It’s really no big shocker that the environmentally progressive — and increasingly impossible to live in — consolidated city-county of San Francisco houses its governmental offices in a LEED-certified city hall. After all, we’re talking about a town where organic eggplant is harvested at baseball stadiums and where a penchant for water conservation has given way to a “multimillion dollar plumbing stink.”

What is surprising, however, is the advanced age of San Francisco City Hall and the fact that, just last month, the centenarian Beaux-Arts showstopper was awarded with LEED Platinum certification under the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED for Existing Buildings Operations and Maintenance (LEED – EBOM) program.

Completed in 1915, the 500,000-square-foot granite edifice topped with a soaring dome that even, well, out domes the United States Capitol by 19 feet is now the oldest structure in the country to join the ranks of LEED Platinum-dom.

With the ultimate and obvious aim to achieve significant water and energy savings, the multiyear retrofitting of San Francisco City Hall was spearheaded by the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, the City Administrator’s Office and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In total, the efficiency-minded improvements within San Francisco City Hall have slashed energy consumption by 20 percent and saved upwards of 825,000 gallons of drinking water per year all without compromising the architectural splendor of the landmark structure.

Key upgrades include the installation of 76 new high-efficiency toilets to replace older, less efficient commodes and new low-mercury fluorescent lighting fixtures.

Remarked EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy: "San Francisco has long been a leader and innovator at the forefront of solutions to combat climate change and reduce energy and water consumption. As the entire nation watches California endure its 4th year of drought, we all must do our part to use renewable energy, be energy efficient, and conserve our precious water resources.”

San Francisco City Hall

The XL-sized crown jewel of the Civic Center District, San Francisco City Hall takes up two city blocks (Photo: Sergio Ruiz/flickr)

The City Beautiful and green

Towering over San Francisco’s National Historic Landmark-listed Civic Center like the world’s most magnificent cake topper, San Francisco City Hall is actually the City by the Bay’s second city hall. Completed in 1899, the first and even more grand San Francisco City Hall lived a relatively short life as it was left in ruins by a catastrophic earthquake that almost completely leveled the city in 1906.

For the original’s replacement, city leaders enlisted noted Bay Area architect Arthur Brown, Jr. (Coit Tower, War Memorial Opera House, the campus of UC Berkley and on) via design competition to create an indelible monument to the turn-of-the-century City Beautiful movement in which neoclassical architectural splendor and lushly landscaped urban parks were positioned as the glue that would hold rapidly growing American cities together. An aesthetics-championing form of social reform geared to boost civic pride and morale (something San Francisco was in desperate need of in the early 1900s) and promote order by way of attractiveness, the City Beautiful philosophy helped to shape the cities of Washington, D.C. (the MacMillan Plan), Denver, Baltimore, Cleveland, Coral Gables and Chicago.

It was in Chicago where the City Beautiful movement was first born in the form of architect Daniel Burnham's White City, a temporary alabaster mini-utopia erected for 1893’s Ferris wheel-debuting World’s Columbian Exposition. It was a later world’s fair, the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition, for which the new San Francisco City Hall was built. Well, it wasn’t built specifically for the exposition, but it was completed just in time for the event, a hugely symbolic event geared as a sort of grand reintroduction of San Francisco to the world stage following nearly a decade of recovery and rebuilding.

Former San Francisco Mayor (1978 to 1988) and current California Senator Diane Feinstein describes San Francisco City Hall as "a symbol of the City’s ability to rise from the ashes, like the mythical phoenix, even stronger than before."

Best known for its ornate gold-plated detailing, limestone walls and sweeping rotunda topped by a 307-foot dome (the fifth tallest in the world) inspired by Paris’ Dôme des Invalides, San Francisco’s “People’s Palace” has been the site of numerous historic events both somber and celebratory over the years including the assassination of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk (1978) and the marriage of Joe Di Maggio and Marilyn Monroe (1954). On the topic of notable nuptials, San Francisco City Hall is where, in 2004, the first same-sex marriage licenses were issued in the United States.

The historic structure survived 1989’s Loma Prieta Earthquake with only minor damage, prompting the city to embark on a not-so-minor seismic retrofitting project to ensure it would stand strong during future tremors.

The Rotunda, San Francisco City Hall

Inside San Francisco City Hall's famed rotunda. (Photo: freemansullivan/flickr)

Party Alert

Just as San Francisco City Hall was completed in 1915 to coincide with a major event, the LEED Platinum achievement comes just in time for another significant occasion: the building’s Centennial Celebration which kicks off on Friday, June 19. Held at Civic Center Plaza, the big soiree will feature live music, a sizable fleet of food trucks and an “after dark multimedia projection experience” that transforms the façade of the structure into a “luminous portal that takes the audience on a visual and creative journey through the history and stories behind the building.”

A documentary film charting the history of San Francisco City Hall is also being released later this year in conjunction with the building's milestone birthday. In addition, the Centennial Celebration coincides with the the 83rd annual meeting of the United States Conference of Mayors, an event that will see the mayors of 450 major American cities descend on San Francisco.

Says this year's host, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee:

San Francisco City Hall is a world-class landmark with a storied history for trailblazing policies that have had a global impact. The investment we are making 100 years later is making history again — City Hall is the oldest U.S. building to achieve LEED EBOM Platinum Certification — the hallmark of sustainable building design. This historic centennial celebration provides us with an opportunity to come together as a City to remember how resilient San Franciscans have been through the past 100 years and helps us reflect on what tremendous support we have given one another during times of need, and we continue supporting one another for generations to come. I can’t wait to join residents from all over San Francisco and Mayors from across the country to switch on our new lights for City Hall and celebrate our City.”

Outside of the Centennial Celebration, San Francisco City Hall can, as always, be enjoyed via daily public tours. There's obviously a lot to admire in a building regarded as the finest example of French Renaissance architecture in the United States, but those planning on embarking on a tour of San Francisco City Hall should also take note the numerous 21st century upgrades that have helped earn it the title of oldest LEED Platinum building, from the daylight management system in the rotunda to the newfangled urinals in the men’s room.

Via [EcoBuilding Pulse]

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Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.