Arts Commission Gallery
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San Francisco Main Library
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San Francisco Opera
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400 Van Ness Ave · interesting places nearby
City Hall information
That mighty beaux arts dome pretty much covers San Francisco's grandest ambitions and fundamental flaws. Designed in 1915 to outdo Paris for flair and outsize the capitol in Washington, DC, the dome – the world's fifth largest – was unsteady until its retrofit after the 1989 earthquake, when ingenious technology enabled it to swing on its base without raising alarm.
The gold leafing on the dome's exterior is a reminder of dot-com-era excess. But from the inside, the splendid rotunda has ringing acoustics, and if that dome could talk, it would tell of triumph and tragedy. Anti-McCarthy sit-in protesters were hosed off the grand staircase in 1960 but finally ran McCarthy out of town. Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone were assassinated here in 1978. And in 2004, cheers rang around the world for families and friends of the 4037 same-sex couples who celebrated their marriages here, thanks to Mayor Newsom's short-lived challenge to California marriage law (the latter overturned by the Supreme Court in 2013). Take the elevator one flight down to discover intriguing public art exhibitions, which range from photographs of senior subcultures to work by blind artists.
Free docent-led tours meet at the tour kiosk near the Van Ness Ave entrance, but City Hall is best seen in action. For insight into how San Francisco government works – or doesn't – the Board of Supervisors meets Tuesdays at 2pm in City Hall; check the agenda and minutes online. Theoretically, visitors may be removed for 'boisterous' behavior, but this being San Francisco, democracy in action can get pretty rowdy without fazing seen-it-all security guards.
For the best perspective on the massive dome's elegant detail, lie down on the grand marble staircase beneath the rotunda and look straight up. Seriously.