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.

12 thoughts on “Goodbye Transbay Terminal”

  1. Wow, incredible blo layout! How long havee you been blogging for?

    you made blogging look easy. The overall ook of your
    web site is magnificent, as welll as the content!

  2. It is indeed ironical that a terminal built to accommodate rail has to be replaced because it can’t accommodate Caltrain. The terminal was well designed for the trains that came over the bridge and were 20 feet above the street, but now, like in most train stations, the trains will be below grade. This allows the creation of grand spaces above it. But what most people do not realize, the TTT had a grand space before the insertion of the Greyhound Station in 1989.

    The Summer issue SF Heritage Newsletter has a write-up on the terminal as Preservation Notes.

  3. Thanks for the great blogs – I found it infuriating that they offered the tour for 1 day only. Would it have been all that difficult to conduct the tour for 1 week?

    1. I know I agree. I wonder if they are making any of those areas like the bar available just for the last week. It might be working dropping by there and asking them if you can have a peak? Let me know if you do and if you are successful!

  4. sigh.

    i sadly admit that i do not know as much as i should about this project, being a preservationist. but i am so struck by the apparent lack of imagination in thinking about retention, re-use, or at least decent deconstruction/recycling . . . like many planning efforts from the early part of the 21st-century, this smells to me as conceived in the time of excess and largess.

    while i understand that the needs of high-speed rail differ significantly from its historic precedents, buildings such as this do not deserve to be demonized for what they’ve become at our human hands. rather, we should recognize them for what they once were and what they may become again.

  5. I thought of that too. I wonder if anyone has approached them. Would be a shame if that were caught up in the demolition.

    Yes the last minute sprucing up is really bizarre.

  6. Odd that they would paint a jail that will be demolished in a month.

    I wonder if somebody could purchase the curved bar from Cuddles and place it in their nightclub?


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