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Visit San Francisco circa 1938 at your local public library

San Franciscans have an opportunity to experience the city as it was more than 80 years ago. Thanks to a collaboration between San Francisco MOMA and the San Francisco Public Library, an architectural model of the city’s neighborhoods from 1938 is on display at libraries throughout San Francisco. 

Hosanna Rubio is trying to find her childhood home. We’re at the Western Addition branch of the San Francisco Public Library looking down over a map of the neighborhood. She grew up here. So did her parents. So did their parents.

“It’s really difficult I’m seeing streets mostly that I associate mostly with Pac Heights, streets like Sutter, Pine, Bush, California,” Rubio says as she scans the streets on the map. “So I’m having a little bit of a difficult time, personally.”

What we’re looking at isn’t just any old map. It’s a piece of a three-dimensional model of the entire city, built in the 1930s: all of San Francisco rendered at scale in miniature. Each building is painted the color it was 80 years ago. Trees are tufts of steel wool painted green. Thin black lines run down Folsom Street in the Mission — tram tracks long since paved over.

UC Berkeley has had this model of the city since the 1960s. But most of it has been storage in Richmond for years. Dr. Gray Brechin, a professor in the geography department, has been trying to find it a home for the past decade. Then one day he got a call from San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. They wanted to know about the model.

“We pulled out a few sections of the model and I was blown away,” explains Dr. Brechin. “Every building in the city had been depicted on this model in three dimensions. But it was difficult to see a lot of it because it had probably 60 to 80 years of dust.”

Locals and visitors first saw the model at the 1939 World’s Fair on Treasure Island — and not many people have seen it since. The Works Progress Administration funded its construction as a way to put people to work during the Great Depression.

It’s on display now thanks to a partnership between the SFMoMA and the San Francisco Public Library. But the sheer size of the map made displaying it a challenge. The scale model is just over 1500 square feet. That’s about the size of a spacious two-bedroom apartment. No institution with a large enough room would give up valuable real estate for the duration of the installation.

Luckily the replica is modular. It was constructed in a 158 individual but interlocking sections. And each of the 6,000 city blocks can be removed.

Stella Lochman works at SFMoMA and manages the project. ”I have touched every piece of this model,” she notes. “I can tell you that in the Presidio all the roofs are orange and it has a totally different feeling than in the Mission where the roofs are brown and white and has a different feeling from the Tenderloin where all the roofs are black and brown.”

To accommodate the size of the model, the team decided to divide it up into sections. Then, they used branch libraries to display pieces of it all across San Francisco.

Now from the Outer Mission to North Beach, locals can trace the streets with their fingers to identify familiar places.

City agencies updated the model here and there over the years — like in the Western Addition, where they added red lines to delineate the city’s racist zoning policies of the 1960s. The red lines running down O’Farrell Street stand out to Hosanna Rubio as she tries to find home on the map.

“It’s actually not even on the map,” she says. “My house is not on the map, apparently.”

That frustrates Rubio, but she’s not that surprised. She’s used to the neighborhood not feeling like her own anymore.

“I’m a teacher and I cannot afford to live in my neighborhood anymore. It really speaks volumes on San Francisco and who we really are.”

Remember, she grew up here. So did her parents; so did their parents.

The exhibits are at the public libraries until the end of April. The team at SFMoMA still want to find somewhere to display the whole model in one piece. But as of now, it hasn’t found a home.

Nina Sparling is a writer and audio producer based in California. She’s a master's candidate at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism.