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article imageOld City Hall reveals its history of graft amid 1906 Quake ruins Special

By Jonathan Farrell     Oct 4, 2012 in Lifestyle
San Francisco - It is said by many in archaeology circles that beneath every modern city are layers of a previous city. This can also be said of San Francisco of which the architect firm of Page and Turnbull would agree.
While perhaps, still a young city compared with the likes of Paris or London, archaeologists and historians can trace San Francisco to its earliest settlements as a sleepy village once known as "Yerba Buena."
As the village grew quickly into a city with the discovery of gold, with each expansion, rebuilding, another layer was added and this is why finding a bit of history underneath a busy street is important. As present day work crews were doing some repair work to the Federal Building at San Francisco's Civic Center near City Hall, they stumbled across evidence of previous structures.
"This is really quite something, really significant," said San Francisco Museum and Historical Society founder Charles Fracchia. He was pleased to hear the news of the find of the old City Hall as it was reported in The San Francisco Chronicle this past Sept. 25 and made the front page.
Usually, Fracchia and his staff are consulted, but "no not this time," he said. Yet this reporter was curious to get the SF Museum and Historical Society's reaction. "For me,” said Fracchia, “this discovery and dig creates a flurry of interest about the past."
He confirmed as was stated in the article in the SF Chronicle that the old City Hall structure which took more than three decades to complete was flawed. "The foundation was set in 1871 and that was done well. But over the next 35 years the on-going construction was mishandled." "It was a huge boondoggle," said Fracchia.
"Corrupt politicians would give the work over to dishonest contractors who followed their whims just to make a profit, rather than ensure the project was done properly."
"The work was delayed by contract disputes and many design changes," said Rebecca Karberg, Historic Preservation Specialist with the U.S. General Services Administration. "The building was constructed in phases, and it was what we think was the easternmost wing that stood on the foundations that have been uncovered," she said.
"Any time work crews discover ruins or any historical remains, it is now required that experts and specialists be called upon to examine and study what has been uncovered," said Peter Birkholz of Page and Turnbull. He and his associate, the firm's founder and principal J. Gordon Turnbull took a few moments to speak to this reporter by phone.
"We are fascinated by this find, but seems like this original project (well over 130 years ago) was froth with scandal, not our ideal," said Turnbull. As one of the San Francisco Bay Area's most respected architect firms, Page and Turnbull specializes in historic restoration and preservation, while utilizing the latest technology and reaching to the highest of standards; not only in design but also ecologically.
This coming Oct. 22, Page and Turnbull will be awarded the William C. Ralston Award by the SF Museum and Historical Society at its annual awards luncheon at the Mark Hopkins Hotel. It is an honor that "we are delighted by," said Turnbull. And, because of the dozens of projects the firm has worked upon over the years, Page and Turnbull is proud to have been called upon by the GSA to help at the site.
Karberg noted that what makes the old City Hall remains notable is that the foundations of the old City Hall were not removed nor dismantled.The area became more developed over the recent years such as with the construction of the United Nations Plaza. "Since the area has been so thoroughly developed, finding these foundations (at the Old City Hall site) is a notable event," said Karberg.
That would affirm what Fracchia had said about the foundations being well made when originally built back in 1871. Initially the entire million dollar project taken on by the construction firm of Shea and Shea was to be completed within two years. Yet as historians William Issel and Robert W. Cherny point out in their 1986 book, "San Francisco 1865 - 1932, Politics, Power and Urban Development," Shea and Shea managed to distribute 'regular kickbacks' during its thirty-plus years of construction. The final cost of the City Hall and Hall of Records was over $8 million.
Fracchia noted that during much of the 19th and early 20th Century, just before the great Earthquake of 1906, graft and political corruption was common. "Not only here in San Francisco, but all over the United States." "Major cities like Boston, New York and Chicago, all had issues with underhanded dealings due to corruption in politics," he said.
Interestingly, it was because of the collapse of the old City Hall during the 1906 Earthquake that the era of corrupt politicians came to an end. "There were earlier efforts at reform, but here in San Francisco, the quake was a catalyst for major change," noted Fracchia.
