The Works Progress Administration Guide to San Francisco

WPACoveruseIn 2011, the University of California Press reprinted a 1940 guide to San Francisco written by the Federal Writers Project (WPA) of the Works Project Administration (WPA). The Works Progress Administration was the result of Executive Order 7034, Signed by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1935 to create jobs for unemployed workers, artists, musicians, etc. during the Great Depression of the 1930s. A lot of the San Francisco we appreciate today, such as the murals inside Coit Tower and the Beach Chalet, and the exhibits at the San Francisco Zoo came about because of WPA.  The ‘San Francisco in the 1930s’ WPA Guide has numerical descriptions that correspond with maps in the book. The points of interest listed take in just about all of San Francisco with occasional outdated descriptions that were new in 1940. These are a collection of some of the descriptions of places from the book, (in brackets) with vintage pictures I updated of each location taken close to the period when the book was written.

WPAOperauseThe south side of the Opera House on Van Ness with long gone buildings on Franklin Street in the background:  (Vintage picture from

{The OPERA HOUSE (open weekdays 10 -4) NW corner Van Ness Ave. and Grove St., and the Veterans Building form the War Memorial of San Francisco, erected in 1932 as a tribute to the city’s war dead.}

{This, the Nations only municipally-owned opera house, represented the achievement of years of struggle by San Francisco music lovers for an opera house of their own. It was opened October 15, 1932 with Lily Pons singing Tosca. The auditorium, seating 3,285 persons, is richly decorated. The floor of the orchestra pit can be raised and lowered. The stage is 131 feet wide, 83 feet deep, and 120 feet from floor to roof.}

The dimensions of the stage area may have changed since 1940.

WPACCarturnuseThe cable car turnaround at Powell and Market Streets:

{Traffic waits good naturedly at the CABLE CAR TURN-TABLE, Market, Powell, and Eddy Sts., where a careening southbound car comes to a halt every few minutes, while conductor and grip man dismount and push the car around until it faces north.}

WPASutrosuseThe old Sutro Bathhouse:

{The sprawling building of the SUTRO BATHS AND ICE RINK (open Mon.-Fri. 10 a.m. – 11 p.m.; Sat. , Sun., holidays 9 a. m. –  11 p. m.; skating 35 cents  Sun. afternoon and every evening, 25 cents other times; skate rental 15 cents, swimming 50 cents) . Point Lobos Ave. near Great Highway, covering three acres of sloping beach in the lee of Point Lobos, were built in 1896 by Adolph Sutro. Long advertised as the world’s largest are the six indoor pools; of both fresh and salt water, these vary in size depth, and temperature. Also here, are a floodlighted ice rink and an indoor sand plot for sunbathing. It is said that 25,000 persons have visited “Sutro’s” in one day.}

Sutro Bathhouse burned down in 1966.

WPAChinatownuseGrant Avenue looking north from Commercial Street:

{A quarter of old Canton, transplanted and transformed, neither quite oriental or wholly occidental, San Francisco’s Chinatown yields to the ways of the West while continuing to venerate a native civilization as ancient the Pyramids. Grant Avenue, its main thoroughfare, leads northward from Bush Street through a veritable city-within-a-city – alien in appearance to all the rest of San Francisco –  hemmed within boundaries kept by tacit agreement with municipal authorities for almost a century.}

WPAZoooneuseThe old WPA built entrance to Fleishhacker Zoo on Sloat Ave.

{FLEISHHACKER PLAYFIELD AND ZOOLOGICAL GARDENS, foot of Great Highway at Sloat and Skyline Blvds. This recreation center dates from 1922, when the city acquired from the Spring Valley Water Company 60 acres on which to construct a playground and pool. Only 37 acres at first were developed; opened in 1924, the park was named for Herbert Fleishhacker , then president of the Park Commission, who donated the pool and the Mothers’ House. Adjoining the playground is the Zoo (open 10 – 4:30; free). Begun in 1929 with a few lion cubs and monkeys, gradually more animals were acquired (by purchase and donation) until the animal, bird and reptile population reached 1,000. Noted is the fine collection of “cats” which includes lions, tigers, leopards, lynxes, and panthers. In 1935 sixty-eight acres adjoining the zoo were purchased and here WPA labor constructed the fine ZOOLOGICAL GARDENS, modeled after Germany’s famous Hagenbeck Zoo. Here, among man-made streams, waterfalls, islands, cliffs and caves, are simulated natural habitats of many animals – separated (where practical) from spectators only by moats and designed to give the animals the illusion of freedom}

The vintage picture is the opening day of the WPA built entrance to the zoo in 1937. I was able to get some pictures there before they boarded it up. (Vintage picture from Images of America)

WPAZoo2useOne of the pictures I was able to get at the old stone entrance to the zoo on Sloat Blvd before they closed it off was the spot where my 17 year old mother on the left with her cousin Frances sat during a visit to San Francisco from North Dakota in 1939.

