Young Explorers Discover San Francisco's Architectural and Cultural Heritage

Posted on: December 4th, 2013 by Lauren Walser

The first Discover SF! students in front of the “Painted Ladies” at San Francisco’s Alamo Square. Credit: San Francisco Heritage
The first Discover SF! students in front of the “Painted Ladies” at San Francisco’s Alamo Square.

Pencils raised, a group of 25 middle school students set to work sketching San Francisco’s 1898 Ferry Building, paying close attention to the waterfront structure’s Beaux Arts details.

A week later, the budding architectural historians traveled to the city’s iconic Alamo Square, where they conducted an architectural survey of the row of Victorian houses known as the Painted Ladies.

The students, all from the Galing Bata After School Program at San Francisco’s Filipino Education Center, were a part of Discover SF! Summer Camp in Heritage Conservation, a pilot program launched this past summer by nonprofit San Francisco Heritage. Coordinated by Desiree Smith, the organization’s preservation project manager, with the help of a number of local nonprofits and professionals, Discover SF! took students to more than a dozen historic sites around San Francisco to learn more about the city’s architectural and cultural heritage, with an emphasis on its Filipino-American history.

“It’s important to know your history, and [we wanted to teach them] that these places tell stories and help us remember,” Smith says.

The first of four sessions started with the trip to the Ferry Building. The students toured the site with architect and San Francisco Heritage board member Carolyn Kiernat, who also led the students through the architectural drawing exercise. A walking tour of Japantown kicked off the second week, where, Smith says, a trip to Benkyodo, the city’s oldest Japanese-American bakery, was a highlight.

A walking tour of San Francisco’s Japantown included a trip to Benkyodo, the city’s oldest Japanese American bakery. Credit: San Francisco Heritage
A walking tour of San Francisco’s Japantown included a trip to Benkyodo, the city’s oldest Japanese-American bakery.

Later that day, the students headed to Alamo Square where architectural historian Caitlin Harvey armed the students with new architecture vocabulary words and led them through an architectural survey of the Painted Ladies. They learned to identify different types of rooflines and windows, in addition to learning about the hallmark characteristics of Victorian architecture.

In the third week, the students explored old Manilatown, where they learned about the battle to save the old International Hotel, or “I-Hotel,” a three-story brick building built in 1907 that served as a residence for many Filipino-Americans until the 1960s, when they were evicted during a major urban renewal movement. The students toured the new I-Hotel, now called the I-Hotel Manilatown Center, which houses the Manilatown Heritage Foundation and affordable housing for seniors.

Afterward, Tony Robles, a poet with Kearny Street Workshop, an artist group that formed in the 1970s in Manilatown, led the students in a poetry workshop. The program rounded out with a walking tour of the city’s South of Market area and a visit to Bindlestiff Studio, the only Filipino-American performing arts venue in the United States. There, the students participated in an acting workshop.

“A lot of [the students], even though they’re from San Francisco, had never been to many of these sites, like the Ferry Building or the I-Hotel,” Smith says.

But it was the hands-on and more interactive activities, she says, that really resonated with the middle schoolers.

The students learned how to conduct architectural surveys by studying San Francisco’s famous “Painted Ladies.” Credit: San Francisco Heritage
The students learned how to conduct architectural surveys by studying San Francisco’s famous “Painted Ladies.”

“Through the walking tours, through the architectural drawing activities, that’s really when they began to understand the concepts of architecture and historic places and the idea that places carry history,” Smith says. “And practices like writing poetry and acting also help to tell the stories of the past and of other cultures.”

Smith believes the program was a good introduction to the larger concepts of architecture and cultural heritage and is hopeful it will lead to a lifelong interest in the subjects.

“At the end of each day, when we would reflect on what we saw and learned, the students would say how there were other buildings they saw and wanted to go inside,” she says. “And that they wished they had more time to learn more about the history of some of these places.”

The aim, Smith says, is that teachers at the Galing Bata After School Program can continue to use the curriculum, designed to meet the California Department of Education’s standards, with their students in years to come. And she says San Francisco Heritage hopes to expand to new sites around the city in the coming years, developing a larger portfolio of fieldtrips throughout the city.

The program caught the eye of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which awarded San Francisco Heritage a $3,550 grant to launch it.

“This struck us as an innovative heritage education effort in general, and we liked that it was aimed at engaging a new audience and generation in the preservation movement,” says Nicky Vann, director, administration of the National Trust’s Grants and Affinity Programs. “This seemed like a program that could serve as a model not just for future work at [San Francisco Heritage], but a model for other organizations looking to expand their heritage education programming.”

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Lauren Walser

Lauren Walser

Lauren Walser is the Los Angeles-based Field Editor at Preservation magazine. She enjoys writing and thinking about history, art, architecture, and public space.

Architecture, Local Preservationists