Unbuilt Bernal Heights: Our Future That Never Was


The only thing Bernalwood loves more than a good local history lesson is a strong dose of local fantasy science-fiction. Luckily for us, some recent synchronicity has conspired to provide a tasty mixture of the two.  Here’s how it unfolds…

Part One: A few weeks ago, I took Bernalwood’s Cub Reporter to visit the new Exploratorium. While we were there, we wandered down a long hallway and into the Bay Observatory Gallery at the northeast corner of the museum. And in the Bay Observatory Gallery, we found a very cool collection of maps:


As you can see, the Cub Reporter was fascinated with a map visualization created by the amazing Eric Fischer (which quite speaks well of her).

Simultaneously, your Bernalwood editor was intrigued by a map of an ambitious redevelopment plan that envisioned San Francisco as a kind of Paris by the Bay, with grand boulevards and ornate gardens slicing through our familiar street grid. Naturally, I took a particular interest in the Bernal Heights portion of the map:


So much to absorb! To facilitate later study, I snapped a few quick photos, including one of the map legend:

1905MapDetailThe legend identified the map as:

Plan, showing system of highways, public places, parks, park connections, etc., to serve as a guide for the future development of the city, recommended in his report to the Association for theImprovement and Adornment of San Francisco, by D.H. Burnham – September 1905

Hmmmmmmmm. We’ll explore all the details of the map in a moment, but first, let’s consider that curious synchronicity, which arrived in the form of…

Part Two:  Have you heard of 99% Invisible? It’s a contemporary and wonderful radio documentary series created by producer Roman Mars here in San Francisco as a project of public radio KALW and the American Institute of Architects.

99% Invisible is a show “about design, architecture, and the 99% invisible activity that shapes our world,” with an emphasis on that 99% part — which is to say that 99% Invisible is about the history, personalities, and contextual quirks from which meaningful design and architecture emerges. This sounds heady and theoretical, but the show is anything but; it’s quirky and vibrant with an emphasis on people and great storytelling. Listen to it — it will make you see the world with shiny new eyes.

As fate (and synchronicity) would have it, the most recent episode of 99% Invisible is called “Unbuilt,” and it happens to be about unrealized urban master plans in general — and Daniel Burnham’s 1905 master plan for San Francisco in particular. So while listening to 99% Invisible this week, I finally got the backstory about Daniel Burnham’s vision for the future of San Francisco:

Daniel Burnham was the mastermind behind the White City at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago It was the pinnacle of “The City Beautiful” movement, with big civic centers and grand neo-classical structures to stir the soul.

Burnham was hired by big-time downtown business owners of San Francisco to turn this raggedy (if well-off) city into something majestic. Danial Burnham’s team shows up and they set up shop in a cottage on the summit of Twin Peaks so they can survey the city and craft the perfect plan…which was completed in the fall of 1905.

And the legend goes, all the books were delivered to city hall for distribution on April 17, 1906–the day before the great earthquake pulverized San Francisco.

Burnham’s grand master plan was derailed by the 1906 earthquake. The devastation of the quake might have seemed like a perfect opportunity to implement the more disruptive aspects of his urban design, but the reality was that traumatized San Franciscans simply wanted to rebuild quickly and in a manner that felt familiar. So they did.

Burnham’s San Francisco plan went unbuilt.

But what had he envisioned for the future of Bernal Heights? Let’s zoom and enhance the map I found at the Exploratorium:

burnhambernal2Burnham saw Bernal Hill as the grand southern terminus of two criss-crossing promenades, which presumably would have looked somewhat like The Mall in Washington DC.

The “Mission Parkway” promenade would have run east to west along an axis between 23rd and 24th Streets. Meanwhile, the north-south “Mission Arcade” promenade would supplant today’s South Van Ness Avenue, with a grand interchange crossing the Mission Parkway around 24th and South Van Ness.

Looking even more closely…


Precita Park survives in slightly modified form, but Burnham proposed creating a wide garden on the north face of Bernal Hill, roughly along the axis of contemporary Shotwell Street, running continuously from Army (Cesar Chavez) to Stoneman Street.

