Monday, April 18, 2011

April 18, 1906

This is a repost of one that I posted two years ago. Today is the 105th anniversary

At 5:12 in the morning, 103 years ago, San Francisco photographer Arnold Genthe was awakened by a terrifying sound. His entire collection of Chinese porcelain was pouring out of the shelves onto the floor. One of the worst natural disasters in history had begun. As he remembered later, he went out to find a man in a swallowtail coat standing dazed in the street. A policeman approached the man: "Say, Mister," he said, "I guess you better put on some pants."

Finding his cameras had all been destroyed, Genthe borrowed a Kodak and, stuffing his pockets with films set out to immortalize the horrors with photos like this one, showing Sacramento Street, looking toward the bay. As he said of it in his memoirs, it
shows, in a pictorially effective composition, the results of the earthquake, the beginning of the fire and the attitude of the people. On the right is a house, the front of which had collapsed into the street. The occupants are sitting on chairs calmly watching the approach of the fire. Groups of people are standing in the street, motionless, gazing at the clouds of smoke. When the fire crept up close, they would just move up a block.
All that was left of the Towne Residence was its entrance. Someone named Genthe's picture of it "The Portals of the Past." When the entrance was moved to Golden Gate Park, that is what it was named. It is mentioned, memorably, in the classic film Vertigo.

Within hours, a committee of wealthy citzens met and asked to mayor to draw checks of any amount to relieve the suffering of the devastated population. They would guarantee the checks.

Soon, another remarkable event began. The rebuilding of the city. While the ruins were still smoking, a sign went up on a collapsed wall: "On this site will be erected a six-story office building to be ready for occupancy in the Fall." A year to the day after the earthquake, the new Fairmont Hotel opened. Within a decade San Franciscans celebrated the rebirth of their city with the Panama Pacific Exposition.

San Francisco is the only American city that has a consistent architectural style. That is no doubt because it had to be built all at once. Luckily, this happened at a moment in history when the styles were particularly elegant and beautiful -- and somehow they seem especially appropriate to a city with its arms open to the sky, the mist, and the sea. The result that beloved white city of bay windows, turrets, and elaborate sawed wood ornamentation.

Happy re-birthday, San Francisco!
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