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The War Memorial Complex

The genesis of what is now the War Memorial Complex lies in a 1918 proposal for a cultural center to include a symphony hall, Opera House and Art Museum and a 1919 veterans’ campaign for a Veterans Hall and War Memorial. In 1920 it was proposed that the two efforts be combined into a single complex, to be designated the War Memorial. This joint effort was to wed two rather different groups of citizens, whose aims and objectives differed markedly: the musical and cultural groups, united on a social and class basis as well as through common cultural interests; and the “professional” war veterans, especially the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars, which in the post-war period was to become the major organized force in local politics.

Although a site two blocks south of the present complex was at first considered, the choice quickly settled in 1920 on the blocks across Van Ness Avenue from the new City Hall. A public subscription was taken in 1920, resulting in close to $2,000,000. Trustees of the War Memorial were appointed in 1921 from among the prominent citizens of San Francisco, and land was acquired starting late that year and continuing until 1925.

In 1922 a distinguished architectural advisory committee was appointed: chaired by Bernard Maybeck, it also included Willis Polk, John Galen Howard, Ernest Coxhead, G. Albert Lansburgh, John Reid Jr., Fred Meyer and Arthur Brown Jr.— a veritable Pantheon of Bay Area architects. The initial plans for the War Memorial included a large veterans building at the front of the site, and an inner court, within which was situated a building for the Opera and Symphony. These plans fell through because the site (only one square block at first) was too small, and the funds inadequate. The design finally chosen — by Arthur Brown, Jr., with G. Albert Lansburgh — was for twin buildings equal in scale.

After it became apparent that funds derived from the public subscription of 1920 would be insufficient, the Trustees finally asked the Mayor and Board of Supervisors to submit a Bond Issue to the voters, and in 1927 the sum of $4,000,000 for construction was approved at the polls by a substantial majority. Further delay ensued due to the veterans’ disapproval of the plans and their desire for representation on the Board of Trustees. These and related difficulties prevented sale of the bonds until 1930 in spite of Mayor Rolph’s best efforts. circa 1930s drawing of the Veterans Building at Civic Center

Construction finally commenced on January 2, 1931. The cornerstone was laid on Armistice Day, November 11, 1931 and the dedication took place on Admission Day, September 9, 1932 (presumably symbolizing California’s cultural coming of age)., The Opera House doors opened for the first public performance on October 15, 1932 with some 4,000 in attendance.

The opera performed on that historic occasion was Puccini’s “Tosca,” with Gaetano Merola, long time General Director of the Opera on the podium, and the great Claudia Muzio in the title role (the opening line “Finalmente!” reportedly brought down the house in view of the long tribulations of construction).

Unquestionably the history of the War Memorial complex transcends purely local significance and makes it a truly international landmark as well, most fitting in this most cosmopolitan of cities. For in April. May and June of 1945, under the strains and stress of wartime, the two buildings of the War Memorial — Opera House and Veterans Building — served as the birthplace of the United Nations. Most of the meetings and ceremonies of the Conference took place in the Veterans Building, and it was on the great stage of the Opera House that President Truman and other dignitaries signed the United Nations Charter at a plenary session on June 26, 1945. Commemorative meetings of the United Nations, with appropriate ceremonies, took place in the Opera House in 1955 and 1965; a 25th Anniversary celebration in June 1970, and the 50th anniversary in 1995.

The War Memorial is further distinguished in that the Japanese Peace Treaty was drawn up in 1951 in the Veterans Building, and signed in the Opera House.

The twin buildings of the War Memorial have been used principally as their names would imply. The Opera House has been the home of the opera and the symphony, both of which previously had been forced to migrate from theatre to theatre and then for a time to the Civic Auditorium; it has also served the ballet and other theatrical arts. The Veterans Building was designed for and has been devoted to veterans’ organizations, except for the fourth floor (and in latter years a portion of the third), which was given over to the San Francisco Museum of Art.

The Opera House and Veterans Building, together with the Court between them, form an integral project, conceived and built as a unity. The twin structures were designed to harmonize with the City Hall and the entire Civic Center complex. In general height, cornice line, and architectural composition they complement the appearance of the monumental City Hall, which was, in fact, designed by Brown (with Bakewell). Moreover, they further the concept of the Civic Center, for which plans were initially formulated in 1911. The War Memorial represents a major link in the development of this grandest of all American civic complexes, which started with the Civic Auditorium and City Hall and includes also the Library, State and Federal buildings, and the central Plaza.

