In 1915 it was built to be a "pleasure palace" and at times has served as such--on such varied occasions as the marriage of Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio, and last spring's mass wedding of 190 gay couples.
The pleasure palace is more commonly known as the San Francisco City Hall, which reopened in January after a four-year, $300 million restoration. The national landmark is a stunning example of Beaux-Arts architecture, a design based on the Capitol in Washington, D.C. But this dome soars 306 feet, higher than the nation's Capitol, and offers one of the largest rotundas in the world. Outside, its ornamentation is covered in 23.5-karat gold. Light floods through leaded-glass windows onto a sweeping staircase of Carrara marble. Daily free tours provide a colorful glimpse of the city's history, and the South Light Court exhibits San Francisco memorabilia.
After the 1906 earthquake destroyed most of San Francisco, Mayor "Sunny Jim" Rolph commanded the construction of a multipurpose building. It would serve as the seat of municipal government, and its majestic design would symbolize his confidence in rebuilding the city. The pleasure palace would also provide a space where the courageous survivors could entertain, now that their Nob Hill mansions were rubble. Rolph's dream became a reality when the new San Francisco City Hall opened for business and pleasure.
But in 1989, the Loma Prieta earthquake reminded city politicians of the precarious foundations their lives rested upon. The building suffered serious structural damage, and in 1995 the ambitious retrofitting and restoration project began. Each stone in the four-story rotunda was removed, numbered and stored while sheer walls were installed to stabilize the building. The original mouth-blown light fixtures from France were boxed and warehoused during the construction. City Hall would become the largest edifice in the world to float on a "base isolation system" of rubber and steel disks.
Today the building looks just as it must have when it opened. The high-tech seismic upgrades are invisible, hidden beneath the original materials. But a model of the base isolator system is on display outside the South Light Court. The phoenix, the official symbol of San Francisco, can be found throughout--appropriate for a city that has risen from the ashes more than once.
The tour includes the magnificent Board of Supervisors chambers, where the ceiling is a Spanish Renaissance design carved from Manchurian oak. Next stop is Mayor Willie Brown's office, the only working mayor's office in the world to allow such activity. Brown talks on the phone, sitting behind a desk formerly owned by Sunny Jim Rolph, a desk which may be occupied by a new body after the mayoral election Dec. 14.
Brown's decision to let all humanity traipse through his office is particularly startling, considering what happened here in the past. In 1978, Dan White, a disgruntled city politician, strolled into the adjoining anteroom and shot Mayor George Moscone. City Hall's historical docent, Ellen Schumer, says questions about the murder are the most frequent she receives on the 25 tours she leads each week.
"A group of students was visiting from France, and I was explaining to them about Dan White's 'Twinkie defense,' " she says, referring to the infamous explanation that White gave for the shooting--that he was so cranked up on sugar from eating too many Twinkies that he lost control of himself and decided to kill the mayor and gay Supervisor Harvey Milk. "These French students kept asking, 'Quest-ce que c'est Twin-kay?' " Schumer arches one elegant eyebrow and throws up her hands. "I mean, my French is adequate, but how do you explain a Twinkie to the French?"
City Hall, 1 Dr. Carlton B. Goodlett Place, San Francisco, 415-554-6023. Daily guided tours and admission to the South Light Court are free.