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Explore 1930s San Francisco in This Amazing Giant Scale Model

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If you have ever wondered what life in San Francisco looked like in 1940, you will now have a chance to see it for yourself in incredible detail that reaches only 11 inches tall. The scale model took two years to build but has been missing for decades, until now.

Coit Tower segment of 1940 San Francisco scale model. Photo courtesy of San Francisco Chronicle

The scale model idea was the brainchild of architect Timothy Pflueger, who tapped into federal initiatives to create work during the Great Depression and received sponsorship from the City Planning Commission. According to a San Francisco Chronicle Datebook report, approximately 300 people began construction in 1938 and by 1940, a 37- by 41-foot structure representing 6,000 city blocks had sprung to tiny life.

The model is a snapshot of San Francisco history – the plan drafted with the assistance of aerial photos and surveyors accurately reflects structures, landmarks and neighborhoods that existed at the time, many of which still do. It is comprised of over 100 individual wood-carved segments that are assembled together with wooden pegs. From all accounts, the structure in its entirety was displayed just once and for a short period after its completion in the Light Court at City Hall in April 1940.

Dedication ceremony at Light Court in San Francisco City Hall in April, 1940. Photo courtesy of National Archives and Records

It seems odd that such a time-consuming and expensive project, which cost $102,750 to build, was so quickly pushed aside and basically lost. However, the city’s priorities shifted dramatically when World War II broke out and the space at City Hall became a mobilization hub – the model was disassembled and crated up to make space for more pressing matters.

As Datebook reported, University of California, Berkeley Living New Deal project scholar and geographer Gray Brechin described the model at the time as an “orphan.”

“The city didn’t want it anymore,” Brechin said.

Where it went from there became a mystery that spawned many rumors but little actual information. Some believed it was stuck in the purgatory of Civic Center storage – other stories placed in beneath the stands at Memorial Stadium in Berkeley. Efforts launched by an education outreach program called Public Knowledge led project manager Stella Lochman to UC Berkeley, where it turns out the 22 crates were shipped to. A large portion of the structure remained in Wurster Hall for decades, available for student use. Seventeen additional crates were kept in deep storage at different UC Berkeley facilities. The model is now back home in San Francisco and segments will be on exhibit at correlating neighborhood library branches around the city beginning Jan. 25 through March 25.

Unfortunately, 175 city blocks that detailed areas like City Hall, Seals Stadium, the new Golden Gate Bridge and a piece of the Bay Bridge have disappeared over the years. People are encouraged to email the Public Knowledge group with any information regarding the missing segments or photos that illustrate what was once there. “I just want it given back to the public so they can see it, because the public paid for it,” Brechin said.

Volunteers clean and piece together 1940 San Francisco scale city model. Photo courtesy of San Francisco Chronicle

The assembled model, even without the missing pieces, is still considered the “largest and most intact of any number of city models built across America by the WPA.” The public will have the opportunity to visit different library branches as a treasure hunt of sorts with a map that will be stamped at each segment’s exhibit. Those interested will also be able to take bike tours that will cover six to eight libraries per ride.

The model’s permanent home has yet to be settled, but ideas have included the Light Court at City Hall, where it was originally displayed in 1940, the administration building at Treasure Island, the Roberts Family Gallery at SFMOMA’s Howard Street entrance and the Ferry Building. Wherever it lands inside the city of San Francisco, one thing is certain – after 77 long years, the model is finally back home where it belongs.

Palace of Fine Arts segment of 1940 San Francisco scale model. Photo courtesy of SF Chronicle

 

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Nik Wojcik - East Bay Editor

Nik Wojcik - East Bay Editor

Journalist, editor, student, single mom to a pack of wolves, foodie, music lover, resident smart ass, and champion of vulgarity and human kindness.