David Rumsey Map Collection


For the first time since 1942, the entire immense 42 by 38 foot WPA built San Francisco Model can be seen assembled virtually. Digitally knitting together all 158 separate pieces with over 6,000 blocks gives the viewer a sense of the extraordinary accomplishment the model represents. Recently recovered after decades of dusty storage, the model has been cleaned and photographed by a dedicated team of individuals as part of the SFMOMA and San Francisco Public Library project called Public Knowledge: Take Part. The model pieces were expertly photographed by Beth LaBerge. David Rumsey created the large Composite image below of the 158 pieces, as well as the image and metadata database of all the images, which he hosts. Rumsey also georeferenced the large Composite image and placed it in Google Earth.

Some details of the model's history: it is a 42 by 38 foot wooden replica of the city of San Francisco as it was in 1940 in 158 pieces at a scale of 1 inch to 100 feet. The pieces contain about 6,000 removable city blocks. The model was built by The Works Progress Administration in the late 1930's, under the New Deal. It was first displayed in sections in the Golden Gate International Exposition on Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay in 1939. In 1940-1942 it was displayed in San Francisco City Hall. The model was used as an urban planning tool by San Francisco city agencies and departments through the 1960's. In 1968, the downtown portion of the model became a research and planning tool in the Environmental Simulation Laboratory in the College of Environmental Design at UC Berkeley. The model has not been on public view, in its entirety, since 1942. UC Berkeley is the current owner of the model. The intent of the makers of the model was to have it updated as the city changed over time and they conceived of it as a tool to help understand and plan for changes in the city's built environment. Read a San Francisco Planning Department document from 1940 describing the building and purposes of the model.

The condition of the model is generally good except for the downtown and south of market portions which need restoration - many blocks there have been removed and lost, probably from the time it was used and updated as a planning tool. The team that has made the model available again to the public are the principals of  Public Knowledge: Take Part: Bik Van der Pol, Artists; Stella Lochman Project Manager; Tomoko Kanamitsu, Project Director; Deena Chalabi,  Curatorial Lead; and Bay Area historian Gray Brechin, who for many years has championed the Model's preservation as a critical piece of Bay Area history during the New Deal. 






















The large Composite image was georeferenced and placed in Google Earth. Viewing the Model in this platform allows several new functions: it may been seen obliquely or at an angle, as it is by viewers seeing the physical model; a digital elevation database in Google Earth gives the Model image height and depth; and changes over time can be seen by comparing the Model 1940 image to the modern satellite image using the transparency slider.  The Google Earth App can be downloaded - choose Google Earth Pro for Desktop. The Google Earth KMZ of the Model will download here and open in Google Earth App by clicking on it after download.











The WPA San Francisco Model was an attempt both to look back and ahead at the City's environment in 1940. While it is an antiquarian object today, it holds its power to inspire us by its creativity and craftsmanship. We hope that it finds a permanent home and is restored - it is a crucial link to the history of San Francisco.