San Francisco History

Farewell, Old Hall of Records

by Walter J. Thompson

The obliteration of a landmark that by the association of years has familiarized itself to the eye and linked itself with the affection which the ordinary mortal usually possesses for environing objects which impress him in a pleasing way, is always to be regarded with regret, if not emotion. If it is suddenly resolved into nothingness by an upheaval of nature, the shock of its passing may not be so great as if it were deliberately taken in hand and slowly and steadily torn to pieces, a process that may be likened to the operation on a victim of some system of physical torture, say being dragged inch-by-inch through a sausage-making machine.

Such, I am sure, is the feeling animating many old San Franciscans as they mark the manipulative energy of that hand of master obliterators now engaged in hauling and mauling the shape out of that dignified old building which for so many years was pointed to with pride as “our Hall of Records.” It seems deserving of a better fate than that which is being meted out to it after its forty years of useful service. It would appear to be entitled to more consideration and sympathy from that remnant of a generation which knew it in its prime and before it was overtaken by the misfortune that marred the fair face of San Francisco and the calamity which left no stick nor stone of many a goodly and beloved landmark.

The architectural designer of the building, a man by the name of Laver, planned for it a career of great promise as an integrant of a palatial manor, the advance design of which was displayed to a delighted public. With its towers and domes and many windowed walls and filigreed mansard roof in the design, it resembled a composite reproduction of the notable royal palaces of European capitals. Before the Hall of Records came into being as a finished object signal honor was paid by the population to the site upon which it was to stand. There the corner stone of the city’s mansion was to rest. In looking backward it gives the old-timer a thrill of respect for the civic confidence in the projected enterprise which inspired the big gathering that assembled on February 22, 1872, and joined in the laying of that corner stone. It was one of the memorable days in the city’s history that 140th anniversary of Washington’s birth and the first natal day of “our New City Hall.” Linked arm in arm, these birthdays were to be the admired holiday twins of the community through ages to come, was the optimistic thought uppermost with all.

Dame Nature smiled her kindliest upon the auspicious Thursday and chased old man Pluvius and his water cart from the upper byways where he had been maneuvering for a couple of days. The sun shone with rare effulgence upon a city early astir and brimming over with enthusiasm. A military parade had been planned as a preliminary feature of the day’s programme. It formed on New Montgomery street and got under way at 10 o’clock, led off by General John Heuston of the National Guard and his staff, and all the crack military organizations of the city were in line. Those warriors with the bizarre and picturesque uniforms and accouterments, like the San Francisco Fusileers with their sparkling braid and lacings; the MacMahon Grenadiers, with their bushy headgear, and the French Zouaves, with their baggy scarlet Turkish trousers, together with Mexican War Veterans and civic societies, were all there. The line of march, along Montgomery, Jackson, Kearny and Market streets, resounded with the crashing resonance of brass bands led by the pinks of perfection in drum majordem—chaps who could hurl their big-head canes up to the eaves of the buildings they passed and catch them coming down, without missing a step or turning a glance upward.

At the City Hall on Kearny street, opposite Portsmouth square, the parade was joined by Governor Newton Booth, Mayor William Alvord and city officials, all arrayed in glossy black carriages drawn by glossy black horses. In fact, the glossiness of their division as the parade moved on seemed to dim the luster of the big shiny knobs on the canes of the drum-majors and caused those stern-faced veterans to scowl more fiercely than ever as they carried on their aerial jugglery.

The circular stone foundation of the Hall of Records had been laid and was the center of attraction. There stood the temporary precursor of the present doomed hall, an amphitheater with platform and seats, in the center which stood upright a three-legged derrick and rigging. The entrance to this inclosure was on the western side and was ornamented with a triumphal arch made up of evergreens, flags and a cheery inscription—“Honor and Justice”—which threw a special luster over the throng and gave everybody a comfortable feeling.

From Market street the procession turned into the extensive sand lot and up to the amphitheater, where the Masonic Grand Lodge, under whose direction the ceremony was to be carried out, was accorded the position of honor on the platform. Suspended by a cable attached to the derrick was a block of dressed gray granite five feet long and about four feet in width and depth, said to weigh six and one-third tons. This was the corner-stone.

Radiating from this central point, the population of San Francisco spread out in a spectacular mass on all sides; fringed on the north and southeast by scattered bunches on the slopes of the sandhills.

The corner-stone-laying proceedings passed off well, but it was a pantomime to most of the spectators. Few heard the really eloquent oration of John W. Dwinelle (brother of the Judge), in which he paid tribute to the hardy founders of the city whose bones had been interred in Yerba Buena Cemetery, the site of the present proceedings, and his glowing peroration, urging the citizens to ever cherish San Francisco, “the queen city of the sunset sea, into whose lap the treasures of the Pacific were to be poured.” Few heard the ceremonial dialogue which passed between Grand Master L. M. Pratt and the deputy grand master and the senior grand warden and the junior grand warden as wine, oil and corn were mingled with the copper box of records that was laid away in the granite tomb. But all saw the big derrick swing in air the huge block of granite and place it in its niche as gently as a mother places her babe in its crib.

