibitions across the Bay Area examining never-realized concepts for our built environment. The exhibition, organized by CHS and SPUR, provides evidence of the complicated civic discourse and powerful forces that led ultimately to the demise, or significant reshaping, of diverse proposed projects.

Imagine and share in the conversation.

Anthea Hartig, Executive Director
California Historical Society

Gabriel Metcalf, Executive Director

Sketch of Subway under Street Car Loops at Foot of Market Street, 1925
California Historical Society, CHS2013.1250


In the galleries of the California Historical Society, and abbreviated in this slideshow, we survey three ambitious efforts to reimagine the city of San Francisco and the Bay Area as a metropolitan region—Marincello, Yerba Buena Center, and the Ferry Building and plaza—reaching beyond plans and models to depict the political, social, and economic challenges to each and giving voice to advocates and detractors.

Cydney M. Payton, Co-curator

Model of Marincello Development, 1967
Wood, plaster, plastic, paint, architectural flocking and other medium
Courtesy of National Park Service, Golden Gate NRA, GOGA-1701


Conceived in the early 1960s by the developer Thomas Frouge with the financial backing of Gulf Oil Corporation, Marincello was planned as a bedroom community for 30,000 residents in the picturesque interior landscape of the Marin Headlands. Intended to represent "open-space" architecture, built structures were clustered in the landscape with minimal roadway access.

Unknown photographer
Tennessee Valley Marincello Gates, c. 1973
Color photograph
Courtesy of National Park Service, Golden Gate NRA, GOGA-2316

Obstacles to construction began almost immediately following the plan's 1965 approval. Trespassing allegations, organized opposition from environmentalists, a ballooning budget, legal actions, and sale of the lands to the Nature Conservancy in 1972 all led to Marincello's demise. By 1976, the would-be community's entry gates, the only remaining architectural evidence of the failed project, were demolished.

KPIX Eyewitness News / Bill Hillman broadcasting
Marincello Purchased by Nature Conservancy, December 3, 1972
Archival newsfilm, 16mm color, comagnetic sound film
Video still courtesy of KPIX-TV, San Francisco

After years of protests, Gulf Oil Corporation sold the Marincello property to the Nature Conservancy for $6.5 million. Here, a broadcaster calls attention to crowds celebrating the sale at the Marincello gates on December 3, 1972. The conservancy later transferred title to the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA), thereby safeguarding the land on both sides of the Golden Gate Bridge through its establishment as a national park.

Mark Klett (1952– )
Fruit Tree Planted a Long Time Ago by Farmers, Oakwood Valley (from the Headlands Project), 1987
Silver gelatin print, ed. 4/50
Courtesy of the artist

This image by the renowned landscape photographer Mark Klett is a quiet reminder of what was at stake when Thomas Frouge first proposed the Marincello project in the early 1960s. It was made when the Marin Headlands was under the GGNRA's stewardship and was still being discovered by local visitors and tourists. A fitting legacy emerged from resistance to Frouge's idea of erasing the Marin landscape: the unbuilt Marincello's inscription in the history of the headlands' preservation.

Three Kids on Deck of Southern Pacific Ferryboat
Approaching San Francisco Ferry Terminal
, n.d.,
California Historical Society, CHS2013.1272


Probably no other built site in San Francisco has reflected the daily civics of the city more than the Ferry Building. As a terminus to the central thoroughfare Market Street, it has framed San Francisco's history and heritage since 1898, persevering as a landmark even after the erection of the Bay and Golden Gate Bridges made crossing the bay by ferry less necessary and a double-decker freeway choked off its access to the rest of the city. It had to be reimagined and transformed lest it become obsolete.

Bent Steel Flagpole and Stopped Clock, Ferry Building, 1906
California Historical Society, CHS2012.847
The Ferry Building has served as a hub for ceremonial public events, tourism, commercial exchanges, military celebrations, and daily ferry launches to and from bay ports. Its iconic clock tower has been demolished and rebuilt, brought back to life as the singular, analogue representation of the city's cultural values of endurance, fortitude, and reinvention—made especially poignant after it remained standing amidst a sea of rubble following the 1906 earthquake.
Willis Polk (1867–1924)
Ferry Building Peristyle, 1897
Ink on paper
Willis Jefferson Polk Collection
Courtesy of Environmental Design Archives, University of California, Berkeley

This elaborate 1897 drawing of an unbuilt Beaux Arts temple with a peristyle colonnade is an early example of the concept of creating a "front porch" for the city—an idea that appears over and over in the Ferry Building's architectural imaginings. Here we see the architect William Polk's vision of the building as the city's principal gateway. Polk's plan failed to find its political grounding within the community, perhaps laying the groundwork for future unbuilt propositions for the site.

William Merchant (1889–1962)
Aerial View, n.d.
Pencil on paper
Courtesy of Environmental Design Archives, University of California, Berkeley

In 1943, the architectural firm of William G. Merchant initiated plans for a World Trade Center at the Ferry Building site. This aerial view—recalling the waterfront's long history of commerce and trade—illustrates Merchant's vision for the complex. Like many unbuilt proposals, we struggle to determine the roots of opposition. What changed to make these projects untenable? Were the visions too expensive, or was there something in the political environment that led to their defeat?

Ernest Born (1898–1992)
Embarcadero Crescent View, c. 1956–61
Pastel on paper
Ernest and Esther Born Collection
Courtesy of Environmental Design Archives, University of California, Berkeley

The architects John S. Bolles and Ernest Born proposed their Embarcadero Crescent development of the San Francisco waterfront in the mid-1950s. This aerial view looking north from the Ferry Building (foreground) and culminating at Aquatic Park and Fisherman's Wharf encompasses a tree-lined esplanade and trade, business, cultural, sports, fashion, and convention centers.

