Every time I walk past the dirty, exhaust-fume smudged Tranbay Terminal, amazingly I breathe a sigh of relief that its demolition has not yet occurred. This week, it was still there, as I glanced in the late winter light of the day, the belching buses pulling in front of its once-sleek entrance dominated by massive industrial style windows.
In its glory days, the then-sparkling Transbay was the terminus for many Key System trains, which traveled on the lower deck of the Bay Bridge. The Transbay Terminal’s spare modern design was by architects Tim Plfueger, Arthur Brown Jr. and John Donovan, the team which also worked — somewhat ineffectively due to cost constraints — as consultants on the Bay Bridge. Their biggest impact was creating a more elegant design for the suspension towers, Yerba Buena Tunnel, and the color of the bridge, a big debate with the engineers who wanted to paint the Bay Bridge black.
Trains traveled over the lower deck of the Bay Bridge when it opened in 1936 until the Key System was shut down and ripped out in 1958. Some of its old railway cars ended up in Buenos Aires.
Some people don’t understand my love for this building. I try to imagine it as it was, before it was converted into a bus station in 1959, and before it became a homeless encampment. A drawing of the original interior, seen in my book Art Deco San Francisco, shows an open light-filled hall, where hurried train passengers scurried to their destinations. Now, its interior is cut up by escalators and added levels compress the space.
But the building is doomed. It is slated to be torn down sometime early next year and a temporary Transbay Transit Terminal has been in construction since 2008, a few blocks away, at Main, Folsom, Beale, and Howard streets.
Nearby on Natoma Street, the Varnish Fine Art gallery has a fat binder for anyone who wants to read about emminent domain, which is being used to evict all the small businesses in the area, to make way for a new mega-tower and transit hub. Across the street from Varnish one night, an evening construction crew was digging 240 feet into the ground, bay mud and silt, for the piles to support foundation of the first of a proposed cluster of skyscrapers that, if they get built, will change the look of the city forever, as the San Francisco Chronicle’s John King notes.
The Transbay Terminal is viewed as an eyesore. I don’t agree. Its boxy lines, big square windows and trim are an elegant take on the utilitarian International Stylists, and a nod to the Bauhaus School.
I am sure such impractical ideas never occurred to the architects who want to promote their own designs. Not many think the building is worth saving. Instead, more bland glass skyscrapers will eventually be built, if they ever get approved.
In this case, where a multi-billion transit project, involving city, state and federal funding is planned, it would have been futile to try and fight city hall.
And that’s a sad thing.