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San Francisco—Built on a Dream

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San Francisco has had many groovy vibes (as they used to say in Haight-Ashbury), from boisterous gold rush Babel to Tony Bennett’s lamplit village where “…little cable cars climb halfway to the stars…” This restless city is a built dream whose blueprint continues to grow and change. Industrious and dynamic? Yeah, you might say that.

When the whaling vessel Niantic ran aground near the corner of present-day Montgomery and Clay streets, the gold-maddened crew abandoned the huge ship, at which point an early GC cut a hole in the hull, ran a plank into the thing, and made it a hotel. This entrepreneurial quick-thinking has defined SF’s built evolution—from 1849’s punch-drunk prospectors’ paradise to the urbane, skyscraping, globally iconic hipster hangout it is today. 

How it Began Francisco

The First San Franciscans were the indigenous Miwok and Ohlone peoples whose ancestral homelands had—for some 10,000 years—occupied a great swath from San Francisco Bay through Monterey Bay to the lower Salinas Valley. By 1579 Europe was on a global shopping spree for real estate, and famed British circumnavigator and explorer Sir Francis Drake—in his exhausting trip around the globe—landed with much pomp and self-congratulation at Pt. Reyes…missing San Francisco Bay by about 38 miles. 

In the 18th century things got a little zany. Mexico—including its northernmost province Alta California—split from Spain to form its own nation (where’d they get that nutty idea?), then still later scrapped with the U.S. over Texas (remember the Alamo?) and California both. In 1848 a tired-looking guy named Jim Marshall would discover gold in the SF area, drawing pickaxe-wielding hopefuls from all over the newish United States and elsewhere. This crazy influx of aspirational human energy into early SF would result—some 170 years later—in all 1,070’ of the Salesforce Tower at 415 Mission Street downtown. Early Gold Rush Avatar® Jim Marshall likely didn’t foresee this outcome. Life’s funny that way. 

Buildings and Shaking and Fire

In 1851 SF received a painful “construction wake-up call” when a fire—the most ruinous of seven that occurred between 1849 and ‘51—burned wood-framed SF from Portsmouth Square all the way down to the waterfront.

25,000 buildings over 500 city blocks vanished in a conflagration that lasted four straight days.

Frontier-style elevated wooden walkways provided the perfect catalyst as the spaces under the planks oxygenated the roaring flames and literally walked the fire to the sea. 2,000 buildings were vaporized—about three-quarters of the city. The lesson was taken up, but slowly. SF was by then a boomtown, and re-builders, flush with cash, paid little heed to make lasting structural or materials improvements. That all changed in 1906. 

There had been two temblors in the mid-19th century, giving SF locals the jitters, but at 5 AM on April 18 the Big One hit. Estimated by today’s seismologists at a 7.9, the quake killed 3,000 San Franciscans and—combining cruelly with fire from ruptured gas lines—brought down about 80% of the city. 25,000 buildings over 500 city blocks vanished in a conflagration that lasted four straight days. Reconstruction plans came quickly and were quickly approved, though securing the actual funds took a little more time. Most of SF’s major banks had been burned away. Their cash-stuffed vaults had survived, but for 10 days were literally too hot to touch. 

San Francisco’s Built Braggadocio 

The artisan spirit of SF can truly be said to inhabit its structures. I mean, the Golden Gate Bridge? Even the name is musical. Not surprisingly perhaps, her two design engineers—Joseph Strauss and Charles Ellis—moonlit as a poet and Greek scholar, respectively. Built between 1933 and 1937, the Golden Gate bridge came in ahead of schedule and a million bucks under budget. Not to judge, but that doesn’t happen all that often these days. The bridge is, among other things, 80,000 miles of galvanized steel wire, 1.2 million rivets, and—dangling crazily from 250 pairs of vertical cables—both the 101 Freeway and California’s Highway 1. 

The artisan spirit of SF can truly be said to inhabit its structures. I mean, the Golden Gate Bridge? Even the name is musical.

The Transamerica Building is another SF icon—but was greeted at inception with angry howls from the locals. In 1972 the quartz-clad obelisk felt like an 850’ thumb in the eye, an aesthetic affront to that day’s comparatively low-slung bayside town. But the elegant spire has since grown on us all, it’s tapered profile ingeniously designed to maximize sunlight and bay-scented breezes in the streets below. None of this NYC “canyons of steel” stuff for the west coast metropolis, where commingling sun and fog drape over the skyline like an embracing ermine cape.

Salesforce Tower Power

Today, the City by the Bay is making use of its limited peninsular footprint by building up, up, up. While some locals fondly recall the lower, more approachable city skyline of yesteryear, today the city is bristling with neck-craning examples of vanguard construction technology. 2018’s Salesforce Tower (SFcT), which sailed vertically past downtown’s famous TransAmerica building by a cool 200’, is a shining example of what San Francisco “means” from a construction standpoint.

Earthquake? SFcT’s 42 support piles are massively hammered some 300 feet below street-level into solid bedrock; they’re pounded another twenty feet into the metamorphic basement.

Since the year 2000, more than 15 skyscrapers have been slotted into San Francisco’s packed footprint. 

The nearly 1,100-foot tower—which at a glance looks like a gigantic textured titanium baguette—is resting on a 14-foot-thick concrete slab that took 18 uninterrupted hours to pour and is about an acre in breadth. More of this is on the way. 

Since the year 2000, more than 15 skyscrapers have been slotted into San Francisco’s packed footprint, like chess pieces delicately placed on a crowded board. Fourteen more sky scraping San Francisco projects have broken ground at this writing. From brawling clapboard frontier town to steel-and-glass metropolis, San Francisco is the embodiment of construction dynamism and optimism.

For an inside look at the technologies behind some of the city’s iconic construction marvels, be sure to register for Procore’s Connect Series San Francisco on Sept. 12. The Construction Tech meet-up will feature a panel of leading technology experts who will share insights, challenges and best practices for managing a growing list of construction technologies. The event is free, but space is limited, reserve your spot soon!

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