The Beautiful Facades of San Francisco's Historic Parking Garages
When I tell people that I study early parking garages in San Francisco, I get a lot of blank stares and polite smiles in return. But when I show them Sharon Risedorph's photographs of these gritty, old buildings, their bemusement turns to understanding and interest. Clearly, these buildings don't resemble modern parking structures, those crates of exposed slabs, ramps, and guard rails.
As the photos in this post reveal, early San Francisco garages are graced with composed and formal facades, decorated with ornament derived from an eclectic mix of historical styles: Gothic, Mission and Italian Renaissance. Thin but communicative—like billboards—the facades serve as portals celebrating the comings and goings of automobiles as they move between dark, cavernous interiors and the street.
Built during the first golden age of the automobile, the garages provide valuable insights into the meaning of America's emerging car culture. Notably, the facades look like flattened train stations, a deliberate appropriation of imagery that symbolizes the shifting preference for travel by automobile over rail.
Accentuating this symbolism, some facades reference famous train stations of the recent past: The garage at 1641 Jackson Street mimics the massing and silhouette of Otto Wagner's Stadtbahn station in Karlsplatz, and 1355 Fulton Street caricatures the triple portal/open gable motif of New York's departed Pennsylvania Station (and other imposing stations). While the train station metaphor may not be as legible now as it was in the early 20th century, it lingers on in the general perception that the building facades are at once monumental and mundane.
While historicist garages were common in cities across America, San Francisco possesses a particularly fine collection, reflecting the city's unique experience of national trends in transportation and urban development. The Great Earthquake of 1906 is a milestone, as the period of reconstruction coincided with the explosive rise of the automobile.
In San Francisco, the architects leading the reconstruction effort generally subscribed to the principles of the City Beautiful, and some were educated at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. These professionals valued order and coherence, and they used historical precedent and ornament to invest their designs with a sense of civic decorum. When called upon to generate imagery for the front of the new garage, they drew upon their training and preferences, integrating the facades into the aesthetics governing the redesign of the city.
“As new buildings replace old, we risk creating cities that look increasingly alike and that lack a connection to their own heritage.”Mark Kessler, author of "The Early Public Garages of San Francisco: An Architectural and Cultural Study: 1906 - 1929"
A Threatened Building Type
Today, garages are threatened by real estate development. Of the 300 garages listed in the 1928 telephone directory, less than half remain. In San Francisco, where the market is hot and housing scarce, new condominiums are the most profitable use for the parcels. One or two stories in height, the garages underutilize land that is often zoned for residential use and a building height of 40 feet. As an old garage is an anomaly on a residential or shopping street, a proposed new condominium offers continuity of use and scale.
The threat to these buildings compels consideration of our commitment to preserve common, utilitarian structures. Though they may not rise to the level of architectural landmarks, garages contribute to the vibrancy and livability of the city. They offer striking designs, human scale, and glimpses of the quotidian dimension of city life back in the 1920s.
By virtue of the buildings' age (more than 50 years), any proposal to significantly alter or demolish an old garage is flagged for special review by the San Francisco Planning Department. However, an official determination—under the California Environmental Quality Act—that a garage is historically significant does not necessarily protect it from full or partial demolition. It is therefore important to advocate on behalf of preserving them, impressing upon city leaders, neighborhood associations, and all San Franciscans, the meaning and continued value of this special collection of related buildings.
Adaptive Use: A Means of Preservation
The good news is that garages adapt well to other uses (although many require costly seismic upgrades). While the grand facade provides a riveting entrance that celebrates the enterprise within, the interior offers a flexible space of raw industrial structure. Many San Francisco garages have been successfully converted to a long list of uses: church, strip club, gym, sporting goods store, residence, high school, pharmacy, clothing store, thrift store, and commercial/professional offices.
However, not all adaptive use projects are created equal. The best ones accommodate the new use without concealing the fact that the building was originally a garage. At the erstwhile garage on 66 Page Street, for example, the automobile ramp is preserved and incorporated into the design of a high school arts center. In the conversion of the garage at 770 North Point into a Patagonia clothing store, the architects maintained the appearance of the large vehicular entry, accomplished by recessing the new glass and aluminum storefront behind the plane of the facade. If the garage cannot be adapted to another industrial or utilitarian use, respecting the character of the original building becomes imperative in the new design.
As new buildings replace old, we risk creating cities that look increasingly alike and that lack a connection to their own heritage. The slow disappearance of the early garages of San Francisco embodies this risk, while affording us an opportunity to become aware of this process as it unfolds.
These photographs, which offer just a sampling, demonstrate that a sufficient number of buildings survive to constitute a rich and varied typology, one loosely distributed over the streets and hills of San Francisco. If we act to preserve the collection—and keep the buildings productive and alive through adaptive use—we embrace an alternative process capable of reconciling cultural heritage with present and future needs.
Mark D. Kessler is an associate professor at UC Davis and author of "The Early Public Garages of San Francisco: An Architectural and Cultural Study: 1906 - 1929." Sharon Risedorph is a widely published architectural photographer in the Bay Area.
[Editor's note: This article was originally posted in August 2015 on the Preservation Leadership Forum Blog.]