Mission Mumbles: Donuts, Trucks and the past of Potrero Avenue.
by Elizabeth C. Creely
Here’s a small story about a big building: 200 Potrero Avenue, a building that looks like a Gothic church, sits on the west side of the Avenue, just before 16th. To the east is Potrero Hill, and to the west is the hill that once held Seals Stadium, and is now the location of the Potrero Center, a strip mall with a Safeway and a Ross Dress for Less. Behind all this and to the east is Brannan Street, a portal to SOMA.
To me, Potrero Avenue feels like SOMA lunging desperately into the Mission, but failing to get all the way there. The San Francisco Planning Department confirms this feeling of mine somewhat by declaring the area to be a historic district, albeit a non-contiguous one, that encompasses both neighborhoods.
The “Showplace Square / Northeast Mission” historic district sprawls from the southern hills around 19th and Pennsylvania, heads west across the 280 freeway, continues in a jagged line between Shotwell and Folsom, and then veers east on 20th Street, where it meanders back to Pennsylvania. Within the district are 600 buildings that, though they may be blocks apart, share enough construction features and history to link them together through time and space.
They time travel, in their own solid way, from a era when the Mission was relatively empty and open. The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe railroad built rail lines and spurs throughout this district, creating a transportation grid that made a district suited to PDR, planning parlance for “production, distribution and repair.” This district boasted large brick buildings which boasted huge “slow burn” wood timbers. These timbers didn’t ignite as eagerly as the ramshackle wood buildings that lined the streets and alleyways of SOMA, which were fated to burn in 1906. Those scrambling buildings held mere humanity: the slow-burn brick and reinforced concrete buildings that crept up Potrero before and after the quake were sites of industry and so they were built to last. And they have.
Across from 200 Potrero is a smaller building, 198 Potrero, which is mostly identifiable by a faded sign positioned over the sidewalk that reads “Moore’s Cocktails.” These two buildings, radically dissimilar in design—198 Potrero was built in 1906 with no apparent design ambitions—contain the cultural and commercial history of the Avenue between them. For a time, 198 Potrero held a blacksmith, wagon shop and auto repair. After that, it became the Bleachers Family Nite Club, so-called because of the stadium around the corner. Bleachers did business in the mid-thirties. An ad for Bleachers placed in the San Francisco Chronicle in 1935 informed families that they could drink and dance, and spend a “pleasant evening with the whole family,” a neighborhood-serving kind of place if there ever was one.
This may have changed three years later when the club manager, a man named Fred Engelbrecht, applied for a liquor license, although one does hear stories from old Missionites who will tell you that “in those day” kids could be found at bars and nobody thought much of it. (The bar’s license was suspended in 1947, so perhaps that’s not true.)
Described as a “dance hall” by the planning department, Bleachers Nite Club was a commodious place. It had an orchestra platform, a dance floor, and a fireplace and could hold 150 people. It wasn’t so small that a crowd couldn’t gather and wasn’t so big that the intimacy of the neighborhood—the chance of seeing someone you knew—was snuffed out.
The Moore family purchased it at some point in the sixties and carried on the tradition of running a neighborhood bar. It seems to have been a mostly peaceable place: in 1983, the staff suffered the indignity of being held up. Owner William Moore died ten years later. Since then, the former dance hall has been vacant. It has a surviving counterpart in the Double Play bar on the corner of 16th and Bryant, the last space that survives as a testament to the heaving crowds that poured into Seals Stadium to watch Joe DiMaggio and the other Seals do their stuff before it was demolished in 1959. A mural, painted by artist Dan McHale, which is on display inside Sport Basement, shows Bryant Street back then, and a young fan running with the Seals pennant.
Across the street is 200 Potrero, a building that commands your attention, even though it’s painted the exact shade of a San Francisco summer, a color I call “August grey.” No less than three businesses have left their mark on the building: the name “Golden Bear Sportswear” is embossed on the panels above the first floor. Another sign shaped like a button is affixed to one of the angular parapets that line the second floor. It reads “gizmo” in lowercase letters, the low-key style that the tech community seems to love. (Do uppercase letters embarrass them?)
The last business name is not up, but down: the name “Stempels” is outlined in brass on the terrazzo tile threshold of the Potrero Avenue entrance. It’s a real Desilu production: the “S” is designed to look like a treble clef sign. Back when Stempel’s Bakery—which was one of the businesses here—was in operation, customers would have no problem figuring out how to enter the building. The name is meant to direct, as well as identify: step over me and walk inside. In contrast, Gizmo Art Productions’ sign, hanging high above the sidewalk, advertises itself but does not invite you in.
In 1905, the Sanborn-Perris fire map showed three buildings at 200 Potrero, two of them dwellings and the other an athletic club. In January of 1928, James Hansen Hjul, a busy and prolific architect in a city full of busy and prolific architects, purchased the property from the San Francisco Seals, with the help of Coldwell Banker, and drew up blueprints for a 2,800 square foot building. “Embodied in the building are all the most recent features,” a Chronicle story exclaimed, which was true, but not perhaps immediately apparent.
Though he designed for the future of industry, Hjul had a marked preference for the past, specifically the ecclesiastical past. The two-story building had “unusual Gothic ornamentation,” including clerestory windows, which functioned exactly as they were designed to do. (They let a lot of light in.) This building became the home of the International Harvester Company’s Motor Truck branch. International Harvester enthusiastically sold trucks from this location for at least two decades. And then, in a space that had been scented by the odor of rubber and petroleum fumes, baker George J. Stempel took over the space and began selling donuts.
