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.

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

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.