Goodbye Transbay Terminal

Transbay Terminal exterior view

Friday afternoon, just under two thousand people showed up at the Transbay Terminal for several tours and a sad farewell before it closes for good next week.  The Transbay Joint Powers Authority and Caltrans did some last-minute sprucing up and managed to get most of the homeless people out of the terminal for a round of one hour tours through the building and some of its rarely seen nooks and crannies.

In a bizarre outpouring of sudden affection for the building that has been neglected for years, garbage cans were seen being spray painted, the small terminal jail got a coat of white paint, and the terrazzo floors were being polished, according to one eye-witness on Thursday.

The series of tours began at noon and lasted until the end of the day, with the crowds getting bigger at the end of the day when they had to split the final 4 pm tour into four groups. One of the highlights of the tour was the Cuddles Bar, which has been closed since the 1990s. You can see in this photo the low ceilings from the ground floor that everyone griped about, but still, this bar has some touches of architect Timothy Pflueger, working with a very low budget.

Cuddles Bar in the Transbay Terminal
Detail of staircase railing

The bar had been cleaned up and martini glasses put along the bar, which like some of his other bars, such as the bar in the Cirque Room at the Fairmont Hotel, had a long, serpentine shape. The little set of steps used to get into the bar added a touch of elegance and the brass aluminum staircase railing almost evokes a cobra. A guide said the Cuddles Bar was the first state facility to serve alcohol (probably after Prohibition).

Right next to the bar, with its own passthrough, was a Harvey’s Diner, part of the Harvey House chain of railroad station restaurants, which boomed in the heyday of rail travel. There was also a shoeshine station, operated by just two people in its entire existence, Roy’s Barber Shop and other concessions that have been long-shuttered. Many people brought cameras to record the Terminal’s final days, but as you can see the photos show how dreary the interiors look now, and its main grand space, the main hall is vastly changed, chopped up by the added escalators and bus ticketing areas.

UPDATE: For better photos, our friends at Curbed SF found this set by Databong on Flickr.

Harvey's Diner

Among a few interesting factoids learned on the tour was that a scene from the movie, “The Bachelor,” based on a Buster Keaton film, was filmed using the main staircase of the terminal, where a group of wanna-be brides chased the main character, played by actor Chris O’Donnell. On our San Francisco City Guides Downtown Deco Tour, we mention another movie, “The Pursuit of Happyness,” [sic] where the homeless protagonist, played by Will Smith slept with his son in a supposed BART station, which was really the Transbay Terminal waiting room. Here is a shot of the grand staircase, that now leads up to the bus platforms.

Transbay main stairs with Art Deco Society of California members

We could see (perhaps not that clear from the photo) Pflueger’s penchant for elegant staircase railings.

Wooden benches in the main waiting room

A Caltrans employee told us that some of the items of interest, such as the comfortable wooden benches, the shoeshine boxes, the staircase balusters, at least one of the massive windows, and other artifacts, will be saved for a transportation museum.

After completing the tour, architectural historian and researcher extraordinaire Gary Goss told me he now sees that the city is in need of a new terminal. “We need a new terminal for the 21st century that is pedestrian friendly and not a homeless shelter.” Even though Caltrans does not allow homeless people to live in the terminal, at least 60 people have called the terminal home. There is also a homeless outreach station inside. The city has spent the last week getting them out of the building, with Mayor Gavin Newsom making a visit, talking to some of the homeless to try and get them into a shelter, as the Chronicle reported.

As the Curbed SF Blog has noted, the Transbay was “not always usless, ugly, old and smelly.” I hope the transit museum effort happens, and that it can save some fonder memories of the much-maligned building.

The Transbay Terminal Will be Missed

Transbay Terminal, with Pflueger's Telephone building, (c) Tom Paiva

With the looming demolition of the Transbay Terminal approaching next month, one might expect to see the inevitable stories about the building’s better days in the local press. Sadly, the Sunday piece by Carl Nolte in the San Francisco Chronicle does not do the building justice. Too many have judged the 1939 building’s architectural merits by its current grimy appearance: its central hall cut up to accommodate bus station escalators, the built-up filth on its once-sparkling white granite after years of neglect, and the hordes of homeless people who have been allowed to call it home. Originally designed as the terminus for the Key System trains that traveled on the lower deck of the Bay Bridge, the building, designed by a triumvirate of architects led by Timothy Pflueger, deserves a proper homage.

