A Glance At The North Beach
Historic Context Statement and Survey
by Nancy Shanahan and Judi Powell
San Francisco’s beauty, livability, and international reputation depend, in large part, on the preservation of its historic resources. Preservation, in turn, depends on public education and the wide availability to City planners, public officials, and residents alike, of solid, professionally conducted, and accepted historical research.
Over the last 50 years, historic resource surveys, led by experts in the field, have been undertaken in the North Beach/Telegraph Hill neighborhood, leading to the creation of the Jackson Square Historic District in 1972, the Northeast Waterfront Historic District in 1983, and the Telegraph Hill Historic District in 1986. A comprehensive effort to research and update the history and significance of North Beach buildings and sites has been underway since the early 1980s. We are excited to announce that an updated North Beach Historic Context Statement and related architectural survey are finally headed for review—and, we hope, approval—by the City’s Historic Preservation Commission later this year, which will lead to the formal designation by the City of a North Beach Historic District.
The following is an update on the process and progress of this historic context statement and survey as well as a glimpse into our neighborhood’s incredible history.
470 Columbus Avenue, designed by Martin Rist (1936).
© Nancy Shanahan
What are Surveys and Historic Context Statements?
One of the most important historic preservation tools is the historic resource survey—a process of identifying and gathering data on a community’s historic resources. These surveys form the basis of a city’s knowledge about its historic resources.
Under state and federal standards, professional research begins with the preparation of an historic context statement describing the significant broad patterns of development in an area that are represented by historic properties. The historic context statement becomes the foundation for identifying and evaluating individual historic properties and districts, guiding a city planning department’s work on future landmark and district designations and heritage-based initiatives, as well as the department’s review of new development projects, area plans, and building permit applications.
In addition to eligibility for formal designation, identified architectural and cultural resources might also qualify for local, state, and federal preservation incentive programs that can result in tangible benefits to property owners. These include federal tax credits for rehabilitation of qualified historical resources, property tax abatement programs, alternative building codes, and tax deductions for preservation easements.
Vesuvio Cafe, Cavalli Building at 253-255 Columbus Avenue, designed by Italo Zanolini (1913), is important for its
architecture as well as its associations with Italians and Beats.
© J. G. Corbett
The North Beach Historic Context Statement and Survey
In North Beach, a context statement and survey, North Beach, San Francisco: An Architectural, Historical, Cultural Survey, was prepared by Anne Bloomfield in 1982 and officially adopted by the Board of Supervisors in 1999 as the City’s comprehensive record of historical and architectural resources in North Beach. The product of a federal grant and conducted by professional architectural historians under formal contract with the California State Office of Historic Preservation, the 1982 survey met state and federal standards.
Four historic districts were identified in the 1982 work: the Upper Grant Avenue District (centered on Grant Avenue and Green Street between Columbus Avenue and Filbert Street), composed of 120 buildings; the Powell Street Shops District (on the west side of the 1800 block of Powell Street), containing 11 street level shops in eight buildings; the Washington Square District, composed of Washington Square Park and the 12 buildings surrounding the park; and the Jackson Square Historic District Extension (on the south side of Broadway between Sansome and Kearny Streets), comprising 22 buildings significant for their similarity to the adjoining Jackson Square Historic District.
Efforts to update and expand the 1982 context statement and survey were first led by the Telegraph Hill Dwellers organization under the sponsorship of San Francisco Architectural Heritage. These efforts were later assumed by the Northeast San Francisco Conservancy, whose fundraising efforts made possible the engagement of preeminent architectural historian, Michael Corbett. Based on Mr. Corbett’s extensive new research, and with input from the City Planning Department, an updated North Beach Historic Context Statement documenting the amazingly rich history of the neighborhood has now been completed. Architectural historians Katherine Petrin and Shayne Watson re-surveyed the buildings and sites within the updated survey boundaries to identify and evaluate individual historic properties and districts.
The area of the North Beach historic context and survey is shown on the accompanying map, including the previously identified historic districts indicated by shading.
The following is a brief look at the “significant broad patterns of development” or themes in North Beach history, documented in the updated North Beach Historic Context Statement, including a sampling of the historic properties represented by each.
Map showing area of the North Beach historic context and survey.
Reconstruction of North Beach From 1906 to 1915
The most significant and comprehensive theme in North Beach history was its rapid rebuilding after the 1906 earthquake and fire that destroyed all existing buildings in North Beach, except for the shell of St. Francis of Assisi Church, leaving the layout of street and lots and Italian ownership intact. Due to several important factors, North Beach was the first part of the City to be rebuilt. Two Italian bankers, A.P. Giannini (Bank of Italy, now Bank of America) and Andrea Sbarboro (Italian American Bank, now merged into Bank of America), helped their compatriots by providing loans and shipping in lumber that enabled owners to rebuild buildings and businesses quickly and cheaply. Another factor in the quick reconstruction was the presence of many architects, contractors, skilled masons, and construction workers among the Italian population.
Resulting from its rapid rebuilding on previous patterns, North Beach possesses an overall continuity and consistency of style, scale, use, building methods, and materials. Except for a few structures on the south side of Broadway Street and on Columbus Avenue, virtually all buildings from this period are of wood construction. Almost uniformly, they are treated with facade ornamentation derived from Renaissance and Baroque architecture, including cornices, belt courses, columns, window and door moldings, and other decorative details. Almost all buildings were built to the sides of their lots. On hillsides, they climb in even steps, the basement or ground floor accommodating the adjustment from level.
