San Francisco Ferry Building

San Francisco Ferry Building
Ferry terminal

The Ferry Building, along the Embarcadero. Treasure Island, Yerba Buena Island, and the Bay Bridge can be seen in the background, with Justin Herman Plaza and the foot of Market Street in the foreground.
Location 1 Ferry Building
Coordinates 37°47′44″N 122°23′37″W / 37.7955°N 122.3937°W / 37.7955; -122.3937Coordinates: 37°47′44″N 122°23′37″W / 37.7955°N 122.3937°W / 37.7955; -122.3937
Owned by Port of San Francisco
Connections San Francisco Bay Ferry
Tiburon Ferry
Golden Gate Ferry
San Francisco Municipal Railway
Amtrak Thruway Motorcoach
Parking No
Bicycle facilities Yes
Opened 1898
Preceding station   Muni heritage railway   Following station
E Embarcadero
Weekends only
F Market & Wharves
toward 17th and Castro
Union Ferry Depot
Location in San Francisco
Location Embarcadero at Market St., San Francisco, California
Coordinates 37°47′44″N 122°23′32″W / 37.79556°N 122.39222°W / 37.79556; -122.39222
Area 2.8 acres (1.1 ha)
Architect Brown, Page A.
Architectural style Classical Revival, Beaux Arts
NRHP Reference # 78000760[1]
SFDL # 90
Significant dates
Added to NRHP December 01, 1978
Designated SFDL 1977[2]

The San Francisco Ferry Building is a terminal for ferries that travel across the San Francisco Bay, a food hall[3] and an office building. It is located on The Embarcadero in San Francisco, California.

On top of the building is a 245-foot tall clock tower with four clock dials, each 22 feet in diameter, which can be seen from Market Street, a main thoroughfare of the city.

Designed in 1892 by American architect A. Page Brown in the Beaux Arts style, the ferry building was completed in 1898. At its opening, it was the largest project undertaken in the city up to that time. Brown designed the clock tower after the 12th-century Giralda bell tower in Seville, Spain, and the entire length of the building on both frontages is based on an arched arcade.

With decreased use since the 1950s, after bridges were constructed across the bay to carry passenger traffic, the building was adapted to office use and its public spaces broken up. In 2002, a restoration and renovation were undertaken to redevelop the entire complex. The 660-foot long Great Nave was restored, together with its height and materials. A marketplace was created on the ground floor, the former baggage handling area. The second and third floors were adapted for office and Port Commission use. During daylight, on every full and half-hour, the clock bell chimes portions of the Westminster Quarters. The ferry terminal is a designated San Francisco landmark and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.


The Ferry Building after the 1906 earthquake

The present structure was designed in 1892 by A. Page Brown, a New York architect who had started with McKim, Mead & White, and later moved to California. Influenced by studies at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, he designed the clock tower after the 12th-century Giralda bell tower in Seville, Spain.

Brown designed it to satisfy needs of an industrial society in high style associated with traditional buildings; the entire base is an arched arcade reminiscent of European buildings. The highest quality materials were used, such as marble and mosaics for the state seal. The 660-foot-long Great Nave on the second floor was the major public space for arriving and departing ferry passengers.[4]


The Ferry Building is in the center of this film from 1906

Opened in 1898, the building replaced a wooden predecessor. The well-built reinforced building with its arched arcades survived both the 1906 and the 1989 earthquakes with little damage. It served as the destination for commuters to San Francisco from the East Bay, who rode the ferry fleets of the Southern Pacific and the Key System. In the afternoon, they caught ferries returning across the bay. A loop track in front of the building enabled convenient transfers to streetcars. A large pedestrian bridge spanned the Embarcadero in front of the Ferry building to facilitate safe crossing of the busy plaza and transit hub. In the 1940s, this bridge was deconstructed to supply scrap metal for the Second World War.

