Charlie Page & SF Heritage: An Interview

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[Originally published 2nd quarter 2002, in arcCA 02.2, “Citizen Architects.”]
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Interviewer David Roccosalva, Associate AIA, is associate principal with Page & Turnbull and is responsible for the firm’s marketing efforts. He was previously with the AIA national office in Washington, D.C.
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Charles Hall Page, founding principal of Page & Turnbull, the Bay Area’s oldest architecture firm dedicated to historic preservation, loves San Francisco. His passion for his hometown led him to take a stand in the early 1970s—a time when many passions and causes were rising to the fore. Urban renewal, a great plan designed to save America’s cities, was instead decimating the century old urban fabric of San Francisco. Replacing the human-scaled neighborhoods and well-crafted buildings for which San Francisco is famous were faceless—and, worse yet, soulless—structures. In 1971, along with Harry Miller, Page founded the Foundation for San Francisco’s Architectural Heritage. With a Masters in Planning from the University of Pennsylvania and knowledge of how preservation had taken root in Charleston, Annapolis, and Savannah, Page began to stem the tide of demolition and save the face of San Francisco. Almost 30 years later and known simply as Heritage, the organization has a membership of over 2,000 people. From its headquarters in the Haas-Lilienthal House, Heritage provides educational programs and lobbying efforts to preserve the best of San Francisco’s historic buildings and spaces.

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David Roccosalva: What led to the founding of SF Heritage?

Charlie Page: In 1971, the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency was tearing down large swaths of San Francisco, mostly in the Western Addition and near Yerba Buena Center. Having been at Penn and familiar with preservation organizations on the East Coast, Harry and I put together the necessary Articles of Incorporation for the foundation, a 501c3 corporation. Although preservation was gaining momentum on the East Coast, we were the first organization of its type in the West. And one of the very first preservation organizations in a major American city. We were pioneers, and others followed in short order.

But what tipped the scales in making us credible to the public was the purchase of a group of houses identified by the Landmarks Board as a resource they wanted to protect. As an alternative to demolition, we encouraged the Agency to offer them for sale to the public, with the understanding that they could proceed with demolition if there were no bidders. As a precaution, we placed bids…on all ten houses…and won. This was really unexpected. You might say that youth and naïveté played a big role in the preservation of San Francisco.

One problem was that the Agency had not provided for any place to relocate the houses. Their project, the rebuilding of the Western Addition A-2 project area, was going to happen, and it would be the new owner’s responsibility to find sites and move the houses. After a long period, we prevailed upon the Agency to provide land, and then, after even more time, we found funding in the federal budget for the Agency to cover moving costs. Keep in mind, these steps required months and months of research and lobbying efforts. Then there was a wonderful night of dropping the utility lines, and, beginning at 4:00 a.m., we began moving the houses across Fillmore Street to various westerly locations. This gleaned a lot of publicity for the new organization—in San Francisco and in papers across the country—as well as making Heritage a force in the City.

The next big step in Heritage’s development was the acquisition of the Haas-Lilienthal House on Franklin Street, which improved our visibility and proved our commitment to the City. Following that, we nominated the Jesse Street Substation [soon to be the home of the Jewish Museum] to the National Register, preventing it from being torn down. That was at a time when one could do such a thing without the owner’s consent.

It was the controversy over and ultimate demolition of the City of Paris Department Store [now the site of Neiman Marcus] and the Fitzhugh Building [now the site of Saks Fifth Avenue] that swelled the ranks of Heritage’s membership. The loss of those two buildings, along with the Alaska Commercial Building at Sansome & California Streets, brought volunteers out in full force.

DR: What is Heritage’s greatest success?

CP: By far, the publication, Splendid Survivors: San Francisco’s Downtown Architectural Heritage, an inventory, classification, and ranking of downtown San Francisco’s commercial buildings. The book, in which buildings are rated from A (highest) to D (lowest) importance, has proven to be the Bible of downtown preservation. All of the buildings with an “A” ranking in Splendid Survivors were incorporated into Article 11 of the San Francisco Planning Code, requiring their preservation. Splendid Survivors had—and still has—a tremendous impact on public policy and downtown development. It was serendipitous that in the mid- 1970s the political climate in San Francisco was also welcoming to Heritage’s input.

One needs to remember, however, that many things helped spur on preservation—there was the passage of Preservation Tax Credits in the mid-’70s; the success of preservation efforts in Charleston, Annapolis, and Savannah were becoming well known; and, in general, the public, who had accepted the bulldozer with open arms in the late 1960s, began to realize that perhaps razing everything was not a good idea. Certainly, the demolition of Penn Station in New York was the most high profile case of what was happening nationwide—and people were just tired of it.

DR: After Heritage? 

CP: I have always believed that involvement at the local and national levels is important. Following Heritage, I served for nine years on the board of the National Trust for Historic Preservation in Washington, D.C., and another nine years on the board of the Asian Art Museum here in San Francisco. I also served on the boards of the Victorian Society of America and the Ellis Island/Statue of Liberty Foundation. But my involvement on the national level all started locally, with my involvement in Heritage.

I found moving between local and national arenas very interesting, because no one entity had the answer. The Trust, established in 1949, really didn’t do the lobbying they now do. Their political power grew when they saw what could be accomplished on the local level. That dynamism and sharing of ideas, successes, and failures is still very much a part of preservation and one of the reasons I continue to participate locally and nationally.

DR: What role can the profession play?

CP: A major step forward has been in the schools of architecture. Preservation programs were once placed off to the side, as sort of a curiosity sideshow. Now preservation is being embraced and integrated into the curriculum.

Play a role in your community. Outside commitment—on the planning commission, on design review boards, on a host of civic boards—helps take us outside of the profession and into the community. Architects have a great deal to offer beyond proper detailing and flashing. Their ability to conceptualize shelter—for individuals, families, neighborhoods, businesses, and beyond—is a tremendous asset locally and nationally.

Be open to discussion, be open to compromise, be open to change—these are things both architects and preservationists must keep in mind. A city lives and thrives on change, and this change needs to occur or else the city becomes stale. The proposed Prada store on Grant Avenue by Rem Koolhaas is a good example. I think it could be interesting and should be built. If it demolished a rated building or if the city was full of Prada-esque building, then I might think differently. But the Prada store only changes a background building.

DR: Parting thoughts?

CP: The great conflict in the preservation community is do you want to save everything. Certainly some people do, but that type of inflexible thinking engenders ill will over the longer term with many involved with city building and with the public in general. There are those who believe that historic preservation precludes change of any sort, and that is too bad. This notion of historic preservation can be rather limiting. Buildings don’t necessarily have to be historic—but they need to be distinctive, in their own way sophisticated, possessing some unique qualities. We’re really not “preserving”—we’re retaining, we’re reusing, we’re recycling—all kinds of things. We are engaged in urban conservation. It would be a shame to lose more of the top rated buildings, because we’ve lost a great number, but when something comes along that has the potential of being interesting, I think it should happen.

The city, as a larger organism, needs to change and grow. It always has.

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Photos by Charles Hall Page.
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