Depicting ‘Natural’ Disasters in U.S.-American History and Culture: San Francisco’s City Hall as an Icon of the 1906 Earthquake and Fire

Depicting ‘Natural’ Disasters in U.S.-American History and Culture: San Francisco’s City Hall as an Icon of the 1906 Earthquake and Fire

Susanne Leikam

1. Nature’s ‘Invasion’ of the Metropolis

In the last two decades, soaring media coverage of global warming and other man-made catastrophes has forced Western societies to rethink their conception of ‘nature’ and to concede that nature is “not nearly so natural as it seems” (Cronon 25). Before this fundamental change in perception, however, the various historical constructions of the environmental imaginary had been characterized by one common assumption, namely the diametrical opposition and mutual exclusion of the two concepts of ‘nature’ and ‘culture’ (see for example Cronon 25-28; Soper 15; Dingler 29-32). Whenever this bipolar dualism was perceptively disrupted—as in the case of natural catastrophes—society saw itself confronted with the challenge to not only restore the vital physical infrastructure and social provisions but also to incorporate the disruptive element into the larger cultural narratives and worldviews (Oliver-Smith 3-10; Groh 11-19).1 Throughout U.S. history, the search for an interpretation and the coming to terms with natural disasters have mostly taken the form of oral and written narratives. Yet, from the early twentieth century on, visual representations have gained prominence and developed into widely used media for negotiating the cultural meanings of disasters. The article examines the role that visual representations of San Francisco’s first City Hall played in the aftermath of the 1906 Earthquake and Fire. Not only did they offer a projection screen for the collective trauma but they also provided a starting point for recollection and re-enactment. With the City Hall vicinity as a case in point, it is further shown that what was perceived at the time as nature’s obliteration of the metropolis was rather a man-made disaster.

The 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire is one example for a calamity that resulted in a blurring of the imagined boundaries between ‘nature’ and ‘culture.’ Nature’s transgression into the civilized order of the city became perceptible already in the very first seconds of the 7.8 magnitude quake, when at 5:12 am on Wednesday, April 18, a herd of longhorn steers charged down Market Street—home of mining and railroad magnates along with newspaper tycoons such as William Randolph Hurst or Michael Henry de Young. Yet, this unusual episode was only the prelude to what would eventually turn the “Garden of the Lord”—as Theodore Roosevelt had called San Francisco during a visit in 1903 (qtd. in Benson 61)—into heaps of smouldering ashes and piles of rubble (Fradkin, “Hell on Earth” 13; Hansen and Condon 53-54). The tremors toppled over lamps and stoves, caused chimneys to fall off, ruptured gas and water lines, cracked open the streets, and damaged numerous buildings. Soon an estimated 3,000 of San Francisco’s residents would be dead, countless others injured as well as bereft of all their belongings. Due to the faulty chimneys, leaking gas pipelines, and overturned stoves and lamps more than 100 fires broke out throughout the city and obliterated 30,000 buildings—which at the time meant three quarters of San Francisco—leaving behind nothing but smoke and destruction (Hansen and Condon 45-106). Photographs taken in the immediate aftermath of the quake vividly render the residents’ impressions during the fires (Fig. 1). In his newspaper article aptly titled “The Story of an Eyewitness” published shortly after the 1906 Earthquake and Fire, Jack London described the atmosphere as the following:

Within an hour after the earthquake shock—the smoke of San Francisco’s burning was a lurid tower visible a hundred miles away. And for three days and nights this lurid tower swayed in the sky, reddening the sun, darkening the day, and filling the land with smoke. (1)

Fig. 1

Fig. 1. “San Francisco in Flames”