Eugene Schmitz was Mayor at the time. Yet behind Mayor Schmitz was political boss and labor party organizer Abe Ruef. Well educated and bestowed with academic honors from the University of California at Berkeley, Reuf became a very shrewd and manipulative boss who according to historical writers Thomas Lately and Walton Bean, appointed himself to committees and positions of influence.
Reuf literally shared a corner of Mayor Schmitz' desk and most likely did his dealings right from the Mayor's office. Ruef had personally selected Schmitz who until that time was a violinist and conductor.
Charges were brought against Reuf and Schmitz. It took five years to get Reuf convicted and sent to prison. Initially sentenced to 14 years, he only served four years at San Quentin. His memoirs were published in the San Francisco Bulletin almost daily over several months just as the investigations into graft began.
Birkholz noted that Fremont Older was managing editor of the SF Bulletin at the time and Older's life was threatened because the paper would not backdown from covering the graft trial proceedings.
Fracchia implied that clever Reuf somehow "got off easy." Yet according to Lately and Bean's writings, Reuf who had been among the youngest ever admitted to practice law at age 21, was not allowed to return to the bar. For a man who was worth over a million dollars during his political reign, by 1915, when Reuf died he was bankrupt. Issel and Cherny say that Mayor Schmitz' conviction was later overturned by the California State Supreme Court and that he went on to serve on the SF Board of Supervisors.
Fortunately, no one was killed when the old City Hall collapsed as the great Quake struck before dawn that April morning in 1906. Fracchia speculated that if people had died due to the building collapse perhaps the corruption trial might have moved along much quicker.
Yet, more study would have to be done to surmise that more accurately. And, that is why the find of the old City Hall ruins is helpful. "Thorough documentation and photographing will take place and what is there can't be moved," said Fracchia. He noted other similar historical remains that have been discovered in the City. "Take the ship 'The Niantic' for example, it was rediscovered in 1978 when work crews were working on Mark Twain Plaza next to the Transamerica Pyramid," said Fracchia.
Turnbull in his conversation by phone, also mentioned the various finds that have been unearthed in recent years such as "old ships, saloons, these have been found in areas like the Financial District along Montgomery Street (which over 130 years ago) would have been the waterfront." "It is amazing when work crews inadvertently stumble across these types of ruins," said Turnbull.
When Page and Turnbull takes on a project with historical significance, "we analyze from the outside in," said Birkholz. "We try to get a sense of the context of the structure, not only when it was built but who built it and get a full understanding of that vision and purpose," said Birkholtz.
Obviously, the type of cost overruns that the old City Hall encountered with Shea and Shea of the 1800's would not be tolerated today. "Much more careful vetting is involved at every level, including a budget," Turnbull said. "We do a lot of research and evaluation, knowing what is ahead before taking on any project," said Turnbull. Observing and sharing in the knowledge of a find like the old City Hall has advantages. "Knowing history has value to us, it is hard to put a price on it but I think it is worth the effort," Turnbull said.
Unlike treasure hunters finding gold in artifacts (as is often depicted in movies about ancient tombs and such) Knowledge about the past is in some ways the gold. No trinkets to extract from this dig. "But all the archaeologists can do is study and document the remains, remarked Fracchia. "It is impossible to remove them, so the remains (such as in this case with a building's foundation), has to be reburied," he said. "This is what usually happens in these types of situations,” said Fracchia, “the remains can't be moved so they are reburied and modern life goes on."
Karberg confirmed that "the best course of action is to leave them in place," she said "We are consulting with the California State Historic Preservation Office to determine what level of documentation should be undertaken."
Yet, Fracchia noted any information and data collected (large or small) is invaluable to archaeologists and historians. And, yes, of course architects like Page and Turbull that specialize in historic preservation and restoration. When asked if Fracchia would like to take a time-travel trip to the days just before the Earthquake of 1906, Fracchia said, "to visit would be very interesting, but to live in those days, no, I much prefer today."
Media rep for the U.S. General Services Administration, Traci Madison said that the documentation and data collection will go on for the next several weeks and yes, the remains will be reburied in tact. "Any report that emerges from our efforts will most likely be entered into a database maintained by the State of California for archaeological resources; so that new information will be included in the realm of public knowledge," said Karberg.
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