SoMa building that survived 1906 earthquake to become landmark

Standing amid the bustling corridor at Second and Mission streets during the midday lunch hour, it’s hard to imagine the surrounding blocks and buildings engulfed in flames and rubble.

Such was the scene, however, on April 18, 1906, after one of the most significant earthquakes in the world crumbled buildings and ignited massive fires that would destroy nearly 500 city blocks and leave more than half of The City’s population homeless.

But among the 28,000 buildings left in ruins from the disaster, one structure was left standing downtown — the Bourdette Building, the only small-scale brick masonry commercial building in the area to survive the 1906 earthquake and fire, at the northwest corner of Second and Mission streets.

Today, that structure remains virtually the same as it did more than a century ago, an almost invisible building sandwiched between skyscrapers.

“While the rest of the South of Market was reduced to ashes, this two-story brick building remained almost miraculously undamaged,” said Jonathan Lammers, a preservation planner with the Planning Department. “Within the entirety of the burned district, it was the only building to survive without anyone inside or outside fighting to save it.”

And it appears the building will continue to remain a slice of San Francisco’s history, after the Historic Preservation Commission on Wednesday unanimously adopted a resolution to recommend the Board of Supervisors designate the Bourdette Building as a historic landmark.
The designation would mean that any applications that propose to alter or demolish the property must be reviewed by the Historic Preservation Commission.

But the building’s trustee, Gloria Yee, wrote in a letter dated Oct. 19 to the Planning Department that she opposes the historic landmark designation because such a label could strip the property of its value.

Constructed in 1904, the building was designed by renowned San Francisco architects Walter D. Bliss and William B. Faville, whose firm is also responsible for some of San Francisco’s most iconic landmarks, including the St. Francis Hotel at Union Square.

“It is our firm belief that the overall value of the investment will be diminished by having this Historic Landmark designation,” Yee wrote. “These undesirable restrictions would add a great deal of extra cost, expense and time to any remodeling or renovation project, which could discourage tenants from leasing or making improvements.”

Commissioners noted, however, that the Bourdette Building is already located in a conservation district, making the entitlement and review process virtually the same as with historic landmark status.

There is also an enforcement case pending against the building because of interior demolition that occurred without permits. Tim Frye, a preservation coordinator with the Planning Department, said work has since been halted.

“We are keeping an eye on it,” he said.

Henry’s Cafeteria operated in the building for nearly four decades, until 2010, and it remains closed today. Portions of the building have also been used as a saloon, barber shop, fabric importer and advertising agency.

The building has seen a handful of alterations following the 1906 earthquake, only known because of city records kept after the original building permit was destroyed in 1906. Despite the addition of a neon sign that was installed in 1945, seismic repairs in 1995 and most recently some re-roofing, the structure is largely the same as it was a century ago.

“We can’t really say why the Bourdette Building survived,” Lammers said. “The person who managed the saloon [in 1906] said that he stayed long enough to see the awning in front of the building catch fire, and a sign that was out on the street catch fire, and then he walked away expecting to never see it again.”

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