2. The Visual Memory of the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire

2.1 Visual Technologies of Memory and Memorialization

The negotiations as well as the continuing re-negotiations of collective memory fundamentally rely on sharing and exchanging knowledge through time and space. Thus, when at the break of dawn the first photographers assembled their technical equipment in clouds of dust and smoke in San Francisco, they produced visual representations that initiated the process of coping with the traumatic experience. These “technologies of memory”2 facilitated and sustained the interpretation and commemoration of the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire. Technological inventions in the field of photography enabled broad spectrums of people to participate, thus resulting in a comprehensive corpus of visual representations documenting nature’s abrupt invasion of the metropolis. The two most important inventions in the field of photography were the high-speed camera and the mass-produced, easy-to-use Kodak camera. The first enabled instantaneous shots, while the latter was affordable to a considerable section of society due to its low price (Orvell 35). Edgar A. Cohen, a reporter at one of San Francisco’s newspapers, guessed in June 1906 that “never since cameras were first invented has there been such a large number in use at any other place as there has been in San Francisco since the 18th of last April” (qtd. in Rozario 122).

While all 1906 Earthquake and Fire pictures show the state of disorder and vast destruction, some images deliberately pick out one of the familiar, idiosyncratic buildings of San Francisco’s pre-1906 time, landmarks such as the Hearst Building, the Call Building, or the Ferry Building, around which the scenes of devastation are centered. One of the objects that reappear most often is San Francisco City Hall, which was already a symbolically and ideologically charged icon before the 1906 disaster. The term ‘icon’ refers to an object or a person that is subject to collective veneration and that plays a crucial role in negotiating and communicating consensus in the collective memory and the civil religion of a society as it constitutes an “attempt to focus and anchor the sliding of signification, to freeze the social indetermination into hegemonic forms, and to foster social cohesion by placing consensus over conflict” (Hölbling, Rieser, and Rieser 17). Browsing through the myriad photographs and images of the 1906 Earthquake and Fire, City Hall emerges as the icon of the 1906 disaster.

Fig. 2

Fig. 2. “City Hall after the Earthquake”


Within a few days after the earthquake, newspapers and magazines across the nation featured photographs of either the burning city or the subsequent devastation.3 The limited quality of newspaper prints, the high cost, and the comparatively small size of the images, however, soon led to the emergence of a special retail branch selling visual representations of San Francisco’s 1906 Earthquake and Fire. The archive of the California Historical Society holds a photograph—dated April 1906—that already shows a postcard vending booth outside the City Hall ruins featuring a poster advertisement for postcards of the 1906 Earthquake and Fire on its front, which reads “2 for 5¢ Postal Cards.” Taking into consideration that the average newspaper cost 2¢ at the time and a pound of butter or a dozen eggs about 30¢ (U.S. Diplomatic Mission), these representations were affordable to all strata of society. More often than not, these postcards—together with the buyer’s own earthquake photographs—were assembled into albums.

At least as popular as the postcards were the stereo views (also called stereographs or stereograms) sold throughout the nation by commercial publishers such as the Keystone View Company, Underwood & Underwood, or Griffith & Griffith (for an example, see fig. 2).4 By the end of 1906, every major stereograph company had at least one series of the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire in their trade list. The average scope of one such topical series amounted to 25 stereographs, although it was also common to incorporate scenes of the 1906 disaster into larger, more general series comprising up to several hundred stereo views, e.g. the ‘Keystone 600.’ As a rule, stereographs did not display the name of the photographer or studio that had commissioned the views, but only presented the name of the publishing company on the card. In addition, series from different publishers often showed one and the same negative taken by the same photographer, which led William C. Darrah, expert in the field of stereography and author of The World of Stereographs (1977), to the conclusion that the practice of “shopping around” (8) had been widespread. Even though these endeavors might have been carried out legally to a certain extent, there is no doubt that copyrights were violated frequently (Darrah 8). Stereographs differ from photographs in that they are able to convey a reconstruction of the three-dimensional character of the original scene when viewed with a stereoscope. This device blends the pair of two-dimensional pictures into a three-dimensional image, adding depth, plasticity, and thus vivacity. Referring to the stereographs’ vast circulation and the viewers’ avid enthusiasm with ‘stereoviewing,’ Darrah stresses their “profound influence upon society” and labels the stereograph “the first visual mass medium” (2). Along the same lines, stereographs are often referred to as contemporary television’s late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century equivalent. Accordingly, press and private photography as well as the proliferation of postcards and stereographs assured that the visuals of the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire were not restricted to a marginal or regional audience but shaped the nationwide reception and perception of San Francisco’s experience.

