Nescire autem quid ante quam natus sis acciderit, id est semper esse puerum. Quid enim est aetas hominis, nisi ea memoria rerum veterum cum superiorum aetate contexitur?
To be ignorant of what happened before you were born is to be ever a child. For what is man’s lifetime unless the memory of past events is woven with those of earlier times?
–Marcus Tullius Cicero
Source: San Francisco History Center, SF Public Library
Mason and Market, 1905. Center left is the third incarnation of the Tivoli Opera House in the reconfigured Panorama Building at Eddy and Mason, across from the mansard-roofed Golden State Hotel and Spider Kelly’s saloon. In the distance, near the center of the skyline, is the Fairmont Hotel atop Nob Hill.
It is not hyperbole to say that I have indulged in a passionate love affair with midtown San Francisco ever since it became my home turf in February 2001. Following years of overwhelming loss and misery, I was ready to make a fresh start by embarking on a course of personal reinvention. The long-neglected central city embraced me as one of its own.
I loved living amidst the cadenced visual harmony of the district’s hive-like, century-old architecture. Memories of the neighborhood from earlier, kinder times gave me an historical perspective of my surroundings. Realizing early on that many familiar, old signs and structures would soon either change or disappear, I began documenting the central city landscape near the end of 2002. It seemed appropriate at the time to name my work The Hotel Project. It was in the fall of 2005, while preparing for an exhibit of my photographs at San Francisco City Hall, that I took my first, faltering steps towards developing an historical narrative for my images. A blog seemed promising as a platform for experimentation and feedback, and thus I created The Hotel Project on Blogger.
I worked hard to develop my writing skills. Having no formal training, I learned the rudiments of historical research the same way I learned about computers and photographic software: the time-honored “hard way,” through trial and error. In 2007-8, I had the great pleasure and privilege of working with architectural historian Michael Corbett* on an extensive survey of Tenderloin architecture that conclusively defined the extent of the Uptown Tenderloin Historic District and nominated it to the National Register of Historic Places, a sanction that was officially bestowed by the National Park Service in 2009. Photographing the district’s distinctive architecture most effectively demanded a deeper understanding of what I was seeing, so I applied myself to learning the language and symbolism of Classical Revival architecture. I also learned some things about proper historical research, thanks in large part to Michael’s patient willingness to answer all my questions. When my work on the survey was finished, during an abecedarian plunge into self-publishing in September 2008, I moved the Hotel Project blog to WordPress, where it soon metamorphosed into this very personal ongoing history of San Francisco’s central city, Up From The Deep.
*author of Splendid Survivors and Port City, two of the best books ever written about San Francisco’s architectural heritage.
My Personal History explains in detail my intimate and idiosyncratic relationship with the central city. An overview of this project and the story of its genesis are contained within the Project History. Central city history has been divided into three photo essays corresponding to the vicinities that comprise it: Sixth Street, Mid-Market, and The Tenderloin. In the Blog section you will find the histories of numbered blocks and individual buildings illustrated with my own photography and, where possible, historical images and clippings from various Bay Area archives. There, too, are narratives and anecdotes about characters both famous and infamous, as well as news of current neighborhood events and exhibits. Of course, there is also a search engine to help you navigate. Museum quality prints of my photographs can be purchased via the Prints page.
The underlying spirit of my historical exploration is best explained by way of anecdote. I have found that, as a general rule, people rarely look upward past eye level. They are most often surprised when their attention is directed above to something they have passed by without seeing, perhaps for years. One friend of mine had lived for a long time in a Central Towers apartment, across Turk Street from the old YMCA Hotel (now the Oasis Apartments). When he first saw one of my photographs of the Oasis, he asked me where the building was located. He was shocked to learn it was the same building his balcony window had opened onto all those years, for he had never noticed what was right before his eyes. He later told me that when out and about, he had begun to look upward and had discovered many beautiful and pleasing aspects of his city he had never before appreciated, which of course delighted me no end. Cast your gaze aloft every now and then just to see what is there . . . you might be surprised or, better yet, inspired to do some documentation and research of your own.
Just about the time I began photographing the architecture of San Francisco’s central city, Serge Echeverria came into my life, offering not only his friendship, but also both encouragement and critical assessment of my work. To him, Up From The Deep is dedicated.
Photo by Theo Rigby
Except where otherwise indicated, text and photos on this site are copyright © 2004-2015, Mark Ellinger. Any use and/or duplication of this material without prior written permission from the author is prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Mark Ellinger and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.