San Francisco’s Ferry Building

Ferry Building, San Francisco

Located on the San Francisco Bay waterfront, the Ferry Building is an indoor marketplace with shops and eateries, a busy ferry transit station, and year-round outdoor farmers markets. It is a wonderful place to spend an animated day in San Francisco.


Ferry Building Marketplace


With status as a San Francisco Landmark and National Historic Place, it has been a transportation terminal hub since it was built in 1898.


Ferry Building in left center, Golden Gate Bridge in back right


Ferry Building

The Beaux-Arts architecture includes a 245-foot-tall (75 m) clock tower with quarterly Westminster Chimes.


The Great Nave, a 660-foot long (200 m) indoor promenade, is brightly lit with skylights and features approximately 50 shops today. Originally it was bustling with freight, baggage, and mail activities.


Ferry Building, History


Ferry Building, Interior Nave


Indoor mosaic tiles throughout the building

From 1898 to the 1930s, it was the second busiest transit terminal in the world. In the 1920s, fifty million passengers a year, and automobiles, used the ferries. When the two big commuter bridges–the Golden Gate Bridge and the Bay Bridge–were built in the 1930s,  ferry traffic significantly diminished.


Nearly a century later, taking ferries to work has come back into vogue, a good way to avoid the auto-clogged roads. It may not be the cheapest means of commuting, but it is the most civilized, and thousands of commuters prefer it.


Commuters enjoy a visit with a friend or a good read, a coffee in the morning or beer after work, as they are nautically ushered home after a long day. Rush hour in the Ferry Building hums with commuters.


Ferry boat, The San Francisco, Athena commuting on the top deck


An extensive web of public transportation continues just across the street from the Ferry Building, whisking people further into the city or far away from it.


With the water right here, this corner of the city has been a beehive of activity for nearly as long as the city has existed with trains, ships, horses, carriages, and cable cars.


Here is an entertaining You Tube video, worth a minute or two of your time. It is original footage of Market Street traffic, including the iconic building always in center view, getting closer. The year is significant: the film was made four days before the 1906 earthquake that would destroy 80% of the city.


A Trip Down Market Street – video


That year, 1906, was a devastating one for San Francisco, but you can see from the photograph below that the Ferry Building remarkably survived the earthquake.


Ferry Building 1906 after Earthquake


Over the years, the Ferry Building has undergone many changes and survived another big earthquake in 1989.


Some residents objected strongly to the Embarcadero Freeway built beside the Ferry Building in 1968. Then in 1989, the freeway was heavily damaged, and demolished a few years later. (You can still see it in “Dirty Harry” movies.)


YMCA next to Embarcadero Freeway 1972 (Telstar Logistics)

Embarcadero Freeway, Ferry Bldg., and Bay Bridge, 1972 (Telstar Logistics)


More recently, the Ferry Building was revitalized after an extensive four-year restoration, re-opening in 2003. Since then it has been decorated and celebrated by millions of visitors.


Gandhi Statue, Ferry Building, San Francisco


Ferry Building, Saturday Farmers Market


Graced by surrounding water and squawking gulls, tidal changes and every kind of boat, the Ferry Building continues to host and entertain the patrons and visitors of San Francisco, as it has for over a century.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander unless otherwise specified.

Super Bowl Fiftieth Anniversary celebration in San Francisco, 2016

Hermann Plaza Winter Ice Rink and Ferry Building

SF Ferry Bldg and Giants Banner, they won the pennant that year, Oct. 2014.


Lotta’s Fountain

Lotta's Fountain, SF

Lotta’s Fountain, SF

A 24-foot-high (7m) cast-iron sculpture sits solidly on a pedestrian island at a very busy intersection in San Francisco’s Financial District.


Every day thousands of San Franciscans rush past it. When I worked downtown I did too.


SF Mayor Ed Lee second from right

Lotta’s Ftn, SF Mayor Ed Lee second from right, 2014

But as the oldest surviving monument and meeting place for the 1906 earthquake survivors, Lotta’s Fountain is also appropriately honored. Not only is it Designated Landmark #73 and a National Historic Place, it is spiffed up and encircled with singing residents and politicians every April 18.


During the Gold Rush days of the 1850s, when San Francisco began its first growth spurt and law and order was not yet established, miners and other new arrivals to the city were a bawdy bunch.


Lotta Crabtree, for whom the fountain is named, gave this monument to San Francisco. It was 1875 and she was a famous vaudeville performer. With drunken miners throwing gold nuggets at her dancing feet, she had come upon a surplus of income.


As a gesture of thanks for the city that began her success, she gave this monument to the city.


Lotta's Ftn. detail

Lotta’s Ftn. detail

Years later, it not only survived the 1906 earthquake, but it became a meeting place for earthquake-devastated survivors to congregate. Soon thereafter residents met at the towering fountain every year, on the anniversary of the big earthquake.


They sang, and still sing, of the miraculous survival and spirit of its residents, in spite of the crushing loss of 3,000 people and 80% of the city.


Although I lived in San Francisco for 13 years, I never attended this celebration, chiefly because it occurs at 5 in the morning. Living in San Francisco, for many of us, has meant working long, hard hours to afford rent. So a 5 a.m. event before work was just never on my radar.


But in researching for my novel, I visited the celebration. And it was really fun. I wrote more about it in a previous post, Celebrating Survival in San Francisco. 


1906 EQ ceremony at Lotta's Fountain, 2014

1906 EQ ceremony at Lotta’s Fountain, 2014. Some celebrants attend in period costumes.

Read more about the fountain here.


There have also been numerous performances at Lotta’s Fountain; most notably Luisa Tetrazzini’s Christmas Eve concert in 1910.

Tetrazzini concert, 1910. Lotta’s Ftn. upper far left. Courtesy San Francisco Performing Arts

A legendary Italian opera soprano, Ms. Tetrazini sang her heart out to a wildly appreciative crowd of 250,000 people packing that same street corner…over a century ago.


We live busy lives and quickly scuttle past sculptures, memorials, and plaques every day. Stopping, in fact, can create a sidewalk hazard.


But when something in our periphery causes us to come out of our head and look up, it’s quite amazing what we can find.


Photo credit: Athena Alexander

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