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Heritage 50: New Life for Jessie Street Substation

Feb25th

PG&E’s Jessie Street substation building, 1970s. (Heritage archives.)

San Francisco Heritage is celebrating its 50th anniversary all through 2021. Each week we will share a short chapter of our history.

by Woody LaBounty

From its first years Heritage showed a willingness to go beyond typical preservation projects. Ornate Victorian residences, even in run-down condition, could draw public support and romantic nostalgia for bygone eras. A sophisticated department store building like the City of Paris was connected to powerful personal memories for many San Franciscans. But who fights for a defunct power substation?

The Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) building at 222-226 Jessie Street between 3rd, 4th, Market, and Mission Streets was not a typical utilitarian structure. Dating back to 1881, it was redesigned by renowned architect Willis Polk in 1905, and again in 1907 after the earthquake and fire of the previous year.

Polk, who would go on to be responsible for landmarks such as Hobart Building, the Flood Mansion, and the Hallidie Building, designed the substation with a monumental classical façade. Terra cotta reliefs were set on an expansive brick wall with cream-colored cherubs, garlands, and a torch framing the entrance. Even tucked on a dead-end alleyway it impressed as a site of importance, a small-scale temple to power and progress—exactly the feeling a client like PG&E commissioned Polk to inspire.

Details from above doorway of Jessie Street substation building, 1970s. (Heritage archives.)

In 1974, plans for the Yerba Buena Center redevelopment project were underway and the decommissioned substation was not part of them. While Mission Street’s landmarked St. Patrick’s Church was to be retained, its neighbor on Jessie Street was considered “infeasible of rehabilitation.” The Redevelopment Agency wanted to raze the old PG&E building for an open connecting mall between Yerba Buena Center and Market Street.1

Heritage joined others in pushing for landmark status for the Jessie Street substation, noting it displayed “a dignified and imaginative handling of classical elements not often found in buildings of the period.” Heritage’s nomination of the building to the National Register of Historic Places, prepared by Michael Corbett, was accepted on September 6, 1974, but the San Francisco’s Landmarks Board denied city landmark status in a controversial decision.2

Then Heritage took a far more active role in the building’s preservation, preparing a feasibility study for how it could be successfully incorporated into the Yerba Buena Center as a focal point on a “human scale.”3

Sketch of proposed integration of Jessie Street substation building with plaza by Jay Turnbull, 1975. (Heritage Newsletter, Volume III, No. 3, December 1975.)

Jay Turnbull, who had just joined the Heritage staff as an architect and rehabilitation specialist, sketched up a vision for reuse of the Jesse Street substation, which was followed up by architect William A. Werner’s detailed site plan for the block in the feasibility study.

By 1976 the battle was won. A committee from the mayor’s office on Yerba Buena Center redevelopment recommended the building’s retention as a historic structure and the Landmark Board came around to grant city landmark status that same year.4

The Yerba Buena Center project was decades in developing and it wasn’t until 1994 that funds were allocated to seismically upgrade the Jessie Street building for use as the Contemporary Jewish Museum. With changes and design recommendations from Heritage to address preservation sensitivities, the final product was an exciting integration of an historic structure with an imaginative contemporary extension.

Daniel Libeskind’s design incorporated a non-orthogonal metal blue form that seems to erupt from the west side of Polk’s classical brick wall. Made up of over 3,000 steel panels, the shimmering shape is based on the two Hebrew letters that spell the word chai (life), and Libeskind said his inspiration came in part from the role the substation played in restoring power to the city after the 1906 earthquake and fire.

The Jessie Street substation building readapted as the Contemporary Jewish Museum. (Photograph by Jeremy Blakeslee.)


Notes:

1. “Willis Polk’s PG&E Substation on Jessie Street,” Heritage Newsletter, Volume II, No. 2, 1974.

2. “Jessie Street Substation on National Register,” Heritage Newsletter, Volume II, No. 3, 1974.

3. “Willis Polk’s PG&E Substation on Jessie Street,” Heritage Newsletter, Volume II, No. 2, 1974.

4. “Jessie Street Substation Recommended for Preservation,” Heritage Newsletter, Volume IV, No. 3, November 1976.

Landmark Tuesdays: Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples

Feb23rd

The Church for the Fellowship of all Peoples at 2041 Larkin Street in San Francisco. 

By Kerri Young

Located on 2041 Larkin Street near Broadway, The Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples (also known as Fellowship Church) is significant as the first intentionally interracial, interfaith congregation in the United States. Its co-founder was prominent African American minister Dr. Howard Thurman (1899-1981).

Thurman was born and raised in Daytona, Florida by his grandmother, a former slave. He became an ordained Baptist minister in 1925. In 1929, during his tenure as professor of religion and director of religious life at Morehouse and Spelman colleges in Atlanta, Georgia, Thurman had the opportunity to study at Haverford College with Quaker pacifist Rufus Jones. His time with Jones changed his life, and Thurman began his journey towards a philosophy that stressed an activism rooted in faith and maintained in peace. His thinking was honed by a 1935 trip to India with other African Americans to meet Mohandas Gandhi, who completed Thurman’s conversion to nonviolent social activism.

Howard Thurman. Wartime tensions over fair housing, employment, and education fostered increased political activity and involvement by San Francisco’s African American religious and political leaders, and Thurman and the Fellowship Church played a crucial role in creating a bridge of understanding among the varied races, cultures, and faiths in the city. Photo by BU Photography. 