Until the completion of the Bay Bridge (which began to carry railroad traffic) and Golden Gate Bridge in the 1930s, the Ferry Building was the second busiest transit terminal in the world, second only to London's Charing Cross Station. After the bridges opened, and the new Key System trains began running to the East Bay from the Transbay Terminal in 1939, passenger ferry use fell sharply. In the second half of the twentieth century, although the Ferry Building and its clock tower remained a part of the San Francisco skyline, the condition of the building interior declined with changes. Beginning in the 1950s, unsympathetic renovations installed a mezzanine level, broke up the grand space of the Great Nave, and partitioned the ticketing counters and waiting room areas into office space. The formerly grand public space was reduced to a narrow and dark corridor, through which travelers passed en route to the piers. Passengers were made to wait for ferries on outdoor benches, and the ticketing booths were moved to the pier.[4]

With the construction in the late 1950s of the Embarcadero Freeway, which passed right in front of the Ferry Building, views of the once-prominent landmark from Market Street were greatly obscured. Pedestrian access was treated as an afterthought, and the public was cut off from the waterfront.[4]

With the structural failure of the Embarcadero Freeway during the October 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, San Francisco was offered the choice of whether to rebuild it or remove the freeway and reconnect the city with the eastern waterfront and the historic Ferry Building. As part of the larger rejection of the 1950s comprehensive freeway plan as unsympathetic to the city's character, and the general unpopularity of the freeway, Mayor Art Agnos led the charge to remove the Embarcadero freeway entirely. It was replaced with a ground-level boulevard, which reconnected a significant portion of San Francisco's waterfront and the rest of the city. Access was restored to Justin Herman Plaza and the foot of Market Street, of which the Ferry Building had been an integral part for so many decades.

The building was featured prominently in the opening sequence of the 1994 film Interview with the Vampire.[5]


"Great Nave" of the Ferry Building after its renovations

By 1992, the freeway had been removed and San Francisco began to create a comprehensive port development plan that would revitalize the newly cleared space, create public access, and reintroduce the ferry service.[6] As the most iconic element of the waterfront, the Ferry Building was central to the aesthetic and the overall success of the development plan, and its status as a historic landmark for both architecture and engineering made a sympathetic restoration essential. The 1903 Ferry Building was a symbol of San Francisco’s history as a bustling port city, but with the redevelopment plan, the city was choosing to also make the structure a symbol of San Francisco’s future.

The vastness of the project resulted in the selection of a group of firms that could each focus on a key aspect of the redevelopment plan. ROMA Design Group - site design architects - designed the bayside and cityside promenades and plazas and reoriented the public spaces of the area to the building and to the bay. ROMA Design Group also designed new ferry terminals and the main historic streetcar stop that re-established the area as a multi-modal transit hub and gateway into the city. Simon Martin-Vegue Winkelstein Moris Architects (SMWM), founded by Cathy Simon, created an overall plan for the building; Baldauf Catton Von Eckartsberg Architects (BCVE) examined and planned for the needs of new retail spaces; Page & Turnbull, Inc., specialists in historic preservation, dealt with the restoration, replacement, and recreation of the historic elements of the structure.[7][8]

Although the project was a restoration project, the structure would not be returned to its pure historic use as a nexus of bay transit. While the demand for ferry transit has experienced increasing demand in recent years by cross-bay commuters, the ferry service will never again reach historic levels. Therefore, in order to draw visitors, the Ferry Building has been transformed into a retail and restaurant space on the ground floor that focuses on local, sustainable products. The Port and the project developers believed that the combination of transit, office use, and unique retail would make the Ferry Building a destination for locals and tourists alike that would drive the greater goal of stimulating the waterfront.[9]

The focus on creating a viable economic use for the Ferry Building was fundamental in developing the final restoration plan and while important historic features that are key to the structure’s integrity were largely restored, some adaptations were allowed more license to meet the needs of the reuse proposal. The restored Ferry Building was opened in 2003.

