Some still think of San Francisco's City Hall as the building where Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio were married. Others remember it as the site of the assassination of Mayor George Moscone and the city supervisor Harvey Milk. San Franciscans know it as the core of the Civic Center, which also includes the opera house, symphony hall and the old and new library buildings (the old one soon to be redesigned by Italian architect Gae Aulenti as the new home of the Asian Art Museum). But since the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake forced the closing of the august building, tourists have thought of it only as a mountain of scaffolding beyond a mile of barriers.
Finally the scaffolding is down, the barriers gone, the adjacent park swept clean -- not only of debris, but also of the homeless who once camped there. No one imagines that San Francisco's severe homeless problem has been solved or that the former campers have found jobs and apartments, but moving them to other public open spaces certainly tidies up what is recognized once more as the city's front door.
Now that it is perceptible again, the symmetrical Beaux-Arts urban design with City Hall at its core brings coherence to the whole area, and the building itself probably looks better than it has at any time since its original opening in 1915. Designed by John Bakewell Jr. and Arthur Brown of Bakewell & Brown, it boasts a dome that rises 308 feet from ground level -- taller than that of the U.S. Capitol -- and its entire composition is more or less based on Bruant and Mansard's Hôtel des Invalides in Paris.
Over the years, the gilding on the dome had dimmed, the marble floors had been stained with grime and tobacco juice, the paneled walls obscured with temporary partitions and two large light courts adjacent to the central rotunda filled in with office space. Now everything sparkles and the great rotunda and its cascading stairway are filled with sunshine from the reclaimed light courts. Making use of the newfound light, the South Light Court will house rotating exhibitions.
"They don't build 'em like they used to" is the obvious response to this late 20th-century update of an early 20th-century copy of an early 18th-century French version of ancient Roman architecture. Yet much more has been done here than the sprucing up of former glories. Indeed, the most dramatic parts of City Hall's restoration are virtually invisible.
One such part is a new foundation. Like an elephant on tiptoe, this half-million-square-foot, two-square-block monument now sits on flexible footings called base isolators that act like shock absorbers, adjusting (theoretically, at least) to earthquakes with a magnitude of up to eight on the Richter scale. Funding for the seismic upgrade came from the Federal Emergency Management Fund (FEMA), the State of California and local bonds.
Another such part is a new nervous system of electronic technology. A fiber-optic infrastructure allows public meetings in five different rooms to be telecast throughout the building and to the public and links these meetings with others off-site. In addition, a basement control room that responds to power outages and other emergencies is the new command center for the whole network of city administration. This building, an old dog just a few years ago, has learned lots of new tricks.
Altogether, the three-year renovation cost $293 million. San Francisco' s colorful mayor, Willie Brown, whose office is on the building's second floor, was a major supporter of the work, and the project manager was city architect Tony Irons.
STANLEY ABERCROMBIE is editorial director of Interior Design magazine.