Model City

During the depths of the Depression in the late 1930s, 300 craftspeople came together for two years to build an enormous scale model of the City of San Francisco. This Works Progress Administration (WPA) project was conceived as a way of putting artists to work while also creating a planning tool for the city to imagine its future.

The massive work was meant to remain on public view for all to see, but World War II broke out and the 6,000 piece, hand-carved and painted wooden model was put into storage for almost 80 years.

This audio story of an almost forgotten, three-dimensional, freeze-frame model of 1938 San Francisco features poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, historian Gary Kamiya, writer Maya Angelou as well as current “Keeper of the Model” Stella Lochman and more.

Understanding the model’s history involves traveling back to the Golden Gate Exposition on Treasure Island where it was first put on display in 1939, plus a trip to Angel Island with San Francisco Jazz Poet Laureate Genny Lim, a ridealong with bicycle historians Chris Carlsson and LisaRuth Elliott of Shaping San Francisco and a conversation with  geographer Gray Brechin, who helped save the model.

The Kitchen Sisters originally produced this story for SFMOMA’s Raw Material podcast in conjunction with their Public Knowledge program “Take Part” in which the museum partnered with the San Francisco Public Library and artists Bik Van Der Pol to engage the community in a series of talks and events around the model.

Explore the model online thanks to the David Rumsey Historical Map Collection (photos c/o the San Francisco Public Library). More detailed and recent color images of the model can be seen here.

  1. This is amazing. At first I thought they were referring to the mini SF that many years ago was on display in the Powell Street BART station, but that one was not as large as this one, and if memory serves was completely white. Where is THAT one now?

  2. lennerd

    There was a mini-dress in the 1930’s? Why was the miniskirt such a big deal 30 years later? ;-)

  3. Luca

    Zurich has a great modell which is kept up to date. If you visit the city you’ve got to go see it. It’s in the same building as the city’s planning department and always open for visits during office hours, for free:

    There’s also a great model depicting what the city looked like around the year 1800. This is a museum in an other location, close by and also for free

  4. Shalom Craimer

    Missing the 2nd artists name? “partnered with the San Francisco Public Library and artists Bik Van Der Pol to engage the community in a series of talks and events around the model.”

  5. Brent

    In the 1950s and 60, the Army Corps of Engineers built an enormous scale model of San Francisco Bay to study the hydrology of proposed dams and flood works. It’s a must-see, filled with water and simulating the tidal movement of the Bay & Delta waters at a 1:100 time scale.

    The WPA also made a scale model of Los Angeles. You can view the Downtown section of it in the “Becoming Los Angeles” section of the LA County Museum of Natural History. There are plenty of photos of it on the Internet, but there’s a nice closeup of the City Hall area included in this article about the new permanent Ofrenda installation in that section.

  6. Michael Rogovin

    This reminds me of the Panorama of NY. Built by Lester Associates for Robert Moses and the Triboro Bridge and Tunnel Authority, it is also a 1″=100′ model of a city, in this case NYC (all 5 boros) representing every building, bridge, etc. (airplanes take off and land from the two airports) Built for the 1964-65 World’s Fair there was a Disney-like ride around the model like a helicopter trip over the city (narrated by Lowell Thomas), the model was updated in the 1990s, removing much of shipping ports that had disappeared over the prior 30 years. It has only had a few updates since (the World Trade Center is still there and much of the recent building in the city is not represented). You can actually buy a building and model makers at the City College School of Architecture will add it to the model, but it is high time for a full update (especially since there are errors: the block I used to live on at Amsterdam and 70th-71st streets was actually turned 180 degrees by mistake). THe ride is gone, but there is a walkway and glass platform overlooking the model, and the Queens Museum of Art is an underrated gem on the old fair grounds. Roman: as a fan of 99pi and of the history of Queens and the fairs (and fellow lover of maps), I would be happy to visit the museum with you and give you a personal tour of it and other relics left in the park.

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