The Grand Nave

The original description of the Ferry Building as published in the Board of Harbor Commissioners’ Biennial Report (1888) specified that “Passengers should pass from the upper decks of the ferries through the second story, with a bridge over the crowded and dangerous portion of East [now Embarcadero] Street.”[10] The first floor was not intended for public viewing or access and was filled with the movement of baggage, mail, and freight. Instead, the public was meant to enter the structure from an elevated walkway and move through the more refined spaces of the second floor lit by the nave. By 1992, the nave had been turned into private offices and the loss of the foot bridge meant that all public approach to the building would be at street level, altering the way in which the building was understood and experienced.

With the restoration however, the developers argued that the public’s historic interaction with the space was defined by the natural light cascading from the nave, not by the elevated entry way. With the movement of the primary public space to the first floor, it became essential to their proposal that this historic experience would be recreated.[11] Beyond removing an added third floor and restoring the 660-foot long nave to its two-story height, the proposal included cutting two openings, each at thirty-three feet by one hundred and fifty feet, into the floor of the second floor. These openings would allow for this historic feature to be extended to the visitor’s experience of the first floor. This was a controversial choice, and due to the building’s historic status the proposal had to be approved by the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) and was the subject of multiple hearings.[12]

Marble Mosaics

The greatest debate raised by the opening of the second floor cuts, however, surrounded the treatment of the historic mosaic tiling of the second floor. The second floor grand nave was tiled with a mosaic marble floor of white and gray tesserae with a border of red and purple. In the center of the space at the top of the main stairway is a reproduction of the Great Seal of the State of California worked entirely in mosaics. At the time of the restoration, this surface was primarily covered with linoleum, and some small sections had been lost to prior alterations.[13] This feature was considered integral to the historic character of the building, and as a primary public space, the tiling was a key component of community memory.

In allowing the amplification of one feature (the nave), the loss of another (the mosaics) was inherently tied. The final agreement reached between the SHPO and the development team found that as long as the important decorative portions of the flooring were restored and extra tesserae would be used to repair damaged sections, the cuts would be approved.[12]

In order to restore the mosaic, the applied linoleum surface had to be carefully peeled away and a mixture of crushed walnut shells was then used to clean the marble surface without damaging the material.[13]

Arch Reproduction & Patinization

In the process of removing of the 1947 and 1950 third-floor additions, Page & Turnbull discovered the extent of the damage to the brick and terra cotta arches of the nave. Twenty-two arches span the length of the nave on each side, and of the forty-four total, eleven had been destroyed. Over twenty-five percent of the original material had been removed in the first remodel, including terra cotta scroll-work, the arches themselves, and sections of the surrounding brickwork.[7] In order to restore the highly significant nave, Page & Turnbull had to design and create replacements for these 11 arches that would be accurate enough not to detract from the 660-foot sight-line of the second story that these arches flank.

The prohibitive cost and effort of replacing these materials in kind led to the choice of a cast-stone with fiberglass support that mimics the buff brick in both color and finish. Through the use of a cast material, Page & Turnbull was able to create a fiberglass mold to be used for casting each arch as a unit that could then be inserted into sections where original fabric had been lost.[7] The addition of fiberglass as a support material – that allows for both flexibility and compressive strength – was seen as an added benefit in meeting concerns over the building’s continued seismic safety.

Creating visual continuity between the new and the old was critical in this instance due to the significance of the long stretch of the nave; here an obvious alteration in material or color would detract from the pattern of springing arches that continues through the length of the structure. Page & Turnbull invited faux-finishing specialist Jacquelyn Giuffre to disguise the new sections and recreate the continuity of pattern and color.[7] Guiffre’s job was made more difficult by the fact that the structure had not been completely sealed against the elements during the restoration and the salts of the bay air triggered a staining process that created green marks in the yellow and buff brick. In order to match the texture and patina of the old brick, Guiffre used six different pigments applied by hand, and then applied green shading to mimic the new staining process. Once the pieces were installed, a final stage of blending was completed on site to ensure the greatest possible accuracy.[7]


Ferry Building Marketplace

The original clock mechanism was refurbished in 2000; it is complete and intact, despite two previous modifications. The Ferry Building has its original Special #4 clock made in 1898 by the Boston clock maker E. Howard. It is the largest wind-up, mechanical dial clock in the world. The four dials are each twenty-two feet in diameter, and a portion of the dial appears to be back-lit at night. This is the effect of two concentric dials on each clock face, in which the inner dial is lit and visible at night.

