By Andy Thornley
I can’t remember when I realized the Reid brothers were following me around. Though I fancy myself a student of American architectural history, it didn’t register when I learned that James and Merritt Reid had designed the Balboa Theater (1926). Nor did it ring any bells when I found out that they (and sometimes younger brother Watson) were responsible for the Fairmont Hotel (1906) and the Cliff House (1909) and the Spreckels Temple of Music in Golden Gate Park (a.k.a. the band shell, 1899).
But when the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition moved its now-former offices into a 1908 post-quake pioneer on Market Street, next to a Reid-designed pre-quake department store (still standing), down the street from a second Reid-designed store (likewise still standing) and across the street from an office building and hotel they designed (yes, both still standing), I could no longer deny that this obscure but prolific trio of Canadian architects were haunting me.
Designing a tour
I cooked up a bike ride to get out and survey the work of these interesting and largely forgotten architect brothers, and to share their stories and those of their better-remembered patrons, some of the great dynastic families of San Francisco, such as the Sutros and the Spreckelses – and the Hale brothers, department store kings of their day. And it’s been a popular obsession to share ever since.
Saturday is my fifth annual Reid Brothers in S.F. bike ride, and on Feb. 25, I’ll lead a different bike tour of the Reid Brothers in the Richmond District; for more information on the latter ride, go to www.bit.ly/zscEw1. (There are nine Reid sites to visit in the northwest corner of the city alone.)
Looking at and learning about architecture by bicycle is the best way to come at the subject. One moves at a human pace, able to stop frequently to study and admire buildings and spaces, but able to cover a lot of ground relatively quickly and appreciate the larger urban fabric in which individual buildings are placed. The Reid Brothers in S.F. ride visits 15 downtown buildings in 10 stops over about two hours – with an optional appendix connecting to five more for those who want to go farther. It’s an ambitious agenda, but easy and fun by bike.
Some superstar projects
In addition to theaters – almost three dozen across the United States, including about 15 in San Francisco – offices, churches and private homes, the Reids were responsible for some superstar projects, starting with the Hotel del Coronado in San Diego (1887), familiar to film fans as the Florida beachside setting of “Some Like It Hot.” Their Call Building skyscraper was the tallest building west of the Mississippi when it was built in 1898.
Built for the Spreckels family to house their newspaper’s offices, the Call Building was a truly splendid thing – towering over Newspaper Row and glowering at the Hearst (Examiner) and de Young (Chronicle) buildings across the intersection.
Like a lot of the Reid brothers’ work, the Call Building has survived, but it’s undergone a radical transformation; you’d hardly recognize it from the glory days when the Reids’ own offices occupied the 18th floor under the pinnacle dome, with 12 porthole windows offering breathtaking views of the city.
The Call Building survived the 1906 earthquake. (Fire raced up the elevator shafts and through the floors but left a sturdy building that was quickly rehabilitated.) But when its ornate baroque fanciness fell out of fashion in the 1930s, it was stripped of ornament and “modernized” to a spare new look. You can see it today as the Central Tower standing on the southwest corner of Market and Third streets. (The Humboldt Savings Bank building at 785 Market St., built in 1908, is a fair approximation of the Call Building’s original style, but not its majesty.)
While the Call Building may have been stripped of some of its early-day splendor, many of the Reid brothers’ structures remain. From Downtown to the Outer Richmond and everywhere in between, our city owes a great deal to the genius of the Reid brothers, who forever changed the skyline and history of San Francisco. After a few hours of riding through the Reid brothers’ past you may discover, as I did, that they have been haunting you all along.
1:30 p.m. Sat. Free-$5. Meet in front of the David Hewes Building, 995 Market St., S.F. www.bit.ly/wFEbx1.
Bike About Town is presented by the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, a 12,000-member nonprofit dedicated to creating safer streets and more livable communities by promoting the bicycle for everyday transportation. For more biking resources, go to www.sfbike.org.