Beautiful S.F. has a few notably ugly buildings 

A group of American citizens recently weighed in with their thoughts on the top architectural gems in America, and San Francisco was rightly honored with some of their monumental achievements on the list, notably the Golden Gate Bridge, City Hall and the Fairmont hotel.

Of course, the Hyatt Regency hotel on Market Street also made the cut, showing that taste is a relative thing and that the difference between the Eiffel Tower and a towering eyesore can be the configuration of a few large beams.

But all the best lists in the world can’t compare to the compilations of the worst, and for every Jefferson Monument there is a monument to bad taste. In that regard San Francisco’s landscape is particularly rich, for while Chicago may be the cradle of architecture in the United States, San Francisco ismore of a modern footstool, scarred by a generation of poor planning and unsightly structures that fail to stand the test of time and any other test.

I am hardly an arbiter of architectural taste — I have always thought that the Transamerica Pyramid was a distinctive gem, putting me in the group that did the recent survey by the American Institute of Architecture. But that would probably place me near the bottom of the pile among my fellow San Francisco-philes — the late Herb Caen couldn’t resist a regular slam of the building and many people view it as a towering geometric mistake.

I would have voted for the Conservatory of Flowers as one of the finest structures in America, but either the survey participants weren’t shown a picture of it or it somehow didn’t make the cut based on other criteria, such as "no Victorian greenhouses allowed."

Yet a "worst of’’ list would probably have more of a consensus among the locals, where the primary differences would focus not on which well-known buildings qualified for public condemnation, but in which order. While most people will have a pet peeve on their roster of offending structures, I’ll bet these would be near the top of many lists.

SUTRO TOWER: This metallic pox on San Francisco’s landscape is not only The City’s highest-reaching structure, it’s also the ugliest. How this humongous erector set ever got placed right in the middle of our graceful city of hills should be the topic of a book someday on the worst planning gaffes in American history. Built to hold television and radio transmitters, this unsightly behemoth actually ruined airwave signals prior to the advent of cable. Residents near the tower have been fighting additions to this beast for years, and one can only hope that future generations will one day see the light — not the blinking ones near the top of the tower — and hold the biggest civic demolition party ever when they take it down.

HALL OF JUSTICE: It seems somehow fitting that a concrete slab used to process and hold law-breakers should itself be a crime, and this is one of the most egregious offenders in a lineup of losers. The building at 850 Bryant is so dark and dreary and downright ugly that it makes you wonder how the architectural design managed to slip through the handcuffs of city planners to blight the South of Market area. In terms of its sheer aesthetic appeal, the hall is strictly an emergency response.

FEDERAL BUILDING: Consider this the Hall of Justice’s more-evil twin, another big, unsightly box built by and for bureaucrats without any regard to form or function. Over the years this building has been the focus of nearly every form of protest imaginable — but the biggest protest should have taken place when this building was under consideration by the city fathers. The new federal building has received early praise for its "green’’ aspects, and while the jury is still out on its overall likability, anything would be an improvement on the original.

FOX PLAZA: This civic misfire makes the list for two reasons — for the objectionable structure that it is, as well as for the beautiful one that it replaced. Our more recent arrivals probably don’t know that this development got its name from the old Fox theater, which at one time was one of the most ornate and expensive show palaces built in the United States. Mention this theater to old-timers here and you will likely get a rueful, teary-eyed response. The Fox Plaza’s only saving grace is that it’s just far enough from the Civic Center to not mar the graceful synergy of our beaux arts showcase.

There are many other qualified candidates — and some too obvious (Candlestick Park) to include. But it’s the only list these sad structures should be on, besides the endangered one.

Ken Garcia’s columnappears Tuesdays, Thursdays and weekends in The Examiner. E-mail him at or call him at (415) 359-2663.

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