‘Smallwood Letter’ Offers Insight Into Past Of The Historic Geneva Office Building & Powerhouse

Most know the Geneva Office Building & Powerhouse, if they know it at all, as an empty building across from the Balboa Park BART station. But there's so much more.

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A letter written by Charles Smallwood to his nephew Carl has been a gift to historians about the past of the Geneva Office Building & Powerhouse and more.
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Most know the Geneva Office Building & Powerhouse, if they know it at all, as an empty building across from the Balboa Park BART station that will one day become a youth arts center. However, a little-known letter from 1980 reveals that the 1901-built structure was once a vital transit facility for San Francisco.

Charles Smallwood, a transit historian, wrote a letter detailing the activities at the facility located at San Jose and Geneva avenues, the juncture of the Ingleside and Excelsior neighborhoods, for his nephew who was researching it for a college report.

(A transcription of the letter provided by the Friends of the Geneva Office Building & Powerhouse at the end of this article.)

Smallwood, who wrote a sought-after book in 1978 about the defunct Market Street Railway entitled “The White Front Cars of San Francisco,” was intimately familiar with the building as a former Muni employee stationed there.

“I spent many years of my life working in that old building, and I have a deep fondness for it,” Smallwood wrote.

He went on to describe the building’s significance and uniqueness as a relic of a past where similar transit facilities dotted American cities to serve the streetcar networks that preceded the automobile.

Retired San Francisco Public Library history librarian and Friends of the Geneva Office Building & Powerhouse board member Lisa Dunseth views the Smallwood letter as an essential document about the building’s context in history.

“Aside from the incredibly important content regarding the history of the building and its role and function, it is from someone with first-hand knowledge,” Dunseth said. “That is valuable!”

In notes appended to the letter, Smallwood laid out a history of the building and its essential features, including an entertainment hall where dances known as “high jinks” were held and which were used as sleeping quarters for strikebreakers when railway workers went on strike in the early part of the 20th century.

Despite his regard for the Geneva Office Building & Powerhouse, which he deemed worthy of landmark status, Smallwood did not think that the building would last.

“I suppose that the old barn, in the name of progress, will eventually be torn down,” Smallwood wrote. “I, for one, will hate to see it go.”

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Smallwood Letter transcription by Vivian Kobayashi

Page 1

Geneva Avenue Car Barn

Brief History of the San Francisco & San Mateo R.R. Co. -Original Owner

The San Francisco and San Mateo Railroad Co. was incorporated in San Francisco in early 1891 by a group headed by two brothers, Issac (sic) and Berend Joost. Construction was begun immediately and on April 27, 1892 the line was opened for service. It was San Francisco’s first electric street railway and ran from 2nd and Market Street to Daly’s Hill (now Daly City) via 2nd , Stewart (sic), Harrison, 14th St, Guerrero, San Jose Ave, 20th St, Chenery, San Jose Ave (again) to top of Daly’s Hill. The line was later extended down Mission Road to Holy Cross Cemetery. A branch line from 18th and Guerrero to Golden Gate Park via 18th , Upper Market St. (where a switch back due to sharp curve was located) Clayton and Waller St. to Golden Gate (park entrance at Stanyan and Waller Sts. This branch opened for service on November 25, 1894.

This pioneer electric line did not pay expenses and due to financial difficulties the bond holders, by foreclosure, forced sale of the company. Reorganization of the company took place on April 11, 1896 under the name “San Francisco & San Mateo Electric Railroad Company” and a group of local capitalists headed by A.B. and J.D. Spreckels took control. (See Note “A”)

By 1900 business on the line increased to the extent that the company found it necessary to order the purchase of thirty additional electric cars.

Page 2

The company maintained a car house and power station at Sunnyside Ave. (now Monterey Blvd.) and Joost Street and as this facility was entirely too small to accommodate the thirty new cars and the additional power facilities needed for their operation, the company decided to build a new car house and power station.

Geneva Avenue Car House

For their new operating headquarters the San Francisco and San Mateo Elec. R. R. purchased the block bound by San Jose Avenue, Linadella Avenue, (now Niagara Avenue), Delano Street and Geneva Avenue. Ground was broken and construction commenced on the new car house on July 14, 1900. The complex consisted of the adjoining structures, one a two story office building 46 feet by 122 feet and a twenty track, single story car shed 212 feet by 238 feet. Construction of both buildings was of red brick, wood trusses and corrugated iron roof. Two additional small brick buildings were also constructed at the rear of the property, one a blacksmith shop 34 feet by 45 feet and the other a transformer room 35 feet by 41 feet (see note “B”) (In later years the blacksmith shop became the sand house and the transformer room became the barns oil house. Both buildings still remain although a portion of sand house was removed in 1968 to permit a new track entrance to rear

Page 3

of Geneva barn)

The new car barn was opened for service on April 22, 1901. At that time the Sunnyside Avenue operations were moved to the new structure and it was closed as an operating barn.

However, the Sunnyside Avenue plant did continue its power generating machinery until 1904, closing down in that year when additional power facilities were added to the Geneva Avenue substation.

