‘People’s Palace’ tells story of S.F. City Hall

Mayor “Sunny Jim” Rolph and his wife Annie Marshall Reid celebrate City’s Hall’s opening in 1915. (Courtesy S.F. History Room/S.F. Public Library)

San Francisco City Hall is turning 100, with a birthday celebration including a new film.

“The People’s Palace,” a 30-minute documentary by Jim Yager, premieres Wednesday in a free screening under City Hall’s huge dome, followed by a broadcast on KQED-Channel 9 on Nov. 24.

“We had a great cast of people throughout The City that really wanted this to happen,” says Yager, pointing to participants from city archivist Susan Goldstein to writer Gary Kamiya and scholars Jeffrey Tilman and Robert Cherny, who “brought history to life for us in a wonderful way.”

The film not only focuses on the grand structure’s architecture, construction and renovation, but on the people that worked, protested, mourned and celebrated there in the past 100 years.

Yager, who says even though he grew up reading Herb Caen’s columns which rhapsodized about San Francisco Mayor James “Sunny Jim” Rolph, until he made this movie he did not know how Rolph was responsible for building City Hall, a project tied to the Pan Pacific International Exposition, the economic engine The City used to rebuild after the 1906 quake. (A previous shoddy City Hall, both built and filled with graft, crumbled in the quake.)

Through the decades, City Hall has been the site of notable unrest: workers’ protesting unfair labor practices in the 1930s, society ladies blasting plans to shut down cable cars in 1947, and demonstrators against the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1960.

In the movie, former Mayor Dianne Feinstein describes the tragic day in 1978 when she heard gunfire, then found Supervisor Harvey Milk, who had been shot.

“I was very moved that she spoke as candidly as she did,” says Yager, who wasn’t sure if the senator would talk about the assassinations of Milk and Mayor George Moscone.

Happier moments include former Mayor Gavin Newsom’s order to the city clerk to issue marriage licenses to same sex-couples, who took advantage of the opportunity in numbers, fueling a growing national human rights movement.

During the middle of the 20th century, the building fell into disrepair, and efforts to bring it back to its former glory kicked in following the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.

Former Mayor Willie Brown, a wheeler and dealer, came up with the money not just for seismic upgrades, but to clean and gussy it up, even gilding the fifth-largest-in-the-world dome.

At the time, he was blasted for misusing public funds, but, Yager says, those sentiments evaporated when the renovated building reopened in 1999: “Thousands turned out,” adds Yager.

The People’s Palace
Where: City Hall, 1 Dr. Carlton B. Goodlett Place, S.F.
When: 7 p.m. Wednesday
Admission: Free, but registration required
Contact: www.sfcityhall100.com
Note: The movie also screens at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 24 on KQED Channel 9.

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