Although the hands and a small portion of the works are now powered by an accurate electric motor, the entire clock mechanism is still there. The huge weight hangs in its 48-foot (15 m) shaft; once wound, it formerly kept the clock running for eight days. The 16-foot (5 m) pendulum also remains, but it is motionless, replaced by more modern, reliable, and accurate electric power. There is also a set of horn loudspeakers above the clock that play Westminster Chimes on the hour.

Ferry Plaza Farmers' Market & Ferry Building Marketplace

San Francisco's best-known farmers' market is held on the grounds around the building on Saturdays from 8 am to 2 pm PT (08:00 to 14:00), and on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10 am to 2 pm PT (10:00–14:00), year-round. Outside, a roadway allows pedestrian access to the restaurant and ferry dock behind the building.[14][15]

Ferry service

The Ferry Building, photo taken at sunrise from the waterside, 2000s



The state plans to expand ferry service to Hercules, Redwood City, Martinez, Antioch, Treasure Island, Berkeley, and Richmond.[16]

Transit connections

The Ferry Building from The Embarcadero facing northeast

San Francisco Municipal Railway's E Embarcadero and F Market & Wharves heritage railway lines have a station located on the pedestrian plaza in front of the Ferry Building.

In addition, the main line of the Bay Area Rapid Transit system runs under the building. The dock area on the eastern side is used as the transition point from the Transbay Tube to the Market Street Subway. The Embarcadero Station a block away is a BART and Muni Metro station; it connects the terminal with the city, East Bay and Peninsula.

The terminal is also served by Vallejo Baylink buses (operated by SolTrans) and Amtrak Thruway Motorcoach.

See also


  1. National Park Service (2009-03-13). "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service.
  2. "City of San Francisco Designated Landmarks". City of San Francisco. Retrieved 2012-10-21.
  3. "Jamestown’s Michael Phillips on Ponce City Market", ATL Food Chatter (Atlanta magazine blog), July 18, 2011
  4. 1 2 3 "History and Renovations", Ferry Building Marketplace, Official website for the complex, accessed 12 April 2012
  6. Port of San Francisco. 1993. The Ferry Building, San Francisco, California: Workshop Summary and Development Concepts. [San Francisco, Calif.]: Port of San Francisco.
  7. 1 2 3 4 5 Klara, Robert. 2005. "Going With The Faux." Architecture. 94 (8): 61-62.
  8. "CED Exhibition: SMWM exhibit at the Environmental Design Archives Wednesday, 06/04/14 – 10/01/14 280 Wurster Hall". Retrieved 2016-10-22.
  9. Port of San Francisco. 2009. “The Ferry Building Waterfront.” In Port of San Francisco: Waterfront Land Use Plan, San Francisco: Revised edition; 118-31.
  10. Olmsted, Nancy. 1998. The Ferry Building: Witness to a Century of Change, 1898-1998. San Francisco, Calif: The Port of San Francisco in conjunction with Heyday Books, Berkeley, Calif.
  11. Sensenig, Chris. 2007. “The Ferry Building - San Francisco, CA.” Places. 19, no. 3.
  12. 1 2 King, John. 2004. "Surviving controversy, SMWM's quiet mix of old and new has returned San Francisco's Ferry Building to the center of urban life." Architectural Record 192, no. 11: 165-173. Art Source, EBSCOhost (accessed 2015).
  13. 1 2 "Frequently Asked Questions: the restoration". Ferry Building Marketplace.
  14. "Visit Our Markets".
  15. "Ferry Plaza Farmers Market".
  16. "Proposed Routes / Under Study - San Francisco Bay Ferry".
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