Burnham also wanted to erect a large, neo-classical building on Bernal Hill to overlook the Mission. He did not indicate what this monumental building would be used for, but we can safely assume it would have been Something Very Important, like a world-renowned collection of Dried Macaroni Arts and Crafts or the urban palace of Lord Mark Zuckerberg, the Duke of Facebook.

A set of smaller monument-style buildings would stand on the northeastern side of Bernal Hill, overlooking a huge playground, while the summit of the hill would feature several small gardens (with grand fountains, perhaps?) for leisurely recreation.

On the south side of Bernal, Burnham envisioned a continuous promenade linking Holly Park to the soutwest side of Bernal Hill, while a similar promenade would link Holly Park to Mission Street before continuing on to an expanded Glen Park open space:


Personally, what I like best about Burnham’s plan for Bernal Heights is how easy it is to visualize. For example, it’s not difficult to imagine the view looking south from 24th and South Van Ness, with that long carpet of green grass rolling toward Bernal, the manicured, European-style garden zig-zagging up Bernal’s north slope, and that neo-classical palace presiding over everything below as Bernal Hill’s feral summit looms proudly behind it.

It would have been magnificent.

It likely also would have been a disaster. The ambiguity surrounding the purpose of Burnham’s neo-classical palace on the north slope of Bernal pervades every aspect of his plan for San Francisco, and it’s unclear who would have actually used all the grand boulevards and promenades he proposed to build in the Mission District. After all, when you really stop to look, his promenades basically extend from Nowhere to Nowhere, and Burnham doesn’t provide much detail to indicate what kind of amenities or infrastructure would activate these sprawling public spaces to give them a reassuring urban bustle.

Indeed, Burnham doesn’t seem to have ever given much thought at all to the stuff that really matters in a city like San Francisco; namely, the myriad small exchanges and interactions that happen at street level, block-to-block, corner-to-corner, and doorstep-to-doorstep. Instead, his 1905 master plan was optimized for viewing from above, as I did when I saw it on the table at the Exploratorium, or as a satellite might see it while snapping photographs for Google Maps, high above, in the empty vacuum of space.

Burnham’s vision of Bernal’s future might have been lovely, but it wasn’t designed with us in mind.

IMAGES: Top: Daniel Burnham Plan, courtesy David Rumsey map collection, via 99% Invisible. All other images, Daniel Burnham 1905 Plan, as photographed at the Exploratorium.

9 thoughts on “Unbuilt Bernal Heights: Our Future That Never Was

  1. Todd — thanks for posting this — very interesting and rich in history. Anthea Hartig, Executive Director of the California Historical Society was interviewed for the KALW piece. For those history buffs who want to learn about more of “UnBuilt” San Francisco, you should check out the current exhibition at the California Historical Society — “A View from Future’s Past: UnBuilt San Francisco” which runs through December 29th. Amazing maps, photos, artifacts and models of what could have been. There are also several evening events featuring various architects and authors about San Francisco history. Check out more about the exhibition at http://www.californiahistoricalsociety.org or visit in person at 678 Mission Street Tuesday’s – Sundays.

  2. If this plan is open for adaptation– I have often thought a raised walkway (we can call it a promenade, if you’d like) from Holly Park at Bocana to equal footing at Bocana near Powhattan would serve all citizens of Bernalwood, but especially those named Smurf, LuLu and Emilia, quite well.

  3. altho my boyhood home in the 600 block of Precita (circa 1917ish) would not have been built, twas a grand dream…

  4. Something that you may or may not have overlookes – whenever you see a street plan like that, say in D.C. or Paris (or in a reimagined London after the great fire of the 1600s http://www.bbc.co.uk/london/content/image_galleries/londons_burning_museumoflondon_gallery.shtml?7 ), it’s a key that something Masonic was going on. If you compare the Bernal terminus to the sephiroth then you might be able to find out what the Capitoline structure was intended to be, even if it wasn’t designed for us.

  5. That is so fascinating. What my daughter and I found out was had this plan gone ahead for Bernal Heights, we would not have the home we have today. Our side of Gates St. did not exist on that map. Thanks again for another totally interesting bit of history!!

  6. I’m curious if there is a link between these green areas and the proposed/in progress islais creek project?

    Obviously there are a lot of areas like st Mary’s park not shown – my own home was built in 1932 and my street is not on this map.

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