2.2 City Hall’s Pre-Earthquake Iconicity

To comprehend the cultural impact that images of San Francisco’s devastated City Hall had for Americans at the time, it is necessary to revisit its pre-earthquake iconographical significance. As the representative building of San Francisco, City Hall symbolized the emerging urban metropolis of the West per se. Only a decade after the official announcement of the closing of the frontier in 1890, San Francisco was the most populous American city west of St. Louis and it ranked ninth in nationwide comparison (“Twelfth Census of the United States: 1900” xix).

Fig. 3

Fig. 3. “City Hall, San Francisco, 1905”

The place of origin for various innovations in the fields of mining and technology, San Francisco represented both a hub of urbanization and a metropolitan life style which stood in harsh contrast to the rural west, the latter of which was associated both with the rough frontier wilderness and the bucolic agrarian lifestyle on the homesteads. The city’s nickname “West of the West” expressed San Francisco’s close ideological and symbolic association with the accomplishment of Manifest Destiny, and the thriving city provided a vindication of American exceptionalism. In the city’s glorious rise from rags to riches or, in Western terms, from swamps to railroads, mines, and Pacific Rim trade lie other ideological implications, namely that of the realization of the American Dream and that of the land of opportunities. To manifest this ideological notion in the very architecture of the building, a brass sculpture of the Goddess of Progress topped City Hall’s main tower. On top of ideological and economic wealth, cultural life and the arts were prospering in the city, prompting fire manager Willie Britt to boast: “I’d rather be a busted lamp post on Battery Street, San Francisco, than the Waldorf Astoria in New York” (qtd. in The Great San Francisco Earthquake).

Its sheer extension and height made City Hall exceptional among nineteenth-century American buildings since it was the tallest and largest edifice west of Chicago and one of the tallest municipal buildings world-wide (Hansen and Condon 11). This spatial embodiment is a symbol for excellence and superiority—both words that are embellished by their very etymology with the notion of ‘located higher’ or ‘being taller.’ In Yi-Fu Tuan’s words, high-rise structures are perceived as “assertive, solemn, and aloof,” while signaling a “postural triumph” by defying gravity to “create and sustain an orderly human world” (Tuan 37-38). In the following, several architectural elements will be singled out for their cultural significance and spatial effect.

City Hall’s prominent dome-shaped main tower presented an iconic landmark for San Franciscans at the turn of the century which could be seen from far away. The tower as archetype evokes highly ambivalent feelings and as such inspires both negative feelings such as fear or shock and positive feelings ranging from awe to admiration. Arguing that the sacred is the epitome of all bipolar concepts, Jane Caputi consequently infers that the tower per se is close to the sacred (2-4). Notions of the sacred and religion are further enforced by the cupolas of the smaller structures accompanying the central building complex, which resemble church or cathedral towers. Since no distinct confession is insinuated, the combination of a governmental building with the abstract notion of religion amounts to a classic expression of American Civil Religion, which puts the quasi-religious veneration of the state as the base for the collective consensus on values, self-perceptions, and ideologies.

The archetype of the tower also implies that a tower is perceived as a microcosm, a world in itself. And indeed, at the turn of the century, San Francisco’s City Hall constituted a microcosm of its own. Not only did it house the city and county executive along with the Board of Supervisors as representatives of the legislative but also the judiciary—in the form of a court. To complement the miniature version of a state, a police station and a prison—as well as medical and cultural institutions such as the Central Emergency Hospital and parks for recreation were on the grounds. Furthermore, City Hall functioned as a bank and included a vault where several million U.S. dollars were stored. This added ‘money’ to the notion of ‘power’ in the City Hall’s iconicity. Hence, just like a ‘metropolitan island in the rural West’ or ‘the capital of the West,’ City Hall symbolized the microcosm of San Francisco. Yet, the ‘miniature West’ was not to be seen as an isolated entity but as a deliberate continuation of the ‘American tradition’ as the first City Hall conspicuously resembled the United States Capitol. Thus, the emulation of the United States Capital functioned as a spatial expression of American Civil Religion in the same way as the evocation of the religious aura around the municipal building, both signaling consensus anchored firmly in the built environment.