Nolte wrote that “no historian is going to miss this building.” I beg to differ. Some architects, architectural historians and preservationists who spoke with or emailed me agree that the demolition of the former train station will be a major loss for the city. The Chronicle’s own rabble-rouser, its Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic, the late Allan Temko, gave the building high praise in an article on September 11, 1978, calling the building “one of the best examples of 1930s Moderne in San Francisco.” He also noted that the building fits historically with the Bay Bridge, even though it was completed three years after the bridge opened.

Transbay Terminal, side window and awning details, (c) Tom Paiva Photography

The Bauhaus-inspired building is unusually spare in its use of ornament. It was especially spare for Pflueger, even though he was beginning to embrace a more streamlined style during this austere period. It was also one of the more modern buildings designed by fellow architect Arthur Brown, Jr., whose luscious Baroque sensibility remains with us today in San Francisco City Hall. John Donovan was the third local architect in the group.

The utilitarian Transbay’s spare detailing is its aluminum frames around the large, industrial windows, which, when clean, filled the grand hall with light as train commuters scurried through. Pflueger had also used a similar pattern in the window frames of his San Francisco Stock Exchange Tower at 155 Sansome Street, ten years earlier.  In the case of the Transbay, the lack of ornament or any art work — often added to public buildings during the 1930s thanks to President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal projects — was probably due to budgetary constraints.  As is noted in my book Art Deco San Francisco, the architects, especially Pflueger, fought frequently with the engineers over efforts to try and add art, ornament or style to the Bay Bridge project. There were also many windows and doors in the terminal, to speed commuters in and out, so there was little wall space for the kind of murals inside the main Transbay building that helped saved the Rincon Post Office Annex from destruction.

The Transbay Terminal has been allowed to deteriorate by its owners. Today, Caltrans and the Transbay Joint Powers Authority, in a seemingly hypocritically move, are celebrating the building through a series of tours for the public. We will be able to visit places that some of us have never seen, such as the Cuddles Bar, the Terminal Jail, the shoeshine stand and the smoke shop. But for long-time commuters through the station, the tours will surely be bittersweet.

Transbay Terminal (c) Tom Paiva Photography

 “I think the Transbay Terminal has gotten a bum rap over the years, for a number of reasons,” said Christopher VerPlanck, a principal with Knapp & VerPlanck Preservation Architects in San Francisco. “First, Caltrans does not maintain it – it is filthy, badly lit, and perceived rightly or wrongly as being dangerous. Second, I don’t think most Americans appreciate the modernistic aesthetic of the main building or industrial/utilitarian aesthetic of the remainder of the structure.”

VerPlanck loves the Streamline Moderne waiting room and facade and the riveted steel structure of the bus shed and viaduct. “I can’t help but wonder if it would have been perceived more favorably if it had been cleaned regularly and maintained,” he said.

H. Lynn Harrison, an architect who is also the preservation director for the Art Deco Society of California, said he recently went to just look at the elegance of the large windows from indoors, and to try and imagine it in its grander days.  “The Transbay Terminal was and still is a beautiful building, modern and classic at the same time,” Harrison said. “It’s sleekness, its strength, its elegance of proportions, all make this an architectural master work.”

Yes, many complain about the low ceilings in the waiting areas and passages, and Nolte described the space as cold and windswept in summer and winter fogs. But Joyce Roy, a semi-retired architect who is also a transit advocate, said she believed that the low ceilings, while designed to make people move faster, were also possibly a page from Frank Lloyd Wright, who often had visitors enter a compressed space with a low ceiling, before going into a dramatic, spacious open area. Wright used this trick in much of his work, especially his homes and churches. It was at Roy’s suggestion that Caltrans decided to open the building to the public for a last tour on Friday. We will report back with photos and other observations.

A spokeswoman for the Transbay Joint Powers Authority said the old terminal is not suited to modern transportation needs. It is ironic that as California tries to re-embrace train travel, San Francisco’s old terminal was deemed as unsuitable for reuse as its original purpose. And even though Caltrans had determined the building was eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, it never pursued that status. Incorporating the old building in the design of the new terminal seems to have been rejected early on, although Roy said it was considered.

“The current terminal is outdated, not up to current seismic safety codes and does not meet the current or future transportation needs of the city or region, which is why it must be replaced,” a spokeswoman for the TJPA said in an email.

Meanwhile, Los Angeles managed to renovate and restore its lovely Union Station, also completed in 1939 and designed by father and son architects Parkinson & Parkinson. It’s a bit mind-boggling that car-centric Los Angeles cares more for its historic train station than allegedly green San Francisco, which is also spending a minimum of $10 million on the demolition of the Transbay Terminal alone, a project that will create some serious debris for landfills. 

Transbay construction site in 1938, courtesy the late Rich Higgins of Caltrans