The Fellowship Church of All Peoples on Mar. 24. 1949. The newscopy caption with this photograph reads: “The inter-racial, inter denominational Fellowship of All Peoples Church is flanked by dwellings on Larkin-st between Vallejo and Broadway. Forty percent of the congregation is composed of minority groups. This building is the church’s first permanent home in its five-year history.” San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library.

In 1944, Thurman left his position as Dean of the Chapel at Howard University to co-found The Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples in San Francisco with Reverend Alfred G. Fisk. It was the first congregation in the United States that encouraged participation in its spiritual life regardless of religious or ethnic background.

The church was founded during the height of World War II, a period of tremendous growth among the Black population in San Francisco. In “Footprints of a Dream,” Thurman wrote that in America in 1944, “Segregation of the races was part of the mores, and the social behavior of the country.” Fisk and others were acutely aware of the injustices seen around them, “and were glad to share in the simple but dramatic witness of brotherhood practiced in common worship.” After Fisk reached out to Thurman for a second time in hopes of finding someone to lead their new neighborhood church, Thurman wrote that “for the first time there was kindled in my mind the possibility that that this may be the opportunity toward which my life had been moving….San Francisco with its varied nationalities, its rich intercultural heritages — San Francisco was the ideal center.”

Inaugural services were held on October 8, 1944, at the First Unitarian Church at 1187 Franklin Street, with the participation from a diverse set of San Francisco’s religious and political leaders.

A few years later, the congregation moved to its present home on Larkin Street, into a church building that was originally constructed in 1907 as St. John’s German Evangelical Church.

Howard and Sue Baily Thurman in 1953. When living in San Francisco, the Thurmans lived at 2660 California Street in the Western Addition. An important figure in her own right, Sue Baily founded a local San Francisco chapter of the National Council of Negro Women. This civic organization achieved much for civil rights and women’s rights under her directorship. Based on her accomplishments, Thurman was subsequently appointed to represent the United States at a UNESCO conference held in Paris in 1949.

The ideals by which Thurman led the Fellowship Church were an important influence in the life of Dr. Martin Luther King. King often sought counsel from Thurman, and it is said that King carried Thurman’s most important book, Jesus and the Disinherited, while leading the 1955–56 Montgomery bus boycott. Published in 1949, Thurman provided an interpretation of the New Testament gospels that laid the foundation for a nonviolent civil rights movement. The book argues that Jesus taught the oppressed a faith-based unconditional love that would empower them to survive in the face of oppression. A love rooted in the “deep river of faith,” wrote Thurman, would help oppressed peoples overcome persecution. “It may twist and turn, fall back on itself and start again, stumble over an infinite series of hindering rocks, but at last the river must answer the call to the sea.”

Thurman’s philosophy guides the Fellowship Church’s continuing mission today. Under the pastorship of Dr. Dorsey Black and Dr. Kathryn Benton, the Church holds worship services, forums, seminars, and special events, and spiritually prepares its community for social justice work. They welcome guest speakers from varied spiritual and religious traditions. Church services are on hold during the Covid pandemic until further notice, but ministers are providing regular reflections on the Church’s blog.


Sources: Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited. New York: Abigdon Press, 1949.; Christopher VerPlanck, SF Planning Department, Tim Kelley, & Al Williams, “African American Citywide Historic Context Statement Final Draft” (January 2016), 109-111. ; “Howard Thurman,” This Far By Faith. PBS. WGBH and ITVS. 2003; Rich Barlow, “Who Was Howard Thurman?”, BU Today, January 7, 2020, https://www.bu.edu/articles/2020/who-was-howard-thurman/; Howard Thurman, Footprints of a Dream: The Story of the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples (Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2009) 29-30.

New Self-Guided Walking Tour of Broadway in Pacific Heights

Feb18th

We are pleased to launch our second self-guided walking tour, which covers approximately 15 blocks of the neighborhood of Pacific Heights centered on Broadway.

The walk showcases the changing architectural panorama of the neighborhood, as grand single-family homes gave way over time to multiple-family, multi-story dwellings and apartment buildings. With the help of census records, the diversity of San Francisco’s population can also be seen through the people who worked and lived in these homes throughout the decades.

Please access the tour PDF HERE, which you can print out and bring with you on your walk.

Additionally, you may access the Google Maps version of the tour on your smartphone HERE (this tour is also embedded on the left).

Heritage 50: The Fight to Save City of Paris in Union Square

Feb18th

The City of Paris department store at the corner of Geary and Stockton streets in 1981, shortly before its demolition. Heritage archives.

#ThrowbackThursdays: The fight to preserve the City of Paris department store was a benchmark in our history, with Heritage engaging in a six-year battle beginning in 1974 over the fate of the landmark on Union Square. At the time, City of Paris was San Francisco’s oldest department store (open since 1850), operating since 1907 in a Beaux-Arts style building at the corner of Geary and Stockton streets. Though the battle was ultimately lost and the case decided in favor of the Neiman-Marcus chain, the latter did preserve City of Paris’ original elliptical rotunda and glass dome.

The elliptical rotunda and glass skylight inside the City of Paris department store, n.d. Heritage archives.

Shoppers fondly remember the large Christmas tree that City of Paris would put up during the winter holidays, a tradition continued by the Neiman Marcus chain.