A warehouse on 18th and Hampshire streets offers a glimpe into 19th century San Francisco. Photo courtesy of Google Maps

Another in our series of stories on odd buildings. We all see them: they look interesting, but it’s unclear what’s going on inside. We’re finding that many have a rich history.

Four times a week, a businessman comes to the big gray building on the quiet corner of 18th and Hampshire. He loads up a truck with imported goods from as far away as Japan and Germany, and drives across town to restock the JC Market, a vast store that shares the 800 block of Jackson Street with a seafood market and a florist.

In a sense, that drive by owner Raymond C. Leong offers a glimpse of San Francisco’s current consumer economy — big on promoting local, but very much tied to global trade. In fact, trace the warehouse’s ownership back through time and it becomes clear that the history of Plot 4014/002A, later 2530 18th St., offers a remarkably accurate reading of the Mission’s and San Francisco’s past.

Imagine that it’s 1840 and John Center, a Scottish immigrant who eventually owned the land where the warehouse stands, is arriving in San Francisco. The town was a settlement of fewer than 500 residents. He was only 23.

A wagon road on Mission Street threaded through sand dunes and marshes to the waterfront. Mission Creek flowed out of Mission Bay, across Alabama and Harrison streets and up 18th Street into an expanse of grassy, flat lands that were part of large ranches.

Now Mission street is crowded with taquerias, produce markets and dollar stores, and Mission Creek stops long before 18th and Harrison.

During Center’s early years here, San Francisco was a backwater, but the young man’s timing was perfect. Eight years after his arrival, the Gold Rush hit and the United States annexed California. San Francisco’s population jumped to nearly 60,000 in 1860, and opportunities abounded for farmers and merchants selling goods the newcomers needed.

According to a planning report called “City Within a City,” after annexation and the sorting out of titles, the city “began the process of granting parcels. From 1867-1871, the City granted approximately 1,700 individual properties within the Mission District to private citizens as well as to real estate companies.”

“John Center? He owned the Mission,” said Tom Carey, a librarian at the San Francisco Public Library’s History Center.

Center amassed hundreds of acres in the Mission, including the land where the gray warehouse stands today. His 1908 obituary in the San Francisco Chronicle reports that Center made a fortune selling “vegetables, berries, and other garden truck.”

“In a single year,” the article continues, “he is said to have cleared $30,000 from one onion patch.”

Center was a member of the prominent California Pioneer Society, a group of men who came to California in 1850 or earlier; some members of the group are memorialized by street names such as Bryant and Van Ness.

Carey and other historians have speculated that Center Street, which became 16th Street in 1892, was named for John Center, but that could not be confirmed by historic records, and city ordinances from that far back are perhaps lost for good.

Center’s ingenuity saved Mission lives during the 1906 fire.

“Many of the residents of the Mission,” his obituary reads, “owe the saving of their homes … to the foresight which Center displayed in having … constructed his own water system.”

According to the article, his system supplied four fire engines with enough water to stop the flames.

When Center died at age 91, the farming fields had long been covered over by industrial businesses, which flourished after the construction, in 1860, