The San Francisco City Hall Wedding
A San Francisco City Hall wedding can be an incredible experience. Moreover, it’s not just for local brides and grooms who are looking to take care of the legal wedding obligations. City Hall is a magnificent building, with a rich history, and people come from all over the world to have their wedding here.
In my years as a City Hall photographer, I’ve met couples from a dozen states, and places as distant as Australia, New Zealand, Germany, Ireland and China (just to name a few). Many couples who travel here make the City Hall experience part of their San Francisco plans. This is a comprehensive guide to your San Francisco City Hall wedding, and an overview of what you can expect when you book Sasha Photography to document it.
A Brief History of SF City Hall
The current San Francisco City Hall is a reincarnation of the building which was destroyed by the 1906 earthquake and subsequent fire. The majestic building spans an entire city block, bordered by Van Ness, Polk, McAllister and Grove Streets. The main entrance is on Polk Street, recognizable by the iconic gold “City Hall” lettering on the gilded doors. Over the past 100+ years, the building has been the epicenter of many notable historical events, including the much talked about marriage of Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio, as well as civil rights and union protests, the assassinations of Harvey Milk and George Moscone, and more recently, the campaign for Marriage Equality. While it plays host to wedding ceremonies every day, City Hall serves as a functional center of civic administration, with busy courtrooms, community gatherings and government functions. City Hall is also open to the public during normal operating hours, and it’s not unusual to see camera-wielding tourists exploring the building.
San Francisco City Hall Wedding Options
There are three ways to take advantage of the grandeur of City Hall for your wedding.
- Standard civil ceremony – This is the cheapest and most efficient option. You will have to schedule an appointment to obtain your marriage license, pay an administrative fee, and set up a second appointment for the actual civil ceremony. The matter is conducted by a city hall wedding commissioner, and the whole thing takes about 5 minutes. You may only book your civil ceremony appointment no earlier than 90 days in advance, and a 6-guest limit is officially imposed at least according to the City Hall regulations.
- Reserving the 4th Floor Gallery or the Mayor’s Balcony – This route guarantees you a private space in one of three locations inside the building: The 4th floor galleries (North or South), or the Mayor’s Balcony. It’s an investment to make this kind of reservation, but it bring several distinct advantages. First, you will have the private space for one whole hour for your San Francisco City Hall wedding, which means that no other couples, photographers or tourists will be interfering with your wedding proceedings. It will also mean that you can comfortably accommodate many more guests than the 6-guest standard limit imposed on the civil ceremony. Secondly, chairs and a table will be provided, and this allow your guests to formally be seated for the ceremony, as well as for a champagne toast and snacks to be served afterwards. Also, you will be able to bring your own officiant, and you’ll not have to use the City Hall commissioner (although you still have the option to do so). Finally, it will allow you and your San Francisco City Hall wedding guests to have security and privacy, and this will facilitate the wedding photography part of the day.
- Reserving the Entire City Hall on a Weekend – This is an option if you want to make City Hall your wedding venue for the evening. Renting City Hall is an expensive proposition, but it also means that all the grandeur becomes yours for one magnificent evening. If you go this route, you can make the reservation many months in advance, just as you would with any other wedding venue. Keep in mind that because City Hall is a government building, many legal requirements are imposed on your wedding vendors – especially proof of liability insurance.
The Wedding Commissioners
Who are these mysterious people? Wedding commissioners are the officials you see in the photographs, wearing black judges’ robes. Every day, several different people fulfill these duties, and although the ceremony involves some standard text and procedures, all of the commissioners have different personalities and different styles of conducting it. Not all of them are trained public speakers, but certainly they all delight in the responsibility and hope that come with officially uniting a couple in marriage. Most commissioners have been performing ceremonies for many years, yet I find that they all approach each new wedding with diligence and excitement.
You can check out this conversation on my podcast with Cynthia Gregory, who is both a deputy marriage commissioner at City Hall, as well as a private wedding officiant. She’s a fascinating woman, and this podcast will give you insight into the woman behind the black robe.
San Francisco City Hall Wedding Photography: A Perfect Marriage
When thinking about your San Francisco City Hall wedding, realize that no matter which of the options above you choose, you will have all of City Hall available for creating beautiful images on your wedding day. The only exceptions to this are rare days when special events are taking place inside the building (such as the inauguration of the Mayor, or press conferences) and certain parts of the building are cordoned off. Also, if you do not reserve part of the building for your ceremony, you’ll have to respect the privacy of couples who do. City Hall is constructed in elegant, neutral stone and marble, with fine architectural details throughout the building. From the outside, the stately columns and gilded dome of the façade are a majestic sight. These stunning backdrops are precisely why so many couples choose to make City Hall their wedding photography destination.
The Geography of City Hall
Familiarize yourself with the terminology and layout of City Hall. The building has four main floors, and each offers unique opportunities for wedding photographs.
- First Floor – the beautiful pattern on the marble floor, along with the elegant gold lamps makes this a great part of the building to explore. The first floor is also where the County Clerk’s office – Room 168 – is located. The natural light streaming through both the Van Ness and the Polk Street entrance doors also invites some unexpected photographic opportunities. The first floor offers direct access to the grand staircase. One thing to keep in mind is that the first floor is also the busiest part of the building. Sometimes the wedding commissioner will offer the ‘private room’ as an option for your San Francisco City Hall wedding ceremony. This is a small room located near the County Clerk’s office, in the administrative hallway. It may be a good option if the building is extremely busy or if a major event. However, the private room does not a lot of photographic merit.
- Second Floor – this level of the building is home to The Rotunda, an iconic part of City Hall that plays host to the majority of San Francisco City Hall wedding civil ceremonies, as well as occasional art exhibits and the annual Christmas tree which goes up in early December. This level also offers two expansive hallways on both the north and south side of the building, with gilded railings and big windows that make for a lovely photographic setting. Directly opposite the Rotunda, the second floor is the home to the iconic Mayor’s Balcony. It’s instantly recognizable by its extravagant railing and the giant roman numeral clock that hangs above.
- Third Floor – this is probably the quietest part of the building, and for that reason, also one of my favorites. This level has giant art deco-style windows on both the north and south side, and the photography opportunities are endless. On this level, you are also high enough above the atrium of the building to really get some amazing views.
- Fourth Floor – this level offers the two popular wedding spots – the North and South Galleries – which can be reserved for your ceremony. The fourth floor is home to gigantic windows, from which the light comes streaming into the building. It’s also an incredible vantage point from which to fully appreciate the entirety of the building. The architectural details are stunning. Both Galleries are drenched in white marble, with two intricate, stone urns serving as the centerpieces. Due to its openness and proximity to the windows, the fourth floor is bathed in natural light unlike any other part of the building.
- Outside the Building – it’s a delight to venture immediately outside of City Hall for portraits. The building is gorgeous, and it’s refreshing to step out into the breezy San Francisco street and into natural light. Drivers passing by on Polk Street may honk at you to celebrate your wedding, tourists may gawk, and other couple nearby might get jealous when they see the kind of awesome photographs you’re getting with Sasha!
The Light and Energy at City Hall
Many couples ask me to recommend “the best time” to get married at City Hall. You should be aware that the building is a living, breathing entity in many ways. It takes in and expels people during the bustling business hours, and the light and energy inside are constantly evolving throughout the day. Typically, the early morning (10AM) offers softer light and less foot traffic. This transitions into sharper light and a much busier time around the lunchtime hours. Finally, towards the end of the day, the light tends to get warmer and more contrasty as the lower sun filters through the South windows. The building really starts to slow down and empty out closer to 4PM. However, it should be noted that San Francisco weather can be unpredictable, and often times the ubiquitous fog changes the whole equation.
Parking and Logistics
It’s easy to park at meters in the City Hall plaza, which offer up to 4 hours of time, or you can park in the garage down below. This is especially important if you plan on hopping a hired Cable Car after your ceremony, or if you plan on venturing with me to an additional location after the San Francisco City Hall wedding and photoshoot. When you arrive at City Hall for the civil ceremony, you’ll need to proceed to Room 168 (the County Clerk’s office), in order to meet with the commissioner and have your marriage license witnessed. This process is much like the DMV, with the proverbial number being handed out as you await your turn. The hallway is not very big and usually is quite crowded with other wedding parties and families. The County Clerk’s office only admits the wedding couple, the photographer and no more than two witnesses. It’s usually a good idea to ask your families and guests to wait in the atrium while you take care of this process. If you are eloping and do not have a witness, I am happy and honored to serve as the witness for you, as I have done for countless couples.
Booking Sasha Photography for your City Hall Wedding
Whether you are planning an elopement, a civil ceremony attended by just a handful of guests, a reserved ceremony on the Fourth Floor, or a grand Saturday wedding at City Hall, you should definitely hire a wedding photographer who is a City Hall expert. After many years of documenting San Francisco City Hall weddings, I have an intimate understanding of the process, the building, and what it takes to create a memorable experience for your San Francisco City Hall wedding. You can read reviews on Yelp and view San Francisco City Hall weddings of happy couples who selected Sasha as their photographer and guide. When you’ve chosen your date, please contact me right away to arrange your wedding photography experience.