Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Urban Renaissance with Mermaids: Lawrence Halprin’s Ghirardelli Square

Ghirardelli Square
Courtesy of Fairmont Heritage Place
Today we know that the revival of the urban inner city begins with the restoration and re-use of old buildings. Cities that have preserved their old downtowns and industrial districts find in them the seeds to begin anew. Seeking community, people and businesses from Brooklyn to Portland to Oakland now flock to restored buildings to make their homes or to build businesses—eschewing suburbia for urban buzz.

Few, however, know that adaptive reuse began over fifty years ago with one building in San Francisco. In 1962 developer William Matson Roth watched with dread as the old Fontana Warehouse on San Francisco’s northern waterfront was torn down and replaced by two tall, view-obscuring apartment towers, known as Fontana East and Fontana West. Fearing a similar fate for the old Ghirardelli chocolate factory next door, he arranged to purchase the property, transforming it into a high-end shopping complex and destination site for locals and visitors alike. The National Trust for Historic Preservation has called the transformation of the Ghirardelli buildings “perhaps the classic example of adaptive re-use in the U.S.” In 1981 the Washington Star described San Francisco’s Ghirardelli Square as “the distinct and undisputed birthplace of the movement to salvage, renovate, and recycle historical old structures.”
D. Ghirardelli & Co. invoice, 1883, ten years prior to the company’s move to
the Pioneer Woolen Mills location on North Point St. 
California Historical Society
The site’s original brick building was designed around 1862 by San Francisco architect William Mooser for the Pioneer Woolen Mills. In 1893 the building was purchased by the D. Ghirardelli Company, which added additional Mooser-designed buildings and occupied the site until Roth’s purchase in the 1960s.

Notes on the Ghiradelli Center for Bill Roth, 1962
Lawrence Halprin Collection, The Architectural Archives, University of Pennsylvania
Published in Lawrence Halprin: Changing Places (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1986)
For the rehabilitation of the old chocolate factory, Roth chose the Bay Area architectural firm Wurster Bernardi & Emmons, and for the landscape design, Lawrence Halprin & Associates. Fresh from his work on the Seattle World’s Fair and UC Berkeley’s Sproul Plaza, Halprin was eager to put into play the creative ideas for landscape design he was developing in part with his wife, the modern dancer Anna Halprin. In his “Notes on the Ghirardelli Center,” written alongside his sketches for William Roth, Halprin wrote:
“It is quite clear that much of the old brick stuff should stay. But some should come out! . . . A great plaza at the upper level should be developed—around it a BEEHIVE OF EXCITEMENT with several layers of shops, all connected with each other by ramps and stairs from different levels.”
Schemes for Ghiradelli Square, 1962–64
(Left) Larkin Street entrance, Wurster, Bernardi & Emmons; (right) Interior shops, source unknown
California Historical Society
Strongly influenced by his time spent on a communally oriented Israeli kibbutz, Halprin’s desire was for visitors to have multiple options for entering, exiting, and moving about Ghirardelli Square. Encouraging social interaction of all kinds was a key element in every Halprin-designed space. In addition to the interior shops off of the square’s main plaza, Halprin insisted on street-level shops—an innovative element for its time—with staircases and ramps leading to the plaza from the many different levels of the steeply sloped streets.

Fountain at Ghiradelli Square, 2009Photograph by Wally Gobetz; Creative Commons
As with all Halprin-designed environments, there was also a water element—in this case an intimate brickwork fountain containing two mermaid sculptures by local artist Ruth Asawa. Radical for its day, one of Asawa’s mermaids is shown breast-feeding her progeny. According to the application for landmark status submitted to the National Register of Historic Places in 1982, the fountain was—and likely remains—the most photographed feature of the entire complex. 

Similar to the situation Halprin encountered in his design for Levi’s Plaza, with Ghirardelli Square Halprin considered the impact of the new site on residents living on the hills above the site. To quell concerns about light emanating at night from the 100-foot-tall Ghirardelli sign—which originally faced Pacific Heights—Halprin opted to turn the sign around. This not only appeased residents but at the same time created a brilliant beacon advertising the square to boats passing by on San Francisco Bay.

Ghirardelli Square’s designation as a National Landmark in 1982 testifies to its profound impact on reuse of industrial buildings in urban landscapes. In 2013 the buildings were purchased by Jamestown Properties, which announced plans for a $15-million upgrade of the site—which already includes hotel space—with proposed new restaurants, to continue the tradition of attracting locals as well as tourists.

In his prescient “Notes on the Ghirardelli Center” drawing from 1962, Halprin wrote:

“I think a motel—a very good one would be marvelous here—urban—urbane—lots of things to do—shopping, restaurants, an off-beat theater—avant-garde paintings and sculpture on the plaza—rotating exhibits—I’d come and stay for a weekend myself!
Delicious Desserts, c. 1915
D. Ghiradelli Co. recipe booklet
California Historical Society
Alison Moore
Strategic Initiatives Liaison
  •  “Lawrence Halprin: Changing Places” (San Francisco: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1986)
  • U.S. Dept. of the Interior Heritage Conservation and Recreation Services National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form, 1982

You can learn more about Anna and Lawrence Halprin at the California Historical Societys exhibition Experiments in Environment: The Halprin Workshops, 1966–1971 and its related programs, January 21– May 1, 2016.
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