The War Memorial complex is composed of two substantially identical structures — Opera House and Veterans Building — separated and linked by a formal Court. As to the exterior the description which follows will serve for both, except that the Opera House has in addition a large rectangular penthouse extending above the roof at the rear of the building, to house stage equipment.

The Opera House and Veterans Building are rectangular, steel-frame structures, with granite foundations and steps, and facades of rusticated terra cotta simulating stone blocks. The exterior dimensions of each building are 180 feet in width, increased to 231 feet at the front, and 282 feet in length. There are four main stories with basement, and a mansard roof. The style of the War memorial, like that of the more ornate City Hall it complements, is French Renaissance.

The principal facade, which as indicated above is wider than the main body of the building, has on the main floor seven high arched entrances, each containing double glass doors, and flanked by decorative bronze lamps. The major feature of the facade in the high colonnade at second and third stories, composed of eight pairs of Doric columns, with small balustrades between the pairs at second-story level. Behind the colonnade, seven high-arched windows pierce the wall. The colonnade supports a heavy architrave, itself surmounted by a cornice.

The side facades continue the general appearance of the front: the high-arched openings are present in the form of two tiers of windows, and the cornice reappears; but there is no colonnade. The projections extending the width of the front facade are staggered back to the side facades by means of repeated setbacks. There are secondary pedestrian entrances, and the Opera House has a carriage entrance and driveway on each side.


The main facade and its entrances give access into the Lobby and thence to the Foyer. With walls of cast stone, the Lobby is 38 feet high and extends behind most of the facade; its ceiling is vaulted and coffered, and its floor of marble. The Foyer is lined with fluted Doric columns supporting an architrave and dentillated cornice. The Foyer and its magnificent coffered ceiling are lighted by huge bronze lamps rising from the floor, as well as by glazed lamps suspended from the ceiling. Ornate bronze rails flank the broad steps leading from the Foyer to the Orchestra level; and above the doorways leading to the orchestra, dentillated triangular pediments continue the classical motifs of this most elegant space.

At each end of the Foyer, broad marble stairs rise to the upper level of the main floor, from which balustraded marble stairways ascend to upper floors. Wide promenades flank the Orchestra on both sides of the building, with doors to provide access from the carriage entrances; there are secondary stairs at the ends of the promenades.

The architectural treatment of the auditorium is simple, direct and dignified, as befitting the exterior treatment. With a breadth of 113 feet, height of 74 feet, and depth varying from 116 feet at the orchestra level to 161 feet at the Balcony level, it is a well-proportioned space. The seating capacity of 3285 persons is approximately one-half greater than the Paris Opera, which in a general way served as a model; 700 standees can also be accommodated.

Above the orchestra level there are 25 Boxes, each with private vestibule, approached from a broad promenade. The Grand Tier, Dress Circle, Balcony Circle and Balcony are also reached from various promenade levels, and have their own foyers, refreshment areas, restrooms and other conveniences; the different levels are served by stairs and elevators from the main floor. At the basement level is a promenade off which open a bar and buffet, restrooms, and a hospital room.

The stage is of unusual size: 134 feet wide, 84 feet deep, and 140 feet in total height. The orchestra pit, raised and lowered automatically, is large enough for an orchestra of 125 pieces. The proscenium arch has a coffered frame. The arch measures 52 feet in width and 51 feet high at the center; its sides are decorated with figures in relief.

In the auditorium, the classical side wall treatment is notable: the lower walls are rusticated, serving as a base for the pilasters, balustrades and great arches of the walls, below the main cornice of the interior. The arches have grilles intended to transmit organ music, but no organ has ever been installed. The principal feature of the ceiling is a large elliptical surface from which is suspended a great central metal lighting fixture of many rays; the lighting is indirect. The ceiling itself is of acoustical plaster.


The principal feature is the auditorium, which seats some 1,106 persons and is convertible into a dance floor whose level may be raised and lowered. The hall is adorned by the Brangwyn murals, brought from the Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915, which portray various symbolic states of mankind. The first floor also contains a Memorial Hall with military mementos of the two World Wars, and offices for veterans’ groups. On the second floor, the entire front of the building is devoted to a Library and Reading Room, known as the Green Room, giving out onto the loggia or portico of the exterior; this fine room is a truly valuable oasis of tranquillity and gentility in the bustling city. The remainder of the second and third floors is used for meeting rooms, lounges and other conveniences. As mentioned above, the San Francisco Museum of Art is installed on the fourth floor, reached by its own elevator from the side entrance on McAllister Street.

Landmarks Preservation Advisory Board
Preliminary Case Report [n.d. 1990s]

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