Buster Simpson (1942– )
Embark, Proposed Installation at Embarcadero and Clay Street, 1999
Casting plastic and acrylic paint
Courtesy of the artist

The Seattle sculptor Buster Simpson's Embark, an 18-foot-tall monument depicted in this scale model, was intended as a public artwork along the Embarcadero near the Ferry Building. Simpson's idea originated from his discovery of the footings that had supported the columns of the dismantled Embarcadero freeway. The proposed striated stainless-steel work subsequently was defeated by the Board of Supervisors following public debate of its merits.

Courtesy of the artist

Buster Simpson's Embark aroused public outcry when it was selected by the San Francisco Art Commission in 1997 and approved two years later. Although some described it as "whimsical," as the San Francisco Chronicle reported, others complained that it was "inelegant, ostentatious and at odds with the feel of the waterfront." This photograph depicts an array of media coverage of the controversy on a wall in Simpson's studio.

Benjamin H. Swig, Hotelman and Financier,
Posing with Associates and Sketch of Plan for
Redevelopment of Downtown City Blocks
, c. 1953
Courtesy of San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library


The Yerba Buena Center in the South of Market district was envisioned in the 1950s, when the urban renewal tidal wave swept into the city to redevelop so-called blighted areas. We examine this site as a history of unbuilding viewed within the context of resistance and shifting values. Under what terms do we consider preservation important, and how do those standards apply under the flux and strain of economics and demographic change?

Ira Nowinski (1942– )
Demolition of the Milner Hotel, Fourth and Mission, 1974 Digital print
From No Vacancy: Urban Renewal and the Elderly (1979)
Courtesy of the photographer, Ira Nowinski

In the 1970s, the photographer Ira Nowinski—compelled by a San Francisco Chronicle headline, "Ninety-six Citizens Thrown Out of Hotel"—documented the dismantling of the South of Market neighborhood and the displacement of its working class and elderly citizens, mostly men, who lived in safe, low-rent housing. This image is part of his series No Vacancy: Urban Renewal and the Elderly, published in 1979.

Office of Lawrence Halprin
The Fountain, Yerba Buena Gardens, n.d.
Shadow box model with internal light; watercolor and gesso on photocopy, mounted on board, in box of foamcore, wood, and Plexiglas
The Architectural Archives, University of Pennsylvania by the gift of Lawrence Halprin

The influential Bay Area landscape architect Lawrence Halprin's vision for Yerba Buena Center incorporated many of his concepts for public spaces, including his theories of open and closed spaces. By addressing intimacy in scale and performative layers of sequencing for the spaces, he created an open area within the site. In his concept, terraces blend architecture and garden—building and landscape—creating a "cacophony of three-dimensional spaces."

Mario J. Ciampi (1907–2006)
Proposed Long-range Plan for Yerba Buena Center, 1981
Graphite on paper
Mario Ciampi Collection
Courtesy of Environmental Design Archives, University of California, Berkeley

Beginning in the 1950s with architectural plans for schools, the San Francisco-born architect and urban planner Mario J. Ciampi conceptualized—and reconceptualized—a rebuilt San Francisco through his architectural practice. Rooted in the International Style, Ciampi's architecture is characterized by bold geometric forms, curves, arches, angles, and color. A visionary materiality distinguishes his Bay Area residences, public spaces, and commercial and public buildings.

San Francisco Ballet Pavilion Model, Lit Up
Digital photograph, n.d.
Courtesy of Cathy Simon FAIA

In search of a temporary home in the mid-1990s, the San Francisco Ballet engaged the women-owned Simon Martin-Vegue Winkelstein Moris (SMWM) to create an interim space. SMWM designed the San Francisco Ballet Pavilion to "create an atmosphere of celebration and theatricality," including clear and translucent glass and shaped fabric panels. However, with costs escalating and without a commercial partner, the Ballet canceled the project.

Ricardo Legorreta (1931–2011)
Model for proposed Mexican Museum, West View, 2001
Digital drawing
Courtesy of Legorreta + Legorreta, Mexico City, Mexico

In 1995, the Mexican Museum hired the famed Mexican architect Ricardo Legorreta to design new quarters at Mission and Third Streets. Legorreta proposed that his bold, six-story terraced structure clad in rough red stone would "represent Mexico at its highest levels of art, culture and human exchange." Despite a ceremonial groundbreaking in 2001, development of the $34-million, 63,000-square-foot facility was abandoned following an unsuccessful and lengthy fifteen-year capital campaign.

Daniel Libeskind (1946– )
Proposed Design for Contemporary Jewish Museum (model A - 60,000 sq. feet), c. 2006
Wood, foamcore, Plexiglass
Courtesy of the Contemporary Jewish Museum

In 1994, the Contemporary Jewish Museum hired Daniel Libeskind as the "starchitect" for its new building at the site of the historic Jessie Street Pacific Gas & Electric Power Substation. Libeskind's ambitious 60,000-square-foot structure would have dramatically altered the surrounding architecture through its assertive scale. The building that was ultimately realized is a scaled-back version, smaller in size and more refined in its geometry.

678 Mission Street
San Francisco
CA 94105
415.357.1848 voice
415.357.1850 fax
Gallery + Store
Tuesday – Sunday
11:00am to 5:00pm
Wednesday – Friday
1:00pm to 5:00pm
Monday – Friday
9:00am to 5:00pm