Another striking architectural feature shared by San Francisco City Hall and the United States Capitol was the almost excessive use of neoclassical elements, especially the heavily columned building fronts.  This style alluding to the ancient temples in Greece—commonly considered to be the cradle of the European cultural heritage, particularly the democratic tradition—distinctly pointed to ancient Europe as a sphere of origin. Even though more than twelve percent of San Francisco’s population were from Asia at the end of the nineteenth century (Hansen and Condon 111), the columns continued a culturally as well as politically European tradition. In the spatial context of the United States and particularly the West, however, this emphasis on origin and democracy can be seen again as an articulation of Civil Religion. The allusion to the tradition of democracy and cultural values together with the resemblance of the National Capitol indicated a distinctly American icon that signaled a shared past which had continued a long-standing tradition and underscored the base value of democracy for the self-understanding of the United States. Before this background, the trauma inherent in visual representations of the destruction wrought by the 1906 Earthquake and Fire becomes more comprehensible.

2.3 City Hall in the 1906 Earthquake and Fire Photography: Projection Screen for Trauma

The concept of trauma can be described as “an adverse happening that is unexpected, painful, extraordinary, and shocking” and that “has interrupted an ongoing activity” in whose course “perception of danger, chaos, and a crisis of meaning replace previous feelings of safety and security” (Neal 3). While the concept of trauma was originally seen as relating to the individual person, it is equally suited to approach traumatic fractures in the ideological, political, economic, and social formations of a collective. Considering the unexpectedness and anguish that the 1906 Earthquake and Fire brought with it and the profound disruption of the daily routine it presented, it becomes quite clear that all basic conditions of cultural trauma are realized for San Francisco itself as well as for the West Coast, if not for the entire United States. According to Arthur G. Neil, collective trauma involves a “cohesive effect” (4) and, by being incorporated into the collective memory, takes up an important role in the shaping of identity and—if trauma is experienced nationwide—also in nation building (21-29). The degree to which trauma is still perceptible long after the traumatic event depends on the completeness of closure that has been achieved over time. To a large extent, it was the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exhibition that allowed San Francisco to overcome the feeling of vulnerability and to gloriously celebrate its rising from the ashes. According to Marita Sturken, the continual recollection and repeated re-enactment of the catastrophic experience initiated by the various technologies of memory help to bring about catharsis and thereby attain closure (Tangled Memories 17). In this respect, the photographs and stereographs of the 1906 Earthquake and Fire in general—and of the City Hall in particular—assume the role of very powerful cultural agents.

Firstly, the act of taking pictures itself constitutes an active process that helps to alleviate the feeling of helplessness and the crisis of meaning. It presents a conscious decision that structures reality by transforming it into the photographer’s individual perspective and order. Thereby the primary chaotic experience of the disaster is further mitigated. The same effect can be ascribed to the labeling of photographs, which at the turn of the twentieth century consisted of adding the time and place onto the photograph. In so doing, the alienation of the destruction and the chaos were counterbalanced by the emphasis of the continuity of time and place in man-made terms despite the traumatic experience and the disruption of the familiar structures and processes. Although monumental images, slides, and photographs were available, the majority of the pictures and stereographs were palm-sized. By converting the vast scenes of destruction into small, portable inanimate objects, the sense of having control over the events is procured. 

In addition, not only the medium but also the content makes the images an ideal technology of memory to deal with disaster. Most of the photographs, drawings, paintings, and stereographs of the 1906 Earthquake and Fire—and especially those with the highest circulation—depict scenes of ample, wide-spread devastation featuring a central perspective. These panoramas focus on shattered, dislocated forms such as disarranged piles of bricks, distorted steel poles, and crumbled wood frames. By highlighting the asymmetrical and chaotic arrangement of what can be called an urban jungle, these images express mayhem, conveying notions of the ‘incomplete,’ the ‘destroyed,’ the ‘wounded.’ At the same time the notion of the chaotic and overwhelming reality, however, is counter-balanced by the fact that these visuals are palm-sized, black-and-white images, freezing a certain moment into a still picture to keep the re-enactment bearable. Furthermore, it is the viewer who is in control of the gaze—able to overlook the chaos from a central viewpoint, trace what was there before, visually re-order the chaos, and immediately start the act of rebuilding in their heads.  

