Is the Transbay Terminal worth saving?

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.

Transbay Terminal (c) Tom Paiva Photography
Those windows with the metal trim echo both the entry of the former San Francisco Stock Exchange Tower on Sansome Street, and the aluminum-colored Bay Bridge.

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.
Transbay Terminal Postcard, circa 1937

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.

Transbay Terminal 1947, Paul C. Trimble Collection
Cleaned up and repaired, it could have served as a base for a new tower, much as the Hearst Building in New York uses its 1928 6-story headquarters building as a base for its 46-story glass and steel tower on West 57th St., near Columbus Circle.

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.

6 thoughts on “Is the Transbay Terminal worth saving?”

  1. Just want to say what a great blog you got here! I’ve been around for quite lots of time, but now decided to show my appreciation of your work!

    Well done, and all the best!

    Kind regards

  2. I,too, will miss the Transbay Terminal. I was stationed at Treasure Island from 1964 through 1965 with the USN, and thus, caught the TI AC Transit bus hundreds of times at the terminal. Personally, I love Art Deco buildings, and I find it a shame than San Francisco plans to demolish the building. Throughout Europe, old buildings are saved, and restored. Here in the USA, we do our best to get rid of the old in favor of the new. Thankfully, I have visited San Francisco many times since my time in the military, including this past weekend while on a business trip. I always make an effort to stop buy the terminal and admire its Art Deco construction, and reminisce a bit about the my passage through the terminal while stationed at TI, and how San Francisco’s skyline in general is vastly different than the mid-60’s.

  3. I just read Art Deco San Francisco last week and visited the terminal today, Sunday. Good timing! It’ll be gone soon.

    I think it’s a great looking building on the outside. I love the awnings. Unforunately the inside dosn’t have much to recommend it.

    They should have saved this building. There are lots of interesting new buildings going up in this area and more promised. This building could have been a great contrast to all that. My feeling is that there is enough new–we should have tried to hang on to this great depression era building. New is good, and Pflueger would have liked the new. But we should have tried to hang on to this building nonetheless.

    I’m going to try to enjoy seeing the building in the few months left.

  4. I agree, we don’t do enough to preserve existing architecture in order to incorporate it into newer designs and “replacement” buildings.

    One reason may be that it is so often done poorly, or merely to preserve a facade that is protected as historically significant but disdained by the architect who would rather a “clean slate” for his or her ideas. There are a number of examples of that in San Francisco — one, the Citigroup Center, I see from my office lobby every day. (One can always wonder what the Transamerica Building might have looked like constructed on top of the Montgomery Block, instead of the parking lot that had replaced it. Or, for that matter, what kind of treasure we might now have if Madison Square Garden had incorporated the old Penn Station instead of demolishing it!)

    By the way, what will happen to the bronze plaque on the front of the Transbay Terminal honoring Emperor Norton for his vision of building a Bay Bridge? I certainly hope it will get a place of similar visibility and honor in the new TB complex.


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