A long-awaited cultural building has finally joined the ranks of the ever-growing collection of museums in San Francisco’s Yerba Buena District — a new home for the Contemporary Jewish Museum. The Museum was originally founded in 1984, but ten years ago, the Museum chose architect Daniel Libeskind to design a new structure to house the Museum in South of Market’s clustered quarter of museums. Libeskind is renowned for his work on museums across the world, including the Jewish Museums in Copenhagen and Berlin. Other work that Libeskind has done includes the recent expansion of the Denver Art Museum and the master plan for redevelopment of the World Trade Center Memorial site in Lower Manhattan.
The new Museum is situated off of Yerba Buena Alley, directly behind the beautiful 1872/1906 landmark St. Patrick’s Catholic Church on Mission Street. The Museum fronts onto Jessie Square and is set back from Mission Street itself. The 63,000 square foot building consists of two starkly contrasted sections. The western half is the large blue steel cube, a chameleon of sorts whose exact hue is designed to shift according to weather and the time of day. The eastern half is an adaptive reuse of the 1907 brick landmark Jessie Street Power Substation, which has not been used by PG&E for close to fifty years. The building was designed by Willis Polk, who is perhaps more well-known for designing the Palace of Fine Arts and the famous glass curtain walls of the Hallidie Building on Sutter Street.
The opening of the Museum’s new home is only the latest chapter in a redevelopment plan that has taken decades to be fully realized. Plans to redevelop the Yerba Buena District in South of Market began in the 1950’s, but San Franciscans did not vote to approve a convention center in the area until Proposition S in the November 2, 1976 election (FYI: that link opens a rather large PDF). The first section of Moscone Center opened in 1981, but a greater flurry of activity followed in the 1990’s. A decade after the first section of Moscone opened, the convention center was expanded with the Esplanade Ballroom and the Moscone North part of the complex, with Moscone West added in 2003 to bring a total of two million square feet of convention center space to the area. After the opening of the initial sections of Moscone, the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts followed in 1993, the Museum of Modern Art opened in 1995, and the much-maligned Metreon arrived in 1999. SFMOMA remains the centerpiece museum of the district, although it is accompanied by several others, including MoAD (Museum of the African Diaspora), the Cartoon Art Museum, the Museum of Craft and Folk Art, and, of course, now the Contemporary Jewish Museum. Meanwhile, plans to build a new home for the Mexican Museum across Jessie Square from the Jewish Museum are on hold. In the past couple years, the boundaries of this active cultural/commercial district South of Market have been creeping in a westward direction, with the opening of the Westfield Center and the Intercontinental Hotel on the east side of 5th Street — and there are plans for the west side of 5th Street, where the Old Mint Building is planned to house the Museum of San Francisco and the Bay Area, the American Money Museum, and a new visitors center to replace the one that is currently at Hallidie Plaza.