Browsing through albums of photographs and postcards, one phenomenon startles the eye of the twenty-first-century beholder: While people are recognizable in the background or—even less frequently—posing in the foreground, there are hardly any close-ups of individuals or photographs that focus on persons rather than the inanimate surrounding. Accordingly, the focus of most photographs is characterized by an absence of human beings—this statement holds true for living individuals as well as the corpses of about 3,000 victims who died in the disaster.5 Instead, wrecked buildings, smoke, and rubble are the central and crucial points of the composition. Even though one could attribute this phenomenon to survivor guilt or rightly claim that photographers most likely did not intentionally take pictures of the suffering during and in the aftermath of the catastrophe out of deference for the victims, it seems more likely that the focus on the unanimated cityscapes lying in shambles expresses the deep traumatic break in the human mind caused by the defeat of human mastership (represented here by technology) in the light of this unexpected attack of nature. 

As mentioned above, there is a large corpus of stereographs and photographs available displaying City Hall prominently in the foreground or as a momentous backdrop. Taking the building’s glorious and symbolic past into consideration, the pain caused by the sight of the destroyed edifice is easily understandable. The obsession with the City Hall ruins, however, must have been related to the combination of iconicity and its particular shape.The conclusion that the very shape of the City Hall ruin contributed to its popularity in visual representations of the 1906 Earthquake and Fire is backed up by the fact that another ruin, St. Dominic’s Catholic Church—whose head-like copula bestowed the building with a physical appearance similar to the City Hall ruin—also presented a very popular motif for photographers even though its cultural significance was not more profound than that of any other church of medium size. Presumably, it was the lack of ideological meaning that accounts for the fact that the number and prominence of the images of St. Dominic’s ranked far behind City Hall representations.

Due to the proportions of the City Hall ruin, the building can be seen to resemble a body or a figure to the implied viewer. The most striking part of the ruin, the cupola, embodies the head and the lower part of the ruin corresponds to the body. As the roof is missing, the interior

Fig. 4

Fig. 4. “Ruins of City Hall”

with all its columns, stairs, and wires is visible. If one returns to the motif of the body, the lower part of the building resembles the corpse of a creature that was killed and whose flesh had been ripped from its sides by a brute force. Thus, at the core of this analogy lies a living being that had to surrender completely to nature’s mercy and in the course of events fell victim to the destructive natural world. In this constellation, the helplessness and surrender of San Franciscans to the seemingly overpowering disastrous forces of the earthquake come to the fore. This is important as it supports the bipolar construction of the environmental imaginary at the time. Nature and culture/civilization were not seen as inextricably intertwined but as two separate agents. Newspapers described the catastrophe for example as an attack by a “laughing, roaring, onrushing fire demon” and as an “assault of the elements” entirely omitting man’s involvement in the disaster (“San Francisco in Ruins” A1; “Orphans” A1).

To behold the ruins of such a prominent and monumental building does not only make a statement about nature but also about civilization: Especially the technically demanding process of building tall structures such as towers and high-rise buildings is considered a symbol for man’s triumph over nature by defying gravity. So the images of ruins did not only show nature’s omnipotence but also explicitly man’s and civilization’s fallibility. At a time when the belief in technology and the infinite feasibility of engineering had spread so strongly in America, the sight of a state-of-the-art technological marvel shattered to pieces represented an excruciating defeat. Thus, it might very well have been that the City Hall ruins provided Americans nationwide with a projection screen where survivors would find their feelings mirrored. By looking at the visual representations the disaster could be recalled and re-enacted even years later.6

3. Natural Disasters Revisited: Man as Agent in the 1906 Earthquake and Fire

Undoubtedly, a considerable share of the collective trauma originated in the violent blurring of the imagined boundaries drawn between chaotic, destructive ‘nature’ and the orderly, safe urban haven of the metropolis. The disaster, therefore, was considered an ‘act of nature’that unexpectedly assaulted mankind. Yet a closer look at the City Hall building and its neighborhood in the 1906 Earthquake and Fire also affirms recent reflections and trends in environmental history and cultural studies that highlight man’s involvement in natural calamities and go so far as to claim that there is no ‘nature’ etiologically involved in the large-scale catastrophes commonly labeled ‘natural’ disasters (Hansen and Condon; Fradkin, The Great Earthquake).