On May 13, 1901 the Spreckels interests sold the san Francisco & San Mateo Elec. R.R. to the “Baltimore Syndicate” headed by Brown Bros .of New York City. The purchase of the San Mateo line by the syndicated formed the nucleus of the United Railroads (See Note “C”) Thus for a scant 22 days did the Geneva Avenue car house serve its original owners and builders. Upon becoming property of the United Railroads, which operated several other car houses throughout the city, the Geneva Avenue facility was officially designated the “San Mateo Car House” between 1908 and 1910 its official name was changed to “Geneva Avenue” Car House (See Note D”) Car lines running out of the Geneva Avenue Car House was

– Route #10 – Sunnyside – Guerrero
“ “ 12 – Ingleside
“ “ 18 – Mission – Daly City
“ “ 26 – San Jose – Guerrero
“ “ 40 – San Mateo Interurban
“ “ – – Visitacion
“ “ – – South San Francisco

Page 4

Also operating out of Geneva Avenue Car House was the unique funeral car service. This was a fleet of three finely appointed electric cars built for the sole function of conducting funerals. They had a compartment for carrying the coffin in the front section and chair for the mourners to ride in the rear. Spurs running off the san Mateo line into various cemeteries were for the purpose of accommodating these funeral cars. Geneva Barn was the headquarters for the funeral car service until the last of these cars were operated March 234, 1916.

On the morning of April 18, 1906 (5:12 a.m.) when the Great Earthquake struck San Francisco considerable damage was done to the Geneva Avenue Division. As is evident from this quote from the San Mateo Car House Day Book of April 18, 1906 – ……. ”Geneva Ave. Sub-Station walls were cracked from roof to foundation Also offices and car sheds. Tracks in car sheds were spread causing about 20 cars to drop between tracks….” No cars were run from Geneva Division from the day of the calamity until May 6th when a limited car service was started. By May 10th car service was back to nearly normal.

Temporary repairs of the earthquake damage was made to the buildings consisting of wooden walls with tar paper outer covering where the rick walls gave way on the upper portion of the northeast corner.

Page 5

of the office building as well as wooden beam bracing on upper windows on San Jose Avenue side of building The badly cracked east wall of thee car shed along track #20 was propped up with heavy timbers with the exception of the window bracing along San Jose Avenue (repaired about 1907) These temporary repairs of 1906 are very much in evidence in 1980. Thus the Geneva Car House is one of the very few buildings, if not the only one, in San Francisco today to show actual physical damage wrought by that Great Quake seventy four years ago.

On February 16, 1921 the United Railroads went into receivership and was reorganized in April of that year as the Market Street Railway Co. The Geneva Division carried on much the same as before with little outward appearing changes. For twenty four year (sic) it plodded on serving the same car routes (and with many of the same cars) until September 29, 1944 when the property passed into the hands of its last and final owner – the City and Count of San Francisco. On this date, the Market Street Railway was merged with the Municipal Railway.

Today this venerable building after eighty years of hard use and neglect looks much the same as it did on that long ago day in April,1901 when it was dedicated with much fan fare (sic) and pride of accomplishment by its builders. And it certainly is a tribute to its builders. Over the years the

Page 6

Various owners have lavished little, if any care on, until the mid-1950’s when the city extensively renovated many of the offices, previous owners spent a minimum of money and effort on it, marking only such changes as was necessary at the time, not of an improvement in nature, but mainly hasty alterations to provide dormitories and feeding accommodations for live-in strike breakers in the strikes of carmen in 1906, 1097 and 1917. There is evidence of this use of the building. If you walk to the east side of the office building and stand by the foreman’s office, look up to the second story to the left, you will see that one of the windows have had the bricks removed to floor level. This opening in the ricks is now boarded up (or it was when I was shop foreman at Geneva). The purpose of this opening was a doorway to a wooden stairway that led to the car shed area and was built to provide strike-breakers during the 1917 carmens strike a route from their upstairs dormitory to the car shed without having to run the gamut of strikers out front. As we discussed on the phone Friday, besides that tar paper on the office building, you can find evidence of 1906 quake damage by walking along the east wall alongside 20 track

Page 7

Sources of Information
Note “A” – McGraw American Street Railway Investments – 18
Note “B” – Data on building – “Special Report on Property – United Railroads – 1904” –
Stanford University Library – Special Collections Dept.
Historic dates – Diary of Chas. D. Miller.
Note “C” – Report of Transportation Facilities of San Francisco – Dion J. Arnold – 1913
Note “D” – Geneva Division Day Books 1905 -1910

Page 8

Additional Notes on Geneva Car House.

As was common with several United R. R. – Market St Ry. Car houses, Geneva Car House had a large social hall on the rear of the top floor. Company sponsored organizations such as the Geneva Athletic Club, held dances and affairs know (sic) as “High Jinks” in this hall month(?) (Ticket for one of these affairs in 1917 enclosed) It was a common practice for street railways to maintain these social halls for their carmen, not only in San Francisco but throughout the country in large cities. These social halls served two purposes – bringing pleasure to the employees during periods of labor peace, and were aptly suited, due to their size of being swiftly converted to sleeping quarters and restaurant facilities for imported strike breaker (sic) during periods of “labor unrest”. When the Muni took over the social hall was converted to office space for the sick leave and payroll (shop) departments.

Geneva Barn was selected by the headquarters for the first motor bus operation of the Market St. Ry. Co. Motor coaches for the pioneer Crocker-Amazon Motor Coach (Line) that began operating on Oct. 7, 1927 operated from Geneva Barn until transferred to 24th Utah barn about 1938.

Page 9

In 1906 the United Railroads purchased a large tract of land, formerly a vegetable farm, bounded by Ocean Ave, San Jose Ave., Niagara St. and Southern Pacific R. R. right of way.

Here they built the large Elkton Shop complex (now site of the Metro Center) Here was located all of the important shops of the company – the overhaul, paint, electric, car building and other mechanical installations needed to keep a large and busy street railway operating. When this plant complex was opened in 1907, the office of the master mechanic, later the Superintendent of Equipment, was installed in Geneva Car House and is still located there.

Until recently, all fare box and fare register repairs and maintenance for the entire system was done at Geneva division. I understand that fore box and cable line fare register repair is now done at the new Woods Division.

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