SF Gas Light Building: the Marina’s Industrial Past

October 13th, 2020 No Comments »

San Francisco Gas Light Co. building at corner of Buchanan and North Point Streets.

by Woody LaBounty

At 3636-3640 Buchanan Street, on the corner of North Point Street, stands San Francisco City Landmark #58, a distinctive remnant of the Marina District’s industrial past. The Richardsonian-Romanesque style brick structure with corner tower was built in 1893 as the office of the San Francisco Gas Light Company.

This building was once part of the company’s North Beach Station, a larger complex of other brick buildings, storage tanks, and a gasometer served by an oiler dock at what was called Gas House Cove. The site covered three blocks from Webster to Laguna Streets. Using oil delivered by water to the site to run boilers, San Francisco Gas Light manufactured gas to light the city’s Victorian parlors.

1905 Sanborn fire insurance map showing part of the San Francisco Gas Light Co. complex with 3640 Buchanan Street at upper right and two large gas holders dominating the block.

In the nineteenth century neighboring industrial plants included a brick manufacturer, a soap and tallow works, and the Pacific Ammonia Chemical Company. San Francisco Gas Light Company’s largest storage tank was the most prominent landmark of the area at the turn of the century. With a capacity of two million cubic feet it was reputedly the largest of its kind west of Chicago.

Company president Joseph B. Crockett designed the complex, including the office building. The patterned brickwork, decorative terra-cotta lintels, and the high conical tower all catch the eye of the passerby. Despite now being tucked away on a standard-width intersection, the open space around the building makes the two-story structure seem even more prominent on its corner. The arched main entrance framing a recessed doorway still reads “S.F. Gas Light Co., 1893.”

Entry to 3636 Buchanan Street (Lisa Erdberg photograph).

In 1905, San Francisco Gas Light merged with PG&E. The 1906 earthquake destroyed most of the complex the following year, ending gas manufacturing onsite. The office building survived, and PG&E erected a new tank beside it holding gas pumped from a plant on the south side of the city. This barrel shows up as an incongruous industrial landmark amid views of the fantastical 1915 Panama-Pacific International Fair. It stood until the 1950s and PG&E still has a substation operating just east of the Gas Light office building.

View of the amusement Zone of the Panama Pacific International Exposition, 1915. The gas tank can be seen on the right.

By midcentury the industrial brick building had become a stylistic oddity in the Mediterranean-inspired Marina District neighborhood that had blossomed around it in the 1920s and 1930s. Thousands of unfashionable Victorian buildings across the city were demolished in post World War II developments and redevelopments, but thanks to Mr. and Mrs. Dent W. Macdonough, the SF Gas Light office building survived.

San Francisco Gas Light Co. building at corner of North Point and Buchanan Streets (Lisa Erdberg photograph).

The Macdonoughs purchased 3636-3640 Buchanan Street for use as a showroom for their business, Merryvale Antiques. The couple brought in master architect William Wurster to direct the restoration and reuse of the building. Around the same time, Wurster had a very different style project going across the street in creating the barrel-roofed midcentury Marina Safeway. Architect Clifford Conly, Jr. designed the Macdonoughs a new garden house on the south side of the property with the landscape in between originally laid out by Jean Wolff in 1958.

On January 4, 1974, Mayor Joseph Alioto signed the ordinance designating 3640 Buchanan Street as City Landmark #58. Since the end of the antique shop business, the building has primarily been used as commercial realty offices, with the Macdonoughs’ garden area kept intact.

In May of this year, despite lots of neighborhood opposition, a permit was issued to demolish the garden house and erect a four-story, eight-unit building. A portion of the garden will be lost, but some care was taken to keep a separation from the landmark structure and make the new building somewhat subordinate in scale and proportion.

Elevation of planned development on south side of San Francisco Gas Light Co. building (ib+a architecture, 2018).

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