I’d gone at an earlier time to do the great tram ride. Having learnt the day before that the queue can be blocks long I made an effort to avoid them in order to ride this archaic and uncomfortable method of public transport that was mooted for destruction in 1947 until an ultimately partially-successful “Save The Cable Cars” group was formed. Today they are a listed National Landmark and protected by law and no tourist visit to San Francisco is complete without a journey to the heights.
Once aboard and ever curious I pondered the mechanism, querying the engineer in charge with questions he’d probably heard a thousand times before. I was amazed to learn just how simple, yet complex, the drive mechanism is. One simply pulls a lever that puts a clamp on a cable running beneath the surface and, presto, motion!
The complex bit I would see later.
It rumbled out, all ten tons of it, relying on a clamp. How fast you go depends on how hard the gripman grasps, though 9.5 m.p.h. is the maximum. Just how steep the streets are becomes quickly apparent as we ascend, a serious 24.8 percent in one spot. I reflect on architecture as we mount and there is plenty of variety on show. Somewhere in the distance the Transamerica Pyramid looms, its weird sharp pointed shape dominating the skyline.
Then we pull up beside a park and some expensive looking buildings. I make an on-the-spot decision to alight. It was a fortuitous choice. I’d bailed out at Nob Hill, home of San Francisco’s elite. The name is a contraction of “nabob”, someone who has made a large fortune, and it all happened in the 19th century when some people got lucky with either gold or silver mines while others ran the railroads. No less a person than Robert Louis Stevenson wrote in 1882 that it was “the hill of palaces”.
Today’s magnates can be found at the Pacific Union Club, an exclusive building that reeks of security and survived the 1906 quake and fire that turned nearby wooden buildings into charcoal. The first building that captured my eye was the 606 room Fairmont, across Mason Street from the P-U and flying all manner of flags, occupying the block James G. Fair left to his children. The standout building featuring elegant porte-cochere and spacious lobby opened in 1907, the tower in 1961. The Penthouse Suite — rooftop manor, really — will set you back just under $20,000…..per day of course, though butler, maid and limousine service are included. The corner it dominates at California and Taylor was first graced by wealthy 49-er Richard Tobin’s Victorian manse. The 12-story building housed apartment dwellers from 1924 to 1945 when it was converted into a hotel.
The hotel overlooks Huntington Park, whose centrepiece copy of Rome’s Fontana delle Tartarughe (Fountain of the Turtles) by Taddeo Landini (1585) and donated by the Crocker family, is but one of the attractions. Nearby there’s the Dancing Sprites fountain by French sculptor Henri Leon Greber, donated by the Flood family.
I couldn’t help but notice a church in the background. The Crocker family donated this entire block to the Episcopal Diocese of California after the ‘06 fire destroyed their two residences there. The cornerstone was laid in 1910 but major construction did not begin until 1927. The 100 metre long cathedral, complete with labyrinth inside, is a mixture of classical French, Spanish and English architecture and the largest church in the West.
There was however, something that caught my attention. I couldn’t quite get my head around what I was looking at for there, right before my eyes, was surely what Michelangelo thought would be appropriate as the “The Gates of Heaven”. In fact, the doors are one of two copies of Ghiberti’s fabulous Renaissance work, the other is the one you see in Florence, because the original is buried in an underground vault, just like Michelangelo’s statue of David. All the public sees are copies. In the list of the top ten things to see at Nob Hill, Ghiberti’s bas relief doesn’t even rate!
In total contrast nearby is the SF Masonic Auditorium (1958). On the main (north) façade, there is a large frieze by Emile Norman bearing the inscription “Dedicated to our Masonic Brethren who died in the cause of freedom“, depicting stylized servicemen from each of the four branches of the Armed Services, and a global tug of war representing global struggles.
There are other classic accommodation venues here as well, but my limited time didn’t allow me to soak them up. Just two blocks away was the nerve centre of the tram system. As you walk through the doors you can’t help but notice the large spoked wheels (called sheaves) with steel cables lubricated by pine tar wrapped around them, for here was the entire power system for the cable cars. It’s not something that will detain you for a long time, but it’s fascinating nonetheless watching the endless loop go round and round knowing that it is driving something kilometres away.
I’d done the ride on the cable car, but it had turned out to be so much more.