A mighty cheer arose and—then the ceremony was over? Not by a jugful. The fun was just about to begin. No one paid any attention to the paean reeled off by the Handel and Haydn Society. Singing never did and never will sound right in an atmosphere heavily charged with the aroma of roast beef. For several hours had the populace, with ever-increasing appetite, been holding itself under control in the face of the odorous air blown from a furnace built in the cement walls, where for a day and a night two whole oxen had been sputtering and browning on a sacrificial grating over a hot fire preliminary to their appearing as barbecue stars.

Never did Police Captain Douglass and his gray-coated guardians of the peace have a tougher job than in maintaining some kind of order amid that wild onslaught on the roast-beef corner, where a corps of dextrous butchers with cleavers carved the smoking carcasses. The vicinity very soon resembled a cannibal island on picnic day, so wild were the meat orgies, as men, women and adolescents danced about gnawing at chunks of half-cooked meat and wrestling with rib bones, shoulder bones and leg bones, about which flapped rare red ribbons of beef. Salt they had none, but sand wafted by the spring zephyrs they had a-plenty, and it made their mouthfuls of meat just gritty enough to add zest to the chewing.

For the platform folk and certain invited guests there was a luncheon spread in the yard by the City Hall Commissioners’ redwood board castle. Seven hundred guests partook of the feast, at which roasted turkeys figured promiscuously as a prime attraction. As a whole the christening day of the Hall of Records was a gala event, and undeserving was the sarcastic comment of some ill-natured citizens that lines were drawn with boned turkey for the patricians and bull beef for the plebeians.

From the day of its completion in the memorable centennial year of 1876 the Hall of Records proved that the citizens had not yet played themselves false in pinning their pride to it. As it stood in its red brick nudity for many moons before it was supplied with a plaster overcoat, with its ample girth and handsome architectural lines, it seemed, inanimate thing though it were, to betray a thoughtfulness and circumspection in behalf of the community. It seemed to know that something had gone wrong with the construction of the magnificent city mansion and that the people were ashamed of the uncompleted segments of the City Hall that stood about resembling in shape the sections of a tapeworm.

Like Leonidas holding the pass of Thermopyiae against the Immortals and other minions of the Persian King and who sought to keep his straggling handful of adherents in the background, so did the Hall of Records appear to put on a bold, brave front from the east end to hid the poverty stricken appearance of its supporting units with its ample girth and handsome architectural lines.

The hall in its time was the home of numerous Recorders who served the city more or less faithfully and well, it was the abiding place of an army of workers who if the often trained to the measure of the political lockstep march, also tried to serve faithfully and well. They were, on the whole, a merry lot of history makers, and many are the legends they could tell of life in the old hall and the mysteries which often lurked in its galleries. Weird noises were heard at times like the chuckling of human voices in darkened recesses; odd echoes like the calling of names of certain well-known toilers in the place flew about; mysterious footsteps were frequently heard in shadow-haunted corners, together with soft, melodious tinklings as when glass touches glass. Such things were heard and commented upon by the busy clerks as they faithfully plodded away at their desk labors or handled the ponderous tomes that lingered upon the shelves.

As far as known only once did a citizen cast aspersions reflecting on the dignity and staid dependableness of the Hall of Records. It was in Judge Lawler’s Police Court and an offender was trying to prove that he had disturbed the peace in self-defense and that he was bewildered and not intoxicated when arrested.

“I was going down McAllister street, your honor,” he said, “and that Hall of Records bowed to me very politely. When it bowed a second time I ran, and then it came after me. I kept calling for the police or somebody to stop it, but they didn’t and I turned into Powell street knowing it couldn’t follow me without bumping into the Baldwin Hotel. Then my foot slipped—“

“Which way did the Hall go?” asked the Judge.

“I don’t know whether it kept on to the ferry or not—“

But sentence was pronounced ere he finished, and slur on the dignity of the Hall of Records was avenged.

Since the baptism of flame in 1906, when its treasured documents were turned to ashes under the clutch of the fire king, the old hall has never been the same. Recorders and deputies have not been comfortable within the scorched walls.

Standing grim and lonely amid the ruins of granite and brick, with moss overgrown, since that day of disaster it has been like the gloomy House of Usher darkly nodding to its fall. Soon will the hand of the obliterator rend it as by a lightning bolt and its walls will crumble into dust upon the stone circle where so many pretty words were spoken on that sunny afternoon in 1872.

Perhaps it is well that it should be so.

It could never fit into the color scheme of the snowflake Civic Center without being whitewashed. Perish such a thought!

Farewell old Hall of Records.

Source: San Francisco Chronicle. 22 October 1916. 28.

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