Takahashi Trading Co. Building Approved for Landmark Work Program

September 1st, 2021 No Comments »

North façade of 200 Rhode Island Street. Photo by ARG, 2021.

Today, San Francisco’s Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) voted to add the Takahashi Trading Co. Headquarters at 200 Rhode Island Street to the San Francisco Planning Department’s Landmark Work Program, which puts the property on track for landmark designation. Located within a flat, triangular parcel in the Showplace Square neighborhood and within the larger South of Market (SoMa) district, 200 Rhode Island is determined eligible for designation in part for its association with its long-term property owners, Henri Takahashi (1914-2002) and Tomoye Takahashi (1915-2016). Both were prominent entrepreneurs and philanthropists, through whose efforts Japanese culture, history, and art were supported and showcased to a broad audience in the Bay Area and elsewhere throughout the United States. The original 1912 heavy timber-frame and brick warehouse also constitutes an early and distinctive project in the career of architect G. Albert Lansburgh, who was highly regarded as a designer of theaters in the early twentieth century.

Approval for Planning’s Landmark Word Program is one of several ways that a landmark designation process can be initiated. Since 2012, the HPC has prioritized inclusion on the current Landmark Work Program for properties that represent underrepresented communities – with strong cultural and/or social associations, property types including landscapes, buildings of Modern design, and sites located in geographically underrepresented areas of the city. In 2020, the HPC adopted Resolution No. 1127 Centering Preservation on Racial and Social Equity, which states goals for how the Commission and the Planning Department can develop proactive strategies to address structural and institutional racism and center their work and resource allocation on racial and social equity, focused on preservation, and applies to prioritization of Landmarks.

G. Albert Lansburgh designed this light industrial brick building early in his career and is one of his few known warehouses.

200 Rhode Island Street is the most significant extant property in San Francisco associated with the legacy of Henri and Tomoye Takahashi and Martha Suzuki, and their story is deeply emblematic of the history of Japanese Americans in California and the opportunities that changes in broader social attitudes afforded them after World War II.

Born on Stanyan Street in San Francisco of Japanese parents, Tomoye Takahashi earned her bachelor’s degree in decorative arts from UC Berkeley. Henri Takahashi was born in Japan, and immigrated to Hawai‘i with his parents in 1918 and then moved to Oakland in 1930. He later enrolled at Pamona College and became a journalist. Tomoye and Henri married shortly before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor precipitated their removal to desolate internment camps (Topaz War Relocation Center), along with 120,000 others of Japanese descent. After the war, the Takahashis returned to San Francisco and opened a dry goods store called Takahashi Trading Co. at 1661 Post Street in Japantown. They exported medicines, clothing, and other staples to war-torn Japan and soon began importing traditional items, like folk pottery, lacquerware, and musical instruments.

Tomoye and Henri Takahashi, undated photograph (University of California, San Francisco Osher Center). In 1985 the Takahashis established the Henri and Tomoye Charitable Foundation, helping support the Asian Art Museum, the Japanese American Cultural Center of Northern California, documentary films on Japanese-American history, and other efforts. 

Takahashi Trading Co. pottery mark (Modern Japanese Pottery and Porcelain Marks).

After their building was demolished in 1959 as part of the redevelopment of Japantown (ironically for the construction of the Japanese Trade and Cultural Center), the Takahashis moved their burgeoning retail business to Jackson Square and soon expanded to Union Square and Ghirardelli Square. Buoyed by the continued success of their business, Henri and Tomoye purchased the light industrial property at 200 Rhode Island Street in 1965 and expanded it over the next decade to form an integrated complex of offices and warehouses. Tomoye’s sister Martha Suzuki joined the family business and played a key role in its financial success. The buildings at 200 Rhode Island Street served as their business headquarters, and later their charitable foundation beginning in the mid-1980s, and provided ample storage space for imported Japanese finely crafted goods that they sold wholesale and in retail stores throughout the San Francisco Bay Area and as far away as New York City.

Lamp designed by Tomoye Takahashi, 1954. (“Lighting: Simplicity is a Keynote,” Los Angeles Times, July 18, 1954). By the 1960s the Takahashis were creating contemporary designs with traditional Japanese materials, like the shoji screen, an entirely original design. From the single store, the business grew to several in and around San Francisco and one in New York City. Many of their creations were selected for the definitive Good Design Exhibition at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art in 1950.

The family retained ownership of the property until 2019, selling it shortly after the death of Tomoye Takahashi in 2016.

Properties associated with San Francisco’s Japanese-American community are not well represented by existing landmarks. Currently there are only two landmarks associated with Japanese-American history, the Kinmon Gakuen and the Japanese YWCA/Issei Women’s building, both of which are located in Japantown. Thus if designated, the subject property would only be the third Landmark associated with Japanese-American history and the first with this association not located in Japantown.

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