Among the many building types constructed in North Beach during the period after the earthquake fire, residential and mixed-use flats buildings are the most numerous. Most flats are two- or three-story buildings, with living units stacked on top of each other. The entry to each flat is reached through outside doors and up private interior stairways. Collectively, they are extremely important to a proposed historic district. If you look around, you will see many flats buildings, including Romeo flats, so called because of the open-air or enclosed balcony on each floor, alley flats with flat facades and no bay windows, and flats with storefronts on the ground floor.
Fugazi Hall, formerly Casa Coloniale Italiana, at 674-678 Green Street, designed by Italo Zanolini (1913), is important
for its architecture as well as its associations with Italians and Beats.
© Dennis Hearne
Social Groups and Social Life of North Beach
Italian Life and Culture. Under the theme of Social Groups and Social Life, North Beach was the focus of Italian life and culture in San Francisco during the period from 1906 to 1941. Because of this association, North Beach is known as ‘Little Italy.’ Italians were primarily responsible for rebuilding their neighborhood after the earthquake and fire before any other section of the City was rebuilt, due to the availability of craftsmen among the Italian population and their sense that North Beach was their own. Institutional buildings are also important to this theme, including the churches of Saints Peter and Paul and St Francis of Assisi and buildings associated with voluntary societies and social clubs such as the Italian Community Center at 678 Green Street (known as ‘Fugazi Hall’) and the Italian Athletic Club at 1630 Stockton Street, to name only a few.
Bohemians and Beats. Bohemians of various sorts have been in North Beach throughout its history. North Beach has been identified as a potential historic district for its concentration of extant places associated with the Beats, which most of us know well—City Lights Bookstore (Landmark No. 228), Old Spaghetti Factory (Landmark No. 127), Vesuvio Café, Specs’12 Adler Place, Gino and Carlo, Tosca, Caffé Trieste, Fugazi Hall, and so many others. According to the Landmark Designation Case Report for City Lights Booksellers and Publishers (1):
The City’s Beat writers, during the late 1950s and early 1960s, had a monumental effect on American literature and culture in their impassioned challenge of established styles and forms. One thinks of the Impressionists in Paris and their “Salon des Refuses,” or the public outcry against Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring in the context of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl. The impact of the Beat movement went beyond the boundaries of literature and into a larger political and social arena. (Peters 2001: 7)
Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer (LGBTQ). North Beach has also been identified as a potential historic district for its numerous sites associated with LGBTQ history, significant as San Francisco’s first bar-based LGBTQ community. According to the Citywide Historic Context Statement for LGBTQ History in San Francisco (2):
As gay and lesbian bars and restaurants appeared in North Beach and Telegraph Hill, more men and women moved to the neighborhood, creating the city’s first queer residential enclave and establishing the roots of San Francisco’s LGBTQ communities…Between 1933 and 1965, over twenty nightclubs, bars and restaurants catering to gay, lesbian, and transgender people opened in North Beach.
Out of dozens of North Beach establishments mentioned in the LGBTQ Context Statement, a few of the earliest and most significant are Finocchio’s, Mona’s 440 Club, the Black Cat Café, and the Paper Doll at 524 Union Street, recently designated as Landmark No. 287.
Flats with storefronts on the ground floor at 538-40 Green
Street, built in 1913.
© J. G. Corbett
In addition to their importance relating to other historic themes, many buildings in North Beach are also significant relating to the theme of Architecture, as expressed by intact stylistic features, forms, construction methods, or distinctive aesthetic quality. These may include the works of master architects, such as Louis Mastropasqua, Italo Zanolini, John A. Porporato, Perseo Righetti, Charles Fantoni, Louis Traverso, Paul J. Capurro, Joseph Devincenzi, and Paul J. DeMartini.
Buildings designed by prominent Modern architects between 1935 and 1970 might also be important under this theme, including those by Martin Rist, Hertzka & Knowles, and Gardner Dailey being the most prominent.
Other Significant Themes in San Francisco’s North Beach History
This article is a brief introduction to some of the major themes in the North Beach Historic Context Statement. Other facets of the rich history of North Beach were also researched and documented in the report, including settlement houses and kindergartens, schools, voluntary societies, community halls, churches, commerce and industry, entertainment and vice, infrastructure, parks and playgrounds, and the period of expansion and infill (from 1916 to 1941).
Although the updated North Beach Historic Context Statement has been the subject of extensive input from neighborhood leaders, historic preservation professionals, and the City Planning Department, community members will be provided an opportunity for public engagement prior to consideration by the Historic Preservation Commission later this year, with the goal of designating significant portions of North Beach as a City Historic District. Watch for an invitation to a webinar in the near future.
Romeo flats at 2055 Powell Street with an enclosed balcony on each floor, built in 1908.
© Dennis Hearne
Note: Tax deductible contributions to support the work to make North Beach an historic district can be made to the Northeast San Francisco Conservancy at
1. Nancy J. Peters, City Lights Booksellers and Publishers Landmark Designation Case Report No. 2000.507L. Prepared for the San Francisco Landmarks Preservation Advisory Board. 2001.
2. Donna J. Graves and Shayne E. Watson, Citywide Historic Context Statement for LGBTQ History in San Francisco was prepared by Donna J. Graves and Shayne E. Watson. Prepared for the City and County of San Francisco. October 15, 2015.