Heritage 50: Moving a Zig Zag Moderne Gas Station

May 20th, 2021 No Comments »

A 1931 Zig Zag Moderne gas station at its original location at Larkin and Pacific Streets (Heritage Archives). Zig Zag Moderne was highly decorative, with building façades adorned with geometric ornamentation. It was a distinctly urban style that flourished in large cities, and was primarily used for large public and commercial buildings.

In 1990, Heritage’s efforts to conserve a 1931 Zig Zag Moderne service station at Larkin and Pacific brought us, according to that year’s Spring Heritage News, “face to face with some important philosophical questions concerning issues which the preservation movement has never fully resolved.”

Was moving a building historic preservation? Was too much authenticity and significance lost in a relocation across town? These are questions that we are still asking today.

The saga began when an apartment house developer purchased the site of the long-closed Union Oil gas station in order to build housing. Heritage took an interest in the building because of its distinct Zig Zag Moderne motifs, an Art Deco style rare in contemporary filling stations. When the apartment developers resisted the idea of saving the station at its original site (Heritage wanted it incorporated into the new apartment building’s entrance), moving at least part of it downtown was, though not ideal, an option preferable to demolition.

Heritage was convinced that, at a minimum, any new site must be urban and located in San Francisco and that the structure’s new use be practical. “Park or highly landscaped locations would distort the truth about the building’s traditional purpose and use,” Heritage Executive Director Mark Ryser wrote at the time.

The gas station on move on Polk Street. Galileo High School in the background. (Heritage Archives) Our April 2021 Heritage News focused on a more recent high-profile house-move — the Englander House — and former Heritage board member Stewart Morton describes how little fanfare the gas station received in comparison: “Heritage moved an Art Deco gas station at Pacific at Larkin to Howard Street in the ’80s; the funny thing with that move was that it was on the back of a small truck, and we walked behind it, but people weren’t even paying attention. They were so blasé, unlike with the Englander House.”

The Planning Commission got the owner to agree to contribute $34,000 to the moving costs if another property owner claimed the station. And so, in April of 1990, it was put on the back of a truck and transported from Nob Hill down to what then was an empty corner next to a freeway on-ramp on Beale and Howard Streets, kitty corner to a new black office tower (301 Howard St) built by the station’s new owners (Continental Development Co.). The station would remain in an urban and automobile-oriented environment.

The station at its second long-term home on the corner of Beale and Howard Streets in 2015. (Photo by John King, SF Chronicle)

For 25 years, the shell of the former gas station took on a second life as a hot dog stand, surrounded by a pocket-size park. However, in an area popular with developers, Chicago developers paid $179 million for a new glass office building at the site. According to John King, a deal was worked out where the development team of Golub & Co. and John Buck Co. purchased the land “and the snazzy shell.” And so by 2016 the station was gone, put into storage while the developer works with the Planning Department to find it a new home. With their five-year time requirement pretty much up, we’d are curious to know if any plans for the structure (or structure itself for that matter), have surfaced in 2021.

The station just prior to removal in October 2015. (Google Street View)

…And gone by February 2016.

The station’s saga reinforces how the work of preservation is never done. Though Heritage managed to save the structure once, the uncertainty over its future proves that it still needs saving.

Do you have any leads on the structure’s whereabouts? Let us know at kyoung@sfheritage.org.

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