San Francisco's Civic Center is a National Historic Landmark District and has received similar honors from the State of California and City. It is the product of the reformist City Beautiful movement which was popular in American cities at the end of the 19th Century.

The plan was to locate in grand public buildings around a plaza the important governmental functions as well as arts, educational and cultural institutions to instill civic pride and personal improvement.

San Francisco conceived of its grand Civic Center after the devastation of the great Earthquake and Fire which had destroyed its City Hall. It was only when Congress designated it as the host city for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition to be held in 1915 did work begin in earnest. The new City Hall was one of the first buildings completed on the Plaza. Others, including the War Memorial Opera house, were completed into the 1930s. These buildings comprise the largest assemblage of neoclassical public buildings in the country outside of Washington, DC. See Directory of Buildings.

While every other city in the country long ago abandoned the City Beautiful movement and its civic center plans, these ideas retain a life in modern San Francisco as witnessed by the new Court House and Main Library at the Plaza, and the conversion of the Old Main Library into the home of the Asian Arts Museum.