Asawa Photos of San Francisco on Historypin

April 2, 2015
Franz Kunst
San Francisco Fountain detail by Joe Thompson

As previously announced, the Ruth Asawa papers are now available. In thinking of fun and innovative ways to present certain aspects of her work, we decided to scan a small series of San Francisco architecture snapshots from her collection and upload them to the social mapping website Historypin, and also include them in their Year of the Bay local history project.  These photographs were probably used as research in creating the San Francisco Fountain in Union Square, which features many cast dough relief images of the city. Unfortunately there is no information on or about the prints in the collection. They are likely all from the 1960s, and were probably taken by Asawa (she has referred to taking pictures of the city in preparation). Architectural historian Sally Woodbridge may have also contributed. The varying qualities of the prints implies that several cameras or developers were used, and that they were probably taken over a period of time. At any rate, they collectively serve as a remarkable portrait of the city in that decade.

The Year of the Bay, which was was co-sponsored by Stanford University’s Center for Spatial and Textual Analysis (CESTA) and funded through the Mellon Foundation as part of a larger "Crowdsourcing For Humanities Research" effort, was intended for the year 2013, but the project is still maintained, with continued involvement from institutions such as the San Francisco Public Library and the SF MTA Archives. One of the best features of the project is History Mysteries, a tool which allows users to suggest information and match photos to Google Street View. Even with this help, many of these photos may never be identified. After fifty years or so, some houses, buildings and even streets have been removed, especially in the financial district, where the Embarcadero Center replaced several city blocks. The Southern Pacific Railroad Depot is also long gone. 

We're pleased to report that since the photos were posted, several more locations have been determined by Historypin users. However, one photo has proved an interesting (if very small scale) example of the need for vetting crowdsourced metadata. A user suggested that this photo (see also below) depicts the former Masonic Hall at 25 Van Ness Avenue, and a second user agreed. It was our first guess as well. However, there are many features that don't match (see here, here, here, and here for vintage images of the Hall). Of course we're open to evidence to the contrary, but for now we're sticking to our guns. Perhaps you recognize this building?

unknown building, San Francisco