When my host removed the chain and bolt and pushed the doors open, my breath caught. The first words out of my mouth were, “It’s stunning.” Stepping into such a grand, open, and iconically historic space is moving. To stand almost alone within it, listening to someone share its story, one of great historic value to our city, followed by even greater mistreatment and disrespect by its own, is enough to break your heart. The 16th Street station is beautiful, yet in shambles. What I would soon learn is that much of what I was looking at was actually remnants of a movie set. Once I readjusted my vision, I still saw what it could be. With the tremendous light hitting the white marble floors, I turned my mindset to one of hope, hope that someday it will once again become the grand destination it was in its past. So as I share both its history and its present, I chose to blend them together into one tone, a nostalgic twist to remind us of what could once again…be grand.
The 16th Street station was commissioned by Southern Pacific and designed in the Beaux-Arts Style by renowned Chicago architect Jarvis Hunt. Deemed to be a “Fine $275,000 Structure” by the Oakland Tribune as the site was staked out in 1911, the building was completed in 1912 and replaced the old wooden depot just in time for the up-to-date electric system of local railcars, and to help support the population increase following the 1906 earthquake. The station was two tiered, with commuter lines such as Key System and the East Bay Electric Lines running on the first elevated tracks west of the Mississippi. The lower level serviced long distance rail lines, bringing people into Oakland in droves to what was the terminus of the Transcontinental Railroad. At the height of its use, the station saw over 400 trains come through per day.
The station was the first welcome sight for many African Americans who came to Oakland as part of what was called the Great Migration. As oppression in the southern states sent so many north, both Southern Pacific and Oakland’s shipyards offered job opportunities to those newly arrived. As rail travel peaked in the 1920’s, The Pullman Company became the largest employer of African Americans on the railroads, with over 20,000 employed as Pullman Car Porters. As subpar wages, long hours, and poor working conditions came to the forefront, the first African American labor union was formed, The Brotherhood of the Sleeping Car Porters. Since Oakland was a critical hub of the porter community, the West Coast branch of BSCP was set up not far from the station on Wood Street, and C.L. Dellums, uncle to former mayor and Congressman Ron Dellums, became its local leader.
The first step of the downward spiral of the 16th Street station came in 1941, when the local electric commuter trains were abandoned. Amtrak took over the station in 1971, and it remained in use until the Loma Prieta Earthquake in 1989. Situated extremely close to the Cypress Freeway section that collapsed, the signal tower became a front row seat to the disaster for the two signal operators on shift. Due to damage from the earthquake, use of building ceased later that year. For five years, Amtrak ran lines into a temporary structure that was put into place beside it, before officially announcing its closing on August 5, 1994. The tracks were removed as the new freeway structure was put into place, and what was once a continuous line of travel for so many, became two sticks into a empty void.
So what happened? As with so many abandoned buildings, theft, squatting, graffiti, and resident pigeons took over. All the plumbing and electrical was stolen from within its walls. Deterioration was fast tracked by neglect, and the granite and terra cotta facade became marred with tags. Eight years later in 2002, BRIDGE Housing purchased the abandoned building and the landmark became the center of a plan to build affordable housing which would induce tax revenue to be able to revive the structure. Then 2007-2008 happened, and the plan was slowed.
What does the future hold? As I see it, hope. Frankie Whitman, the Commercial Development Representative for BRIDGE Housing who took me on a tour, told me they are currently reviewing a new proposal for development, one which includes event use for the grand hall, a restaurant in the old baggage wing, and an urban garden in the front. However, this is not the first sign of interest, previous developers have been overwhelmed by the task and turned their sights elsewhere. While its decline has been virtually stopped with the used of fencing, security guards, and motion detectors, to bring the building back to life will of course cost millions upon millions. BRIDGE consulted a graffiti removal company at one point, and to remove the tagging while preserving the historic surfaces was upwards of $100,000. The space continues to garner interest, use for such prestigious events as Mayor Libby Schaff’s 50th birthday party and fundraiser are signs of hope. Rentals for weddings are up, BRIDGE is reviewing contracts for nuptials as far out as Spring 2017. The space is an event planners true test, with no electrical and plumbing, generators and portable toilets are brought in.
And what about the movie set I mentioned? The space has been used in such films as Funny Lady (1974), Rent (2004) and Hemingway & Gellhorn (2012). The latter is the movie which “left its mark” on the current state of the interior. The HBO film about Ernest Hemingway and his journalist wife Martha Gellhorn during the Spanish Civil War starred Nicole Kidman & Clive Owen. The network spent $200,000 on the interior to transform the space into the the famed Hotel Florida in Madrid, Spain, a meeting place for journalists in Spain during the war. While the ceiling is still in its original state, much of the walls are the result of a faux, distressed set design. There is still a “staircase to nowhere” which while marble in appearance, is actually plywood. Window treatments and a bank of old, retro elevators round out the stations improved appearance.
Yet as I said in the beginning, the original beauty is still there. Expansive white marble, a set of four beautiful, wood waiting room benches, and tucked away in a dark side room, the old fountain and souvenir sign.
I will hold out hope that with continued support, publicity, and love from the community of Oakland and beyond the 16th Street station will one day become a place for people to enjoy. Just as it was once a place so many passed through, a beacon of hope as they first stepped foot in our city, I hold hope that it will be passed through again, and not passed by.
I would like to thank the following people for their help and generosity of time:
Frankie Whitman, BRIDGE Housing – for more information about BRIDGE housing and their efforts to restore the 16th Street station please visit www.16thstreetstation.com
Allan Fisher, Western Railway Museum – located just 45 minutes away in Suisun City, the museum has over 50 historic trains on display as well as 22 miles of track for their daily train rides. Please note they are currently only open on weekends but expand to Wed-Sun from Memorial Day to Labor Day. For more information please visit www.wrm.org
Dorothy Lazard, Oakland Public Library, Oakland History Room – for her help and guidance via email and during my visit.
Please be sure to check out WOW Factor in West Oakland Part 1, my inspiring visit to the urban farm located in front of the station, and its work bring hopeful futures to local teens through its sustainable and organic flower farm.
Will the town save one of its most beautiful and neglected landmarks?, by Jeff Swenerton, Alameda Publishing Group January/Feburary 2013
Whistles signal end of an era for railroad tower, by Don Buchholz, Oakland Tribune 10/22/1995
New S.P. Depot is underway, Oakland Tribune 1/23/1911
Pullman Blue Tour Phamplet – 1997
Oakland’s historic 16th Street station celebrates centennial, new role in community, 10/2/2012 – oaklandnorth.net
Nicole, Clive, Ernest and the Spanish Civil War, 4/23/2012 – diablomag.com
1st historic image shown of the grand hall – Photo taken of an image in Western Architect July 1917
Image of the original wooden depot – Courtesy of the Western Railway Museum
Historic image of the station’s exterior – Photo taken of an image in Western Architect July 1917
Historic image of the station’s exterior with trolley car in front – Courtesy of the Western Railway Museum
Historic image of the rear of the station, tracks, and man pulling the cart – Courtesy of the Western Railway Museum
Recent image of the upper platform (with edits) – sourced with permission from Marcin Wichary via flickr
Recent head on image of the 2 track ends – sourced with permission from Marcin Wichary via flickr
Historic image of the rear tracks with train on upper track – Courtesy Oakland Public Library, Oakland History Room
Historic image of the rear upper platform with the clock – photo taken of an image in Western Architect July 1917
Historic image of the front of the building with the cars parked in front – Courtesy Oakland Public Library, Oakland History Room
Historic image of the grand hall – Courtesy Oakland Public Library, Oakland History Room
All other photos of interior and exterior taken by Adrienne Schell