Wrecking ball starts demo of Transbay Terminal

The demolition of the front of the Transbay Terminal began today, with the repetitive swinging of the wrecking ball, which the contractors call “Big Red.” 

Big Red pummels ramp of Pflueger's Transbay Terminal

The Transbay Joint Powers Authority, in one of the oddest press releases I have ever seen, heralded the news,  saying that the wreckers Evans Brothers, Inc. “dropped the historic first wrecking ball on the front facade of the old Transbay Terminal building, marking the project’s progress.”

For those of us in the minority who like the building, which was designed by Timothy Pflueger, Arthur Brown Jr. and John Donovan, and completed in 1939, it was not a pretty sight. I tried to be stoic, thinking about Richard Nickel, the architectural photographer and preservationist who witnessed more demolitions of Louis Sullivan buildings than salvations. In addition to his photographs of the buildings, he also salvaged ornament from their wreckage, until he died inside the Chicago Stock Exchange, when a wall collapsed on him, in part because the buliding was so weakened by the water sprayed during the demolition.

Wrecking crew spraying water on the dust

It was fascinating and disturbing at the same time to see the guts of the building spewing forth and many spectators had the same ghoulish fascination with watching something being wrecked. But it was still hard to see, especially knowing that the building was one of the more modern works of two of the city’s well-known architects of their eras, Pflueger and Brown. Fortunately, much of their work is extant in San Francisco, but this also made the demolition of the Bauhaus-inspired building harder to watch.

Demolition of the facade begins with the ramp

The act of tearing down a building brings a lot of pollution into the air and it was shocking that none of the wreckers seemed to be wearing masks. They have, as all demolition sites do, someone spraying water after the wrecking ball makes contact with its target, to control the dust and building particles flying through the air.  The one interesting thing is that it’s not gone in one full swoop of the ball: it’s a long, tedious, rather monotonous swinging of the ball, until it breaks the concrete or granite.

The windows have been torn out, and hopefully some of them have been preserved somewhere, along with the wooden benches inside and some other fixtures. (Please see older post with some photos). The 1930s lettering is gone and hopefully preserved. A wrecker told me that the facade won’t get hit with the wrecking ball until next week sometime.

I was not the only one who was sad to see the building go. I talked to a few people gathered around, some taking photographs. Many others were also sad, and talked about family memories associated with the terminal. One 62-year-old photographer even remembered taking the train, the Key System, across the Bay Bridge. Some, though, did talk about its usefulness as a modern train station and its current unkempt state. But it seems to me that no one really gave the building a chance to play a role in the new design.

10 thoughts on “Wrecking ball starts demo of Transbay Terminal”

  1. December 23. Two of the four sconces got smashed today with the wrecking ball.

    It makes me sick. So sad to see them go. I was holding out hope that maybe, just maybe, someone would come along and rescue them—even steal them would be better than seeing them smashed with the wrecking ball.

    Once they are down on the ground, or in the pile of rubble, the big CAT excavator comes along and pulls out all the metal so they throw it in a scrap metal heap and make a few extra bucks for themselves.

    All at the expense of beautiful Art Deco moderne design.

  2. the sconces are still up there as of december 20.

    i don’t want to see them destroyed, but this is kind of a slow torture.

  3. So they got most of the facade knocked out as of today, and the four sconces are still up on the wall.

    I spoke to the wrecking man, and he said that nobody was gonna save them. He said at this point, they would have to get a manlift up there to save the sconces and nobody wants to pay for it.

    So, they will go into the scrap heap. But it’s wonderful to see how long they are hanging on there, even though the facade has been completely trashed.

  4. Sconces Still up there.

    I can see on the demolition camera that the sconces are still up on the building facade, which is intact.

    One of the sconces was damaged on December 1 when Evans Brothers destroyed the windows.

    However, the other three appear to be intact.

    Do you think there is any way to save the sconces at this point?

    Would probably have to pay the wreckers what they would get for scrap value for them, since the wreckers are probably planning to sell the scrap metal.

    How much do you think that would cost? Also, do you think we’d have to pay them something extra to try to remove the sconces for saving? Need to get a truck to haul them away.

    Any ideas about saving those sconces would be appreciated. Thanks. I may go down there and talk to the wreckers to see what can be done to save them.


  5. None of the windows were saved.

    I saw the excavator operator pulling them all down, and they were immediately destroyed. Pulled apart and loaded into the scrap heap and dump trucks by Evans Brothers.

    Does anybody plan to save the large sconce lamps that still remain on the outside of the building? One of them was damaged badly when the window frames were pulled out on Wednesday, but the others remained intact at last look.

    The wreckers don’t care about them. Does anybody else? I would imagine they have some value.

    1. Other folks said they saved one of the windows, so I must stand corrected. I did see Evans Brothers destroy them, but one of them was indeed missing when the excavator did the evil deed.

      Perhaps that is the one that was saved.

  6. I knew it had to go, but to actually see pictures of the demolition has thrown me for a loop. I’m in mourning. I haven’t been able to bring myself to read the newspaper articles. But I see from the front page picture in today’s Chronicle, they are not saving the exterior sconces which could have fetched a pretty penny. I thought them so attractive and unique that I took many pictures of them.


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