Monday, August 2, 2010

The Secrets of the Transbay Terminal!

As many of you may know, I'm something of a history buff, especially when it comes to 20th Century commercial or public architecture. So you can imagine how excited I was when i stumbled upon a news story detailing the "hidden history" of San Francisco's Transbay Terminal.

Originally built in the Depression, as a kind of Grand Central Station for buses and trains crossing the new Bay Bridge, in recent decades it has become a run-down blight, serving just as much as a homeless shelter as a bus terminal. It's slated to close down in a few days, and as part of the preparations for its demolition, CalTrans crews have uncovered some of the long-lost amenities of what was supposed to be a vibrant crossroads for commuters and travelers.

CalTrans workers gave a one-day-only tour of these "secret" spots, and I made sure to make it over there despite short notice! The tour started off in the old bar, a throwback to the 50s if ever I've seen one. Most of the furnishings had been removed, but you could feel the "spirit" of a bygone age coursing through it. The low lighting helped add to the spooky mood, leavened only by the crowds of living people now poking their heads in for the first time in three decades.

Next we saw the old jail, originally intended to hold train robbers (!) and other troublemakers until SFPD could come collect them. Seemed more like something out of the Old West than the 1930s...

After that, we saw a number of photos of the terminal in it's "glory days," complete with newsstand, shoe-shine station (which was there but I sadly missed) and train after train pouring into and out of the upper level. Yes, what many folks know only as an epically creepy and loud bus depot was once intended for both commuter trolleys like the Key System and Southern Pacific's electric trolley systems. WWII, and then, scheming by the automakers, tire & oil companies managed to do away with that. (Within 5 years of the end of the Key System, people began clamoring for a replacement, thus, we got BART. Might have been easier to leave the original rails alone, eh?)

The tour ended at the old diner, a wonderful, authentic time capsule of an old-fashioned greasy spoon. The tour organizers had set up a projector, playing on loop an old movie from the 40s talking about the history of California, and how it has now led to this "wonderful new terminal!" The end featured a bit of animation (from I believe Warner Bros. "Termite Terrace.") with the apparent mascot of the Key System talking about the glorious present and future of the system. Had some great retro-future concept art for luxurious trolleys to come, ideas I'm sure that had more to do with the imaginations of the animators than anything concrete that the Key System ever planned to do! More pics are below...

Overall it was a fascinating glimpse of what the Transbay Terminal was *supposed to be* and was all the more sad seeing from this day and age how much it failed to serve it's intended function, though not entirely by fault of its own. I hope the new Transbay Terminal serves as a better "Grand Central" to San Francisco and the region.