City Attorney, Library, and DPW team up to recover two-thousand public works photographs from early 20th Century
City Attorney Dennis J. Herrera today announced that thanks to a combination of good luck and good detective work, two thousand missing photographs from the City’s archives are in the hands of library archivists after having gone missing shortly after the first world war.
“Today is a great day for San Francisco historians,” proclaimed Herrera. “Thanks to the efforts of my investigators, and the cooperation of staff at the Department of Public Works and the San Francisco Public Library, future generations of San Franciscans will be able to enjoy a collection of photographs that quite literally document the building of San Francisco. Without the cooperation of numerous parties, these irreplaceable photographs could have been lost forever.”
Last March, an alert library patron brought to the attention of the City Attorney the fact that nineteen albums of photographs of old San Francisco, dating between 1911 and 1919, were set to be offered for sale at a local auction house. Herrera sent his chief investigator to examine the items.
Within a few days a tentative identification was made, the auction of the items was cancelled at Herrera’s request, and the albums were seized. After several weeks of comparing the old prints and albums with the existing archival albums, City Attorney staff concluded that the photos, which were made with a large box camera that used glass plate negatives, were part of the original set of photographs that the Department of Public Works had taken of the rebuilding of San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake and fire. It also was determined that the missing albums contained the first three hundred of these historical photographs which had disappeared before any duplicates could be made and after the negatives had been lost or recycled.
The nineteen albums which almost disappeared into the hands of private buyers had been stored for more than half a century in Sebastopol by the family of the late Stuart Rasmussen, once the chief librarian to William Randolf Hearst when Hearst published the San Francisco Call and Call-Bulletin. The collection of photos include one of a kind images of the construction of City Hall, Civic Center Auditorium, and San Francisco’s largest public works projects – the Hetch Hetchy water project, for example – as well as priceless images of San Francisco street scenes from the 1910’s.
In the course of the investigation, City Attorney staff learned that another 73 albums had belonged to the original collection. Library staff had heard about this cache of photographic records of the City’s reconstruction after 1906, but had not located or catalogued this collection. City Attorney investigators, assisted by public works director Edwin Lee, tracked down retired public works employees who had helped assemble the archives, and the long-misplaced cache of photos were found, safe and sound — numbered and stored in file cabinets in a City warehouse on Treasure Island. These, too, were turned over to the library staff at the Daniel E. Koshland San Francisco History Center for proper cataloging, preservation and display.
“There are some excellent construction photographs of significant civic buildings, notably City Hall, the Public Library, and the Civic Auditorium,” noted Patricia Akre, Photo Curator for the Library. “But perhaps the most impressive is the profusion of projects that transformed the City as it expanded west and south. City workers are shown digging Twin Peaks Tunnel, and creating roadways with the Bernal Cut, Twin Peaks Boulevard, Alemany Boulevard, and the Explanade at Ocean Beach. Outside the city Hetch-Hetchy was well underway and that work in the Sierras is also documented.
The Library plans to digitize these approximately 10,000 photos and add them to their database of over 33,000 images available for public viewing on the Library’s website.
“These are historically significant records of the built environment in San Francisco,” said city Archivist Susan Goldstein. “We appreciate the role of the City Attorney and the Department of Public Works in bringing these photographs to the City archives where we can make them available to the public.”
Eight of the photograph albums are currently on display in the San Francisco History Center, located on the 6th floor of the Main Library. The San Francisco History Center is open on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and on Fridays from noon to 6 p.m. and on Sundays from noon to 5 p.m.