In response to a 1962 city report entitled “What to do about Market Street?” Halprin developed a plan to redesign the transit-heavy San Francisco corridor as a pedestrian-oriented series of linked civic spaces. One result of that plan was the four-acre Justin Herman Plaza, located at the street’s eastern terminus adjacent to San Francisco’s Embarcadero and ferry building. Originally named Embarcadero Plaza, the landscape features an irregularly shaped expanse of red brick pavers, just off-axis from Market Street.
The focal point of the slightly sunken plaza is a 40-foot-tall concrete fountain designed by sculptor Armand Vaillancourt. Halprin and Vaillancourt designed the fountain to respond to an elevated freeway that wrapped around the Plaza. In a 1966 notebook entry, Halprin described the plaza as a “total environment in which all the elements working together create a place for participation.”
The setting in which Halprin and Vaillancourt designed the fountain is no longer fully intact. The Embarcadero Freeway was demolished following significant structural damage during a severe earthquake in 1989, and the Vaillancourt Fountain is no longer running. The dry fountain is a result of both deferred maintenance and current city practices regarding the years-long drought in California. The plaza has also been restructured, with the geometric shallow steps that connect the sunken plaza to the street grade replaced by ramps and a circular stairway. While it appears that current maintenance practices are intentional, it does not seem that the city is considering Halprin’s design intent in such decisions. As the fountain is such a focal point of the design, the city should endeavor to work with a landscape architect and engineer who are familiar with Halprin’s designs to create a plan and schedule for returning the fountain to working order.
One of the reasons the fountain and plaza pavers are not being considered with regards to improvements at Justin Herman Plaza is due to its location with a National Register Historic District with a truncated period of significance. The Plaza lies within the Port of San Francisco Embarcadero Historic District, which is listed under several categories of significance including architecture and engineering. However, the period of significance ends in 1949, a little over a decade before the Plaza space was redesigned by Halprin. Expanding the period of significance to include the urban redevelopment efforts that revitalized the outdoor public space would ensure that Halprin’s design would warrant appropriate consideration in the face of future improvements. Alternatively, the plaza should be evaluated for individual listing under the category of Landscape Architecture. Justin Herman Plaza is one of very few successful Modernist urban piazzas in the United States. It deserves to be recognized as such, and preserved for future generations.
Dikas is a native of the San Francisco Bay Area. She has a Master’s degree in Architectural History from the University of Virginia and is a Senior Architectural Historian at a historic preservation architecture firm in San Francisco. Dikas’ love of historic buildings and landscapes pairs with a passion for photography. She has completed digital and large format photography for the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS), and enjoys international travel, outdoor adventure, and astrophotography.