Who Actually Designed the Geneva Office Building and Powerhouse?

The Geneva Office Building and Powerhouse's architect is something of a mystery. Image courtesy of SFMTA archive

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This article is an installment from the Friends of the Geneva Office Building & Powerhouse’s new history email series, eight daily emails uncovering the Sign up for the history email series here.

The Geneva Office Building and Powerhouse, San Francisco Landmark No. 180, stands today in the middle of a congested and transforming intersection, serving as a physical reminder of a major industrial and transportation hub on San Francisco’s south side dating back to the early 20th century.

The 1901-built two-story, red-brick building sits at the southeast corner of San Jose and Geneva avenues. A rounded, Queen Anne-style turret dominates the corner. The circular turret and a bell-shaped roof was covered in concentric circles of wood panels and capped with a finial. Four single, double-hung windows adorned each story of the turret, and decorative wood panels were situated beneath each window. Its architectural significance is clear.

But who exactly designed the building remains a mystery.

The Geneva Office Building was built to serve as headquarters for the San Francisco & San Mateo Electric Railway’s new owners, which included the brothers Adolph B. and John D. Spreckels.

The Spreckels family, one of San Francisco’s wealthiest, had an established relationship with the well-regarded architectural firm of the Reid Brothers.

It is reasonable to assume that the Spreckels would have hired James W. and Merritt J. Reid for the job. But then why is the building only officially “attributed” to the prestigious Reid Brothers?

A.B. Southard

Albert Burley Southard was a long-time railroad man and civil engineer, who had moved from Indiana to San Francisco around 1881 following his brother, Frank, westward. Both men are listed in the city directories as conductors on the California Street railroad.

Southard is remembered by Henry Root as having worked on the Geary Street line of the Market Street Railway as the civil engineer. By 1897 he was a surveyor with the Market Street Railway and two years later, in 1899, he was employed as the superintendent of the San Francisco & San Mateo Electric Railway.

As the headquarters at San Jose and Geneva avenues was being planned, Southard was listed in the newspapers as the architect of the “one-story brick car house, one-story brick transformer house and two-story office building with basement.”

It is obvious that Southard was very involved in the development of the facility. But how extensive was his architectural or engineering training? Did he truly design the complex or merely oversee its design and construction? The latter seems most likely. But how can we ever know for sure.

The Reid Brothers

The Reid Brothers are still famous today for San Francisco’s Spreckels Mansion, Golden Gate Park’s bandshell, the Call Building, and several brick electric substations for the Independent Electric Light Company, as well as the Hotel del Coronado in San Diego.

Notably, the Spreckels Building, one of San Francisco’s first skyscrapers, incorporated four domed turrets characteristic of Queen Anne style along with a smokestack attached to a power plant.

The Geneva Office Building also has a Queen Anne turret and smokestack attached to a power plant. It is logical to assume that they also drew the plans.

Nonetheless, according to architectural historian Bridget Maley, the surviving pages of original drawings, while not attributed to any firm, contain drawing and lettering styles very, very similar to the work of the Reid Brothers. They were certainly involved in the project.

The mystery remains

The buildings at Geneva and San Jose avenues are most likely a collaboration between the Reid Brothers and A.B. Southard. The Reid Brothers would surely have added prestige to the project. But did Southard actually do the work?

The answer may never be known.

This article is drawn from Bridget Maley’s chapter in a forthcoming book about the history of the building. If you can, please consider making a tax-deductible donation to support the publication of the book.