Smell beckons memory like nothing else. A little-known fact about the Mission District is that, in the past, this neighborhood has often smelled deliciously of freshly-baked bread, or vanilla, or (less pleasant, but still memorable) vinegar fumes emanating from the Best Foods factory at 1890 Bryant Street. Stempel’s Quality Doughnut Shoppe was a contributor to this olfactory district. They opened for business in 1921 as a small donut shop and restaurant at 2140 Mission street in the building that now houses the Sycamore bar. The paneled Dutch door is a holdover from its time as a small restaurant, but that alone could not make this building historic, in the opinion of the planning department’s Historic Preservation Commission. Nothing eventful happened there, just Missionites eating Stempel’s “warm, tasty” donuts.
Stempel opened two more branches at 316 Fell and 1616 Bush Street, before demand for his excellent donuts drove him to add a third. “Free donut day today at Stempel’s!” exclaimed an ad in the San Francisco Chronicle in 1955. “Come on out, Mr. and Mrs. San Francisco, and see our new bakery at 200 Potrero Avenue.” The “huge, street-level picture window” let customers and passers-by watch the donuts being prepared, and let his customers see the cleanliness of the bakery. They were in on the action of the neighborhood, which was at that time, unionized: in 1938, the Bakery Workers International Union, Local 24, which represented about 500 workers, negotiated a two-year work contract with San Francisco bakers, including Stempel’s. The union and the bakery stayed together until the bakery closed sometime in the mid-seventies, after George Stempel’s death in 1971.
So that’s what happened. Like many building-based histories in the Mission, this history is a simply a series of small stories and vivid memories of the goodness of the baked goods. No constitutions were signed inside; no one rich or famous slept there. Trucks and donuts were sold, and the neighborhood hummed along, producing, distributing and repairing.
This neighborhood isn’t totally post-PDR: things are still Made in the Mission. Gizmo Art Productions makes exhibits and helps install sculptures. But what’s missing in the Mission in the 21st century is the boastful pride in the built environment that characterized urban development in San Francisco after the earthquake. In the palmy days of post-1906 construction, the city was re-conceived and builders and architects alike advertised their visionary design and construction plans in trade journals like The Architect & Engineer of California and the Pacific Coast.
Today, construction and design work are obscured–literally– from the public gaze. Mission Street is lined with plywood these days. The work being done on the old buildings, modernized in the thirties, and awaiting their next star turn, is obscured from the public gaze, and shrouded behind the wooden walls and padlocked doors. Permit details are (sometimes) available on the planning department’s site, but often there’s no choice but to wait and see, while the skittish developers argue with the planning staff. This is especially true with “adaptive re-use”, the art of rehabilitating San Francisco’s inventory of cranky historic buildings.
The reasons for this are varied but they range between the following: (a.) there’s often little agreement on what should be preserved and why. Nostalgia assigns meaning and value, as much as the date of the construction, to buildings that have outlived their designed purpose. Even those of us most concerned with preservation and historicity can regard old buildings with doubt. Take auto liveries: they have an ample footprint, a doubtful future –cars are disappearing from this city–and design features that are only skin deep. Every time I see a barely-used auto livery, I wonder, irritably: do we really need this?
(b.) Adaptive reuse and historic conservation is expensive: it’s all stick and no carrot, these days. I have no love for the deep-pocketed property owners of this city, but am sympathetic to the steep costs of rehabbing tattered buildings with friable cement exteriors, and sunken foundations. In sharp contrast to the period of Depression-era modernization, there’s no Federal Housing Administration insuring low-interest loans for lending institutions, and no splashy, and optimistic public relations campaign to encourage adaptive re-use for buildings that are approaching–or have exceeded– their centenary.
(c.) because of the above, developers and land owners have little interest in historic preservation. And sometimes, the history of the building is a moving target. Buildings that were constructed a century ago have often undergone multiple alternations in the interim and have, therefore, erased some (or all) traces of the past. The old Majestic theater at 2065 Mission Street was built once and re-designed twice, both times by different, but equally well-regarded, architects. Which year matters more?
It’s fraught territory. But I do think our built history matters, and I’ll tell you why: people should be able to lay claim to a place, and falling in love with an old building helps that process along. It’s hard to form an attachment to a condo that was built in the fall of 2017. Historic buildings make possible some public claim on city space, which is becoming increasingly featureless, private and covert.
Take Harrison Street, between 20th and 23rd, as an example: I walk down it almost every day, and know it less each time. Previously, Harrison had a variety of buildings, in a variety of heights and widths, that were leftover from its days as a mixed-use, Southern Pacific railroad corridor. They have been demolished and now the west side of the street is faceless and impassive, due to the residential four-story buildings lining the west side of the street.
The visible imposition (or absence) of post-earthquake architectural styles on city streets is a reminder of what architects and urbanists thought the city was or might be: this includes the hostility and racial animus of redevelopment. The architectural ideas in play after 1906 carried big ideas about what was happening for San Franciscans and how people would live. San Franciscans were tutored by these styles: Streamline Moderne didn’t just articulate the consensus of urbanists that life was being lived fleetly: it helped push America past the fear of Depression-era decay.
The period of re-building after the quake and modernization during the Depression have left us with all the mute reminders of that perilous, but oddly confident time: the business names and signs carved into lintels or embossed in brass. What’s that, one may think, stepping over the name of a long-dead merchant, on the way into the bar or restaurant. The signs and names are claims on permanence, and our scattered attention, which –if paid– can be reminded that there was a “before” to our hurried present.
Finished September 4th, 2018, one day after Labor Day. All Hail, Francis Perkins, 1880-1965, an architect of the New Deal.
Usefulness in a building is good, economy in a building may be necessary, yet how many cheap and useful buildings would not mankind exchange for a Parthenon?” The Architect and Engineer, November 1933