Lost New England Goes West: Call Building, San Francisco

The San Francisco Call Building at the corner of Market and Third Streets, in the aftermath of the April 18, 1906 earthquake. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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The building in 2015:

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This building has been mentioned in previous posts, such as this one, and it appears prominently in many post-earthquake images of the city. Also known as the Spreckels Building, this skyscraper was completed in 1898 by Claus and John Spreckels, the owners of the San Francisco Call newspaper. At the time, it was the tallest building west of the Mississippi River, although some were concerned that its height put it at risk for earthquakes in a very earthquake-prone city, and also a fire hazard because, in the event of a fire on the upper floors, it would be difficult for the fire department to fight.

To reduce the risk of earthquake damage, the building was anchored to a slab of concrete 25 feet below the surface, and to address fire concerns each floor was separated from the others by concrete, and the brick exterior walls were built nearly two feet thick. Ultimately, the earthquake-proofing worked, because it survived the 1906 earthquake with minimal damage, but no amount of fireproofing could have saved it from the massive fires that spread across the city in the aftermath. The building was completely gutted, as the first photograph shows, but structurally it remained intact, and was soon repaired.

The San Francisco Call later left the building, and in 1938 it was significantly altered to its present-day appearance. Its Beaux-Arts ornamentation was stripped off, the dome at the top was removed, and the exterior was modernized to give it an Art-Deco appearance. It is virtually unrecognizable in its current appearance, and there is probably little, if anything, left from its original 1898 construction, but it is still standing today as a major landmark along Market Street.

This post is part of a series of photos that I took in California this past winter. Click here to see the other posts in the “Lost New England Goes West” series.

Lost New England Goes West: Ferry Building, San Francisco

Author’s note: Although the main focus of this blog is New England and the northeast, I sometimes include photos from other parts of the country. This is the first in a series of then and now photos of California that I took this past winter.

The San Francisco Ferry Building in the aftermath of the April 18, 1906 earthquake. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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The Ferry Building in 2015:

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San Francisco is not an island, but for most transportation purposes it might as well be. Except for those traveling from the south, any approach to the city requires crossing either the San Francisco Bay on the eastern side of the city, or Golden Gate to the north. Prior to the construction of these bridges in the 1930s, the only way to do this was by ferry, and as a result this building was once among the busiest ferry terminals in the world.

The ferry terminal was built at the foot of Market Street along the present-day Embarcadero, and opened in 1898. Just a few years later, its durability was put to the test by the disastrous April 18, 1906 earthquake that, along with the resulting fires, destroyed much of the city. The first photo was probably taken only days after the earthquake, and it shows that, in contrast to the rubble and charred telephones in the foreground, the building survived with minimal damage. Interestingly, the first photo shows a makeshift barbershop on the far right side amidst the debris. The hand-written message on the side of the tent reads “Shaving 15¢” and, in smaller lettering, almost as an afterthought, is “Hair Cut 25¢.”

In the years following the earthquake, the terminal continued to be a vital part of the city’s transportation system until the completion of the Bay Bridge in 1936 and the Golden Gate Bridge the following year. Some ferries continued to operate out of here, but much of the interior was altered as passenger traffic declined. Another major change came in the 1950s, when the Embarcadero Freeway was built through here. Much like the Central Artery in Boston, this elevated highway cut off the city from the waterfront, and the ferry terminal was largely isolated.

The building survived another major earthquake in 1989, but the Embarcadero Freeway did not. It was heavily damaged in the earthquake, and was demolished in 1991 and replaced with light rail tracks that are visible in the distance of the second photo. At the same time, restoration work also began on the ferry terminal. Today, some ferries still depart from here, but the historic building is also used for office space and as a marketplace, and a year-round farmers’ market is held in front of the building three times a week.

Spring Lawn, Lenox, Mass

The Spring Lawn estate on Kemble Street in Lenox, around 1910-1920. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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The building in 2015:

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Spring Lawn was one of many summer “cottages” built in the Berkshires in the late 1800s and early 1900s, when towns like Lenox were popular resorts for the wealthy during the Gilded Age. This mansion was built in 1904, replacing The Hive, which had been the home of Charles and Elizabeth Sedgwick and the site of Elizabeth’s prestigious school for girls. Her students included Ellen Emerson, the daughter of Ralph Waldo Emerson; Mary Abigal Fillmore, the daughter of president Millard Fillmore; and Jennie Jerome, the mother of Winston Churchill.

The school closed after Elizabeth Sedgwick’s death in 1864, and the property changed hands several times before being purchased by New York businessman John E. Alexandre, who demolished the old house and built Spring Lawn, as seen here. It was one of the first buildings designed by noted architect Guy Lowell, who later went on to design the New York State Supreme Court Building, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and the Charles River Dam in Boston.

Alexandre didn’t have much time to enjoy his new house, though. He died here in 1910, and it was sold to another prominent New York City resident, Mrs. Arthur F. Schermerhorn, who renamed it “Schermeer.” The house was later owned by the Lenox School for Boys and Bible Speaks College, and it has since gone through a number of other owners. As of the 2015 photo, the house is vacant, but in 2013 the owners announced a plan to restore the historic home as part of a proposed 14-building resort on the property.

Boston Public Library, Boston

The Boston Public Library’s McKim Building at Copley Square in 1899. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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The building in 2015:

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This style of Renaissance Revival architecture was common for public libraries in the United States in the early 20th century, but Charles Follen McKim’s design for the Boston Public Library was the first.  It was constructed between 1888 and 1895, and is one of the most architecturally significant library buildings in the country.  It set the stage for similar grand libraries in American cities, including the main branch of the New York Public Library, which opened just over a decade later. Like many of Boston’s other cultural institutions, the library was strategically located in the Back Bay neighborhood, which had gone from polluted tidal marsh to affluent residential neighborhood in less than 50 years. However, one of the challenges in constructing large buildings here was the high water table and the tendency of the filled-in ground to subside.  As a result, the 19th century Back Bay buildings are supported by wooden piles; the library alone has about 4,000  piles that were driven 25 to 31 feet into the ground in the 1880s.

Today, the McKim Building is well-preserved on both the exterior and interior.  The interior includes a grand staircase and the massive Bates Hall reading room, along with a central courtyard, all of which was, as the inscription reads, “dedicated to the advancement of learning.” The main branch of the Boston Public Library has since outgrown the original building, so in 1972 an addition was put on the back, expanding the building to include the entire city block between Dartmouth and Exeter Streets.  Named after its architect, Philip Johnson, this building houses the library’s circulating collections, leaving the original building for the library’s extensive research collections.  Many of these collections are also available online, including a massive collection of historic photographs on Flickr that has been a great resource for this blog.

The greatest change in this scene, however, is the city around the library.  The secion of the Back Bak to the north of Boylston Street has been largely preserved in its original Victorian appearance.  However, to the south of Boylston Street, as seen here, the area has become home to some of the city’s tallest buildings, including the Prudential Tower to the right, the second-tallest in New England after the nearby John Hancock Tower.  Probably the oldest building in the 2015 photo other than the library is the Lenox Hotel, barely visible on the far right beyond the library.  It was built in 1900, so it may have even been under construction when the first photo was taken.