Abaca Ropes in Tenants

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Abaca’s design recalls Dogpatch’s history. Photos: David Fletcher, Fletcher Studio

Residents of a housing development which opened on 2660 Third Street last month will have few excuses if they can’t tie a bowline, sheet bend or rolling hitch knot. That’s because the building pays homage to the Tubbs Cordage rope company, which operated on the site from 1856 to 1962.

Founded by Alfred L. Tubbs, a New Hampshire native, the company, which largely sold nautical rope, became the first cord manufacturer outside New England, and was the largest on the West Coast for most of its existence. At its height, it had 500 employees working at plants across the country, with $33 million a year in sales.

The new 263-unit building, dubbed “Abaca” in honor of the hemp-like plant Tubbs began importing from Manila in the 1920s, features a 10,000-square foot public boardwalk that serves as a museum for the site’s history. There are plaques honoring the rope company, a large steel table on which artisans can pound metal, and a kiosk with a rope-tying station where the public can learn the aforementioned maritime knots. The boardwalk and landscaping are slated to be completed this month.

“Every project we have done in San Francisco, it has been important for us to get a sense of context in the neighborhood, and we know Dogpatch has its own sense of history,” explained Jesse Herzog, chief investment officer for the developer, AGI Avant. While the parcel isn’t designated as a historical site, he added, “To us it was important enough that we felt it was a story that should be shared.”

The boardwalk allows pedestrian access between Third Street and Angel Alley, which connects the north and south sides of Tennessee Street. The alley, which recently was transformed into a street park, is dubbed after the Hells Angels headquarters that abuts Abaca.

The boardwalk follows the same path as the Tubbs Cordage’s rope walk, where long strands of fiber were laid out and workers went back and forth to twist it into rope. The original walk consisted of a wooden enclosed structure that extended 1,000 feet over mudflats, connecting to a shipping wharf in the bay. At one time the company made rope by the mile. The presence of the rope walk is why the buildings to the east now aren’t on the street grid.

“The block where Tubbs Cordage was, it used to be waterfront property,” said Herzog, who explained that the coastline ran diagonally through the new building’s location. “Third Street was actually the Bay, and that’s where boats would land.”

Much of the ode to the site’s history is obvious, such as posts that recall pilings on a pier; a rope sculpture made of abaca hemp, and signage. Other elements, however, are subtle. For instance, the building is painted blue on the Third Street side to reflect where the Bay was; green on the southside where marshland existed; and red on the Tennessee Street side, chosen to connote the industrial city. The colors were part of the building design of Anne Fougeron, a noted architect whose recently completed condominiums at 400 Grove Street won a Best of Design Award from The Architect’s Newspaper.

The boardwalk is modeled by landscape architect David Fletcher, who just finished a redesign of South Park. Like that conception, instead of traveling a straight line the boardwalk winds and traverses different levels. The higher level is at Third Street; visitors descend down a wooden ramp to a plaza at Tennessee Street.

“When you walk down that ramp you are actually in history,” said Fletcher, of his favorite part of the design. The ramp is actually a wooden bridge over greenery that extends on both sides or, to the imagination, the marsh that once existed there and the old Long Bridge that connected that part of Dogpatch with the rest of San Francisco. The greenery also serves as a rain garden, with water collected off the roof of the Abaca building draining into it.

In addition, there’s what Fletcher described as a “perforated metal image” on a wall along the walk. Conjuring modern art, the shiny decor is meant to represent the ghosts of history. And, in what might not be immediately evident, the orange railings are an ode to the Golden Gate Bridge. Tubbs Cordage made the safety rope that was used during bridge construction.

Fletcher said he used metallics and blacks in the boardwalk’s overall décor “so as to immerse you into a sense of industry and the turn of the century when Tubbs Cordage was in its heyday.”

The Tubbs Cordage Company moved downstate to Orange in 1962, where it remained in the family until it was taken over by an employee in 1986. Three years later it moved to Tucson, Arizona, where it still exists. The original buildings in Dogpatch were razed the year the company left.

Rents at Abaca range from $2,800 for a studio to $5,875 for a three bedroom. Thirty-four units are reserved as affordable housing, with studios offered for $991; $1,391 for the lone three-bedroom.

Abaca, the plant, is among the strongest natural fibers, making it appealing for rope.  It was one of the Philippines’ three top cash crops, along with sugar and tobacco, around the turn of the 20th Century, which is why Tubbs Cordage opened a subsidiary, the Manila Cordage Company, in that country from 1923 to the early-1970s. It now has wider uses, such as in cloth for sacks, by the paper industry for tea bags, stencil paper, and is in the Japanese Yen currency.