WPAPSquareuseThe southeast corner of Portsmouth Square:

{Upon the green, sloping lawns of PORTSMOUTH PLAZA, Kearny, Clay and Washington Streets, Candelario Miramontes, who resided at the Presidio, raised potatoes in the early 1830’s. When the plot became a plaza is not known.}

{Most of the stirring events from the 1840’s to the 1860’s took place here – processions, flag raisings, lynchings, May Day fetes.}

{Here terrified Chinese ran about beating gongs to scare of the fire demons during the earthquake  and conflagration of 1906; here came exhausted firefighter to rest among milling refugees; here shallow graves held the dead; and thousands camped during reconstruction. The Board of Supervisors, in December of 1927, restored the square’s Spanish designation of “plaza”.}

Well, maybe so, but I read real San Franciscans prefer Portsmouth Square to Portsmouth Plaza, so that’s what I refer to it as. The buildings behind the vintage picture of the square taken in 1937 are still there today. (

WPACliffHouseuse{The CLIFF HOUSE. Point Lobos Ave. at Great Highway, a white stuccoed building terraced along the edge of the cliff south of Sutro Baths, is a modern restaurant, bar, and gift shop. Both the barroom and the Sequoia Room – a cocktail lounge – are finished in redwood, from the smooth walls to rustic beamed ceilings, and both house huge fireplaces in which open fires glow on chilled days. From the lounge and the blue and white dining room in the rear of the building guests seated at the great plate glass windows on clear days look beyond Seal Rocks for miles across the Pacific.}

It’s a crowd pleaser still and you can’t stop progress, but I remember the Sequoia Room with its fireplace well, and I miss the Cliff House the way it was before the New Millennium restoration. (Vintage picture,

WPADeyounguseThe De Young Museum and the Pool of Enchantment:

{On the NW. side of the Music Concourse, flanked by trim lawns and stately Irish yews, is the M. H. DE YOUNG MEMORIAL MUSEUM (open daily 10 – 5). Of Sixteenth- Century Spanish Renaissance design, the buildings pale salmon-colored facades are burdened with rococo ornamentation. Its two wings extend from either side of the 134 foot tower facing a landscaped court. In the court, before the main entrance, lies the POOL OF ENCHANTMENT, in which a sculptured Indian boy pipes to two listening mountain lions on a rocky island.}

Before the De Young Museum was demolished and rebuilt in the New Millennium, I had a chance to take a comparison picture at the spot in front of the museum next to the Pool of Enchantment where my mother, on the right with her cousin Frances posed during her 1939 trip to San Francisco by train while she was in high school. The Pool of Enchantment is now on the eastern side of the De Young Museum.

WPAFWharfuseThe Fisherman’s Wharf Lagoon:

{Twentieth-Century commercialism and Old World tradition go hand in hand at FISHERMAN’S WHARF, foot of Taylor St., where are moored in serried ranks the tiny, bright-painted gasoline boats of the crab fishermen and the tall-masted 70 foot Diesel-engined trawlers of the sardine fleet.}

{The boats of the crab fishing fleet, like their larger sisters of the sardine fleet, are brightly painted, with blue and white predominating hues. During the fishing season (November through August) the crab fleet usually leaves the wharf with the tide – between two or three o’clock in the morning – bound for fishing grounds between three and six miles outside the gate, where each boat anchors within hailing distance of its neighbor. In mid-afternoon they return laden from one to four dozen crabs apiece, accompanied by screaming hordes of gulls.}

Most of the boats in the lagoon in the 1940 picture from the Charles Cushman Collection do appear to be blue and white, and even a number of them today.

WPAEmbarcaderouseThe Embarcadero near Green Street, looking south:

{Even before the eight o’clock wail of the Ferry Building siren, the Embarcadero comes violently to life. From side streets great trucks roll through the yawning doors of the piers. The longshoremen, clustered in groups before the pier gates, swarm up ladders and across gangplanks.}

{Careening taxis, rumbling under slung vans and drays, and scurrying pedestrians suddenly transform the waterfront into a traffic thronged artery.}

{Stored in the Embarcadero’s huge warehouses are sacks of green coffee from Brazil; ripening bananas from Central America; copra and spices from the South Seas; tea, sugar, and chocolate; cotton and kapok; paint and oil; and all the thousand varieties of products offered  by a world market.}

Maybe a long time ago, but not anymore. You can’t see the Ferry Building from this spot anymore through the palm trees either, but you can still see the pointed YMCA Building in the far background.

WPAISettlementusePacific Avenue and Montgomery Street looking west and the old signposts of the eastern side of the International Settlement:

{The “Terrific Street” of the 1890’s – that block of Pacific Street, SITE OF THE BARBARY COAST, running east from the once-famous “Seven Points” where Pacific, Columbus Avenue, and Kearny Street intersect – is set off now at each end by concrete arches labeled “INTERNATIONAL SETTLEMENT”.}

{Where gambling halls, saloons, beer dens, dance halls, and brothels once crowded side by side, a Chinese restaurant, a night club and cocktail bar, a Latin American café, and an antique shop now appear,}

World War Two would change all that after this passage was written when soldiers and sailors on leave brought back the “gambling halls, saloons, beer dens, dance halls, and brothels”. It’s interesting how they referred to it as Pacific Street in the book rather than Pacific Avenue. The House of Zombie and Pago, Pago Buildings on the left are still there.  (Vintage picture, Flickr)

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