With regard to natural hazards such as earthquakes, the very location of San Francisco turns out to be problematic for any settlement. Not only is the entire area lined with an active fault system—most notoriously the 800-mile long San Andreas Fault System—which was mapped and whose existence publicized during the second half of the nineteenth century. Yet, what turns out to be much more dangerous than the fault systems are the large areas of sedimentary rock interspersed with lagoons and swamps in the Bay Area. The resulting soil conditions amplify earthquake waves and, by failing to provide a solid, stable base for buildings, worsen any tremor. All this information was available and well-known to researchers and engineers at the turn of the century, but it did not stop authorities from artificially filling in the lagoons, swamps, and shore areas to gain so-called ‘made land’ weakening the base for construction even further (Moore 27-33). Entire neighborhoods such as the Mission District and also the areas around the Civic Center, where City Hall stood, were filled in. City authorities added to their initial foolishness by using debris and refuse-materials that far from building a solid base destabilized the ground even further by quickly changing their properties through decay and weathering (Moore 30). Therefore, it was not surprising that almost all building failures occurred on made ground (Moore 33). 

Reflecting on the authorities’ abysmal preparedness, one is lead to assume that the area had not had advance warning of the coming disasters. This conclusion, though, is far from correct. San Francisco had had several big earthquakes before 1906, amongst which the ones of 1836, 1857, and 1865 had been the most destructive. In addition, San Francisco had burned down almost completely six times between 1849 and 1851. That did not stop city officials, however, from embezzling money designated to be used for the City Hall’s construction and substituting cheap surrogates for the planned high-quality building material (Boehm 88). Furthermore, after the 1865 earthquake standards of gas and water pipelines and the building code were not improved to fit the latest technology and the endless rows of small wood-frame houses, which shared roofs and were built back-to-back, all basically functioned as igniters. With an earthquake and fire history such as this, one might expect the city authorities of San Francisco to be prepared for a ‘Big One,’ but it turned out they were not at all. Right from the onset of the disaster, the question of who was in charge of command remained unanswered, which made work for the fire department harder and also led to counter-productive approaches. Even if there did exist a map showing all the locations of the fire hydrants, it was not made public to the fire fighters. In addition, the majority of hydrants—also the ones around City Hall—did not function because they had been clogged by trash or the pipes had been damaged pre-1906 (Hansen and Condon 19).

Faulty decisions made by the authorities also contributed to the catastrophe. When it was clear that the fires were out of control, the fire department decided to cut off the fire by dynamiting adjacent neighborhoods. The mayor appointed Mr. Birmingham, a civilian expert on explosives, to be in charge of dynamiting, about whom Lieutenant Briggs stated in court: “[…] he was so far under the influence of liquor as to be of no service, and lest he should be in that condition cause serious accidents, I sent him away” (Hansen 70). The mayor, however, put Birmingham back on the job, where he—according to the 1907 court hearings—caused 60 more fires to break out and killed several people in Chinatown. Fires initiated by dynamite also fuelled the fires that devoured the area of the City Hall plaza. Fire safety should have been the most important precaution as about 90 percent of all damage resulted from the fire (Hansen and Condon 124-27).

To conclude, San Francisco’s City Hall provides a meaningful icon of the traumatic experience of the 1906 Earthquake and Fire by enabling the viewers to project their feelings towards ‘nature’ onto the ruins. In addition, it also offers an excellent example of the tendency to seek the roots and causes of catastrophes in realms beyond man’s control prevalent at the turn of the twentieth century (Rozario 101-28). The above statements and explanations clearly show that it was not the earthquake per se that brought the devastation, but human involvement in the disaster. With the right precautions, damage would have been a fraction of what it turned out to be in 1906. San Francisco’s first City Hall had to be torn down in 1907 and was replaced by the current San Francisco City Hall in 1915.

Fig. 5

Fig. 5. “Vegetable Garden in front of San Francisco’s Second City Hall in 2008”

The second City Hall continues to exhibit a significant iconic status for San Francisco and California. Even though especially the adjacent building structures were altered considerably in the rebuilding process, the current main City Hall tower still strikingly resembles San Francisco’s first City Hall and thus deliberately continues the iconic tradition of the first City Hall. The addition of a neoclassical front portal to the building furthermore increased the likeness to the United States Capitol in Washington, DC. As it is merely a town hall, however, San Francisco’s second City Hall is exempt from the federal act prohibiting any state capitol to rise higher than the State Capitol and consequently also tops the State Capitol in height. In addition to this architectural and ideological statement about California’s role within the United States, is also shows the most populous state’s progressive attitude in environmental protection. Currently, its front court yard houses an organic garden to supply the homeless shelters with vegetables. So far, it recycles most of its water and waste and soon its roof will feature solar cells to produce the building’s own energy. Between June 2008 and November 2008, San Francisco’s second City Hall also displayed the state’s liberal political and cultural attitude as it provided the physical starting point of so many same-sex marriages.

1 To a large extent, the process of interpretation and the search for meaning in the wake of natural disasters still take place in a very similar way in the twenty-first century. Yet, poststructuralist and postmodern constructions of ‘nature’ and ‘culture’ provide a radically different understanding of the two terms. These recent approaches refrain from establishing a bipolar base separating the two concepts. Instead, they reincorporate ‘nature’ into the realm of ‘culture’ and vice versa (Dingler 29-42).

2 The term “technologies of memory” was coined by Marita Sturken in her seminal book Tangled Memories and relates to every possible kind of medium, such as memorials, photographs, or films, “that embod[ies] and generate[s] memory and [is] thus implicated in the power dynamics of memory’s production” (10).  

3 If not denoted otherwise, the following statements are based on my research at several California archives— mainly the California Historical Society and the San Francisco Public Library—in the summer of 2008.

4 The stereograph business had a highly transnational character: Since many of the publishers also operated abroad—even though Griffith & Griffith, for example, was not among the biggest publishing houses, it had branch offices in Hamburg, Germany, and St. Petersburg, Russia—the stereograph collections were in considerable circulation outside the United States as well. This endeavor was by no means one-sided as American stereograph series often included negatives from foreign publishers. In addition, popular series often depicted landscapes and people in Europe, Africa, and the Far East (e.g. Underwood & Underwood published travel view series from Italy, Greece, Egypt, and Palestine). 

5 One exception to this tendency, however, are the photographs of the refugee camps, which often feature long lines of people waiting for food and supplies. These images were mostly taken at a later point in time and seem to emphasize the communal ties between the survivors rather than the shock and disbelief in nature’s destructive powers.

6 One example of how visual representations of the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire still function as projection screens today were the frequent remarks I received when showing the visuals to colleagues and friends. Mostly, people commented on how much the pictures of the cityscape in ruins resemble more recent post-disaster spaces such as post-WW II Dresden and Berlin. In particular the pictures of the first San Francisco City Hall are often likened to the Gedächtniskirche in Berlin or Hiroshima’s Atomic Bomb Dome, both structures that were deliberately preserved as ruins to commemorate the disasters that initiated their destruction. 


Fig. 1: “San Francisco in Flames.” Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Fig. 2:  “City Hall, San Francisco, 1905.” Courtesy of Alamedainfo.

Fig. 3: “City Hall after the Earthquake, Showing the Shattered Foundations, San Francisco, Cal.” Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Fig. 4: “Ruins of City Hall.” Detroit, 1906.

Fig. 5: “Vegetable Garden in front of San Francisco’s Second City Hall in 2008.” S. Leikam.

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