Crumbling Splendor, Exploring the Magnificent Vacant Buildings of the San Francisco Shipyard
Story by John Borg, Photos by Piro Patton
There is profound beauty in the abandoned industrial relics of our past. They serve as landmarks of former glories, hold mysterious untold stories, and remind us that we may not be as immortal as we often make ourselves believe. For the past 25 years, I’ve been surrounded by an exquisite cluster of post-industrial treasures on the central waterfront. My windows look across Illinois Street onto the ghostly deserted buildings and rusting rolling cranes of the shipyard at Pier 70. Largely frozen in time, it’s a place of indomitable magic and allure. It’s also the oldest, largest, and most intact historic industrial complex remaining on the west coast. Extensive industrial operations began here in the 1860’s. By the early-1880s the site had become a shipbuilding mecca and the City’s economic heart. During the Spanish-American War and World Wars I and II, the Yard boomed with thousands of workers who helped change history, alter San Francisco’s demographics, and contribute to the region’s economy and development. After World War II, Pier 70 experienced a long slow period of decline. Its prestige has diminished and its uses have changed over more than half a century. But the physical remnants of American industrial eminence never fully faded away. Despite its antiquated infrastructure, Pier 70’s dry docks continue to function today as the City’s most significant maritime operation. Once-magnificent offices, steely utilitarian structures and chunky machinery remain throughout the 65-acre complex, though much of these are shuttered, dilapidated and seemingly ready to buckle into the bay.
Photographer Piro Patton and I recently explored the interiors of three of the shipyard’s long-vacant structures: the cathedral-like Machine Shop, built in 1886; the terra cotta-capped Powerhouse, built in 1912; and the ornate Bethlehem Steel Administration Building, constructed in 1916. They are among six historic buildings soon to be rehabilitated by Orton Development, Inc., as the centerpiece of the long-planned Pier 70 redevelopment project.
After decades of vacancy and neglect — not to mention the effects of squatters, taggers and tweakers — the shadowy interiors evoke a delightfully eerie appeal, with caving ceiling tiles, dingy broken windows, volumes of graffiti, and oddly missing parts. There are surprising discoveries around every corner: an empty dining hall, a swank 120-seat movie theater, physical damage from the Great 1906 Earthquake, yellowed engineering documents from wartime ship-building projects, a fancy stone fireplace, and the stunning wood-paneled office views featured in Alfred Hitchcock’s classic film, Vertigo. Photographic documentation is one small way to capture the beautifully decaying state of this once-great place. We can only hope that its gritty authenticity won’t become too polished, and lost, as it evolves into new uses.
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