Portal: San Francisco's Ferry Building and the Reinvention of American Cities
A New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice
A two-time Pulitzer finalist explores the story of American urban design through San Francisco’s iconic Ferry Building.
Conceived in the Gilded Age, the Ferry Building opened in 1898 as San Francisco’s portal to the world—the terminus of the transcontinental railway and a showcase of civic ambition. In silent films and World’s Fair postcards, nothing said “San Francisco” more than its soaring clocktower.
But as acclaimed architectural critic John King recounts in Portal, the rise of the automobile and double-deck freeways severed the city from its beloved structure and its waterfront—a connection that required generations to restore.
King’s narrative spans the rise and fall and rebirth of the Ferry Building. Rich with feats of engineering and civic imagination, his story introduces colorful figures who fought to preserve the Ferry Building’s character (and the city’s soul)—from architect Arthur Page Brown and legendary columnist Herb Caen to poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Senator Dianne Feinstein.
In King’s hands, the saga of the Ferry Building is a microcosm of a larger evolution along the waterfronts of cities everywhere. Portal traces the damage inflicted on historic neighborhoods and working dockyards by cars, highways, and top-down planning and “urban renewal.” But when an earthquake destroyed the Embarcadero Freeway, city residents seized the chance to reclaim their connection to the bay. Transporting readers across 125 years of history, this tour de force explores the tensions impacting urban infrastructure and public spaces, among them tourism, deindustrialization, development, and globalization. Portal culminates with a rich portrait of San Francisco’s vibrant esplanade today, visited by millions, even as sea level rise and earthquakes threaten a landmark that remains as vital as ever.
A book for city lovers and visitors, architecture fans and pedestrians, Portal is essential reading for anyone interested in the history of San Francisco and the future of American cities.
Praise for Portal: San Francisco's Ferry Building and the Reinvention of American Cities
Portal has the good fortune of having been written by a dedicated architecture critic. . . . Serious and rigorous, the book furnishes a gimlet-eyed glimpse of San Francisco’s continuing struggles — and what lies beneath them.
— Ian Volner - New York Times Book Review
This is a book of great charm. Mr. King…is a stylish writer with an eye for the delightful detail. He lovingly recounts the restoration of the Ferry Building and celebrates its new role in the city.… By expanding the circle of those enchanted by the Ferry Building, Mr. King has made it more likely that residents will summon that will and write a new chapter in the Ferry Building’s history.
— John Buntin - Wall Street Journal
John King has produced a tour de force of architectural and social commentary, grounded in the rise and indomitable relevance of San Francisco’s iconic Ferry Building. From 1898 to 2023, an incredible story unfolds here of earthquakes, recessions, disasters, and relentless conflict. Through each crisis, the Ferry Building finds a way to adapt and prosper. In masterful prose, King ties the building’s saga to the larger story of San Francisco and even Boston and New York and other waterfront cities as they go through dramatic cycles of decay and rebirth. And in so doing, provides us with an overdue and bracing dose of optimism.
— Jerry Brown, former governor of California and mayor of Oakland
This book is much more than a history of San Francisco’s ferry terminal; it’s a window to the soul of a great city. John King gives us a lively and revealing account of a remarkable building that has endured against all odds and assumed new meaning. There are lessons here for every city.
— Inga Saffron, Pulitzer Prize–winning architecture critic
John King is an architectural Indiana Jones, revealing the careening drama and the struggle for consensus as to what a city should be. An account that is both authoritative and fun to read.
— Anthony Flint, Senior Fellow, Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, and author of Wrestling with Moses
Vibrant. . . an illuminating architectural and social history.
— Publishers Weekly
Fascinating insights into San Francisco history and the transformation of other waterfront cities.
— Kirkus Reviews