Check Out This Model of S.F. No One’s Seen IRL Since 1942

This late-1930s WPA map, at a scale of one inch to 100 feet, was part of the Golden Gate International Exposition on Treasure Island. It's never been exhibited in full since.

Cartophiles, here is your new god. 

If you thought San Francisco was seven-by-seven, start thinking of it as 38-by-42. For SFMOMA’s Take Part project, part of a larger cooperative endeavor with the S.F. Public Library called Public Knowledge, a team led by David Rumsey digitally reassembled all 158 sections of a 1940 map of San Francisco that had been displayed at the Golden Gate Exposition on Treasure Island. At a scale of one inch to 100 feet, it’s a painstakingly accurate replica of the city as it was almost eight decades ago, without any freeways, much of the Outer Sunset undeveloped — and when the two tallest buildings were the Russ Building and the Pacific Telephone Building, each on New Montgomery Street and each only 435 feet tall. After the fair ended, it was placed on view at City Hall from 1940-42, and no one has seen it all at once ever since.

A digitzed reconstruction of the whole thing, all 6,000 blocks.

It didn’t languish totally unused, however, as sections were examined for urban-planning purposes in the 1960s, later going to the Environmental Simulation Laboratory in the College of Environmental Design at UC Berkeley. For comparison’s sake, in Back to the Future Part III, Doc Brown’s DeLorean sat in a cave from 1885 to 1955, and this map’s long hibernation beats it by seven years.

Last summer, volunteers cleaned and documented all 6,000 removable city blocks in preparation for Take Part (Jan. 25-March 25) for which various sections will be on view in corresponding neighborhood public libraries. According to SFMOMA, “the condition of the model is generally good except for the downtown and south of market portions which need restoration — many blocks there have been removed and lost, probably from the time it was used and updated as a planning tool.” 

The sections near downtown look a little bombed-out.

Cities are dynamic places, and it would require a full-time staffer just to keep a large-scale replica of San Francisco mirroring the ever-changing skyline and streetscape. But don’t you pine for the days when people undertook these Borges-esque projects? (New York has one too, dating from 1964 — although it hasn’t been updated since 1992, which means it shows the original Twin Towers.)

The 1940 shoreline versus the 2019 shoreline (in gray).

Admittedly, since you can’t walk all over this map, the detail might be hard to see even when you squint, so it’s probably best viewed in sections rather than assembled in one piece. (You can view many sections of it close up here.) Still, some determined outsider artist is hopefully at work in his or her garage right now, 3D-printing the Salesforce Tower, 151 Fremont, and the forthcoming Shake Shack.

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