The future of American cities is getting a lot of attention these days, with furrowed eyebrows and reflections on how people will work and shop and socialize in places like San Francisco, even after the scourge of the coronavirus recedes.

Then I stop by the Rincon Center and am reminded that the only thing we know for sure about big cities is this: We never know what’s ahead.

The complex includes a huge former post office on Mission and Spear streets, which opened in 1940 and was conveniently located near the finger pillars of the Embarcadero. By 1989, the pillars had largely disappeared and the Embarcadero was under a two-story highway. The rear of the post office building was hollowed out to make way for an atrium with a sky and cafes and shops in a central space where a fountain gently poured water 80 feet from a plexiglass bowl perforated with 4,000 tiny holes.

That piece – “Rain Column” by Douglas Hollis – was a popular sensation. But now it’s gone, removed during the pandemic along with almost all of the retail space that workers drew on their lunch breaks. The basin into which water once fell has been replaced by flat terrazzo floors.

The must of one generation becomes the old hat of the next.

What you’ll see in 2021 is a two-tier clearing east of where the fountain once stood, with tables and just one chair at a time. There are large diamond-shaped hanging lamps above the beautiful new white oak floor. The wall opposite the new elevator lobby is adorned with overgrown panels, a la the “living walls” that are all the rage.

Once the pandemic ends, the remaining storefronts in the west will theoretically be filled with restaurants and the newly opened area will be crowded. But at the moment the dim sum mainstay Yank Sing is the only thing that is open inside, and the mood is mighty lost.

Especially when there is no “rain column” in sight.

“I’ve always enjoyed the ambiance it created,” recalls Robert Spoor, who recently visited the atrium and was stunned to find a void instead of theatrical precipitation. “The rush of the water was really relaxing.”

Until last spring’s lockdown, Spoor ran a monthly tour of the Rincon Center for San Francisco City Guides. His focus was on Anton Refregier’s historic murals in the restored post office lobby along Mission Street, but he would save “Rain Column” for a finale.

“It was a bit of a kick at the end of the tour,” said Spoor. “I could count on ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’.”

There was also some buzz in 1989 when the full block complex with two 24-story residential towers in the southern half of the block and a cozy courtyard in the middle of the block between old and new was completed.

“The Rincon Center has given the rapidly changing area behind the Embarcadero a remarkable vitality and new civic focus,” wrote Allan Temko, longtime architecture critic for The Chronicle. He described the enclosed atrium as an “optimistic urban space” and highlighted Hollis’ installation as an example of the “unexpected delights” of the center.

My memories as a young adult visiting space coincide with Temko’s impressions. Lunchtime was full – there was no point looking for a table near the “pillar of rain”. The over-lux pool hall was oh so 90s. The upscale Asta restaurant made for a retro dinner.

So what happened

In terms of ongoing renovations, they were approved prior to the pandemic – and according to a spokeswoman for owner Hudson Pacific Properties, “removing the fountain was both a design and functional improvement decision.” Hudson Pacific also painted the frieze with decorative flavor by the artist Richard Haas, who paid homage to Refregier’s murals, though not with great success.

The bigger explanation is that cities and cultures often change in unexpected ways.

Three months after Temko’s review, the Loma Prieta earthquake struck San Francisco and caused enough damage to the Embarcadero Freeway that this icon of the plague was demolished in 1991. Unsurprisingly, the reopened waterfront was a more permanent attraction than a sealed atrium with a cool fountain.

The novelty of an ambitious location in the South of Market commercial zone also waned when new towers opened in the west, filled by companies involved in areas such as social media and cloud computing that literally did the Rincon Center’s debut did not exist. Look no further than the complex’s largest office tenant: Google, founded in 1998.

Personally, I think the Rincon Center would be better off if the owners had shown the “rain column” more respect, if only as a truly distinctive artifact of its time. However, the entire atrium was designed for a San Francisco that in some ways no longer exists.

As the bleak one-year anniversary of the pandemic onslaught approaches, it feels like we’re at another turning point. And if history is a guide, I wouldn’t count San Francisco just yet.

An earlier version of this story had an incorrect name for “Rain Column” by Douglas Hollis.

John King is the urban design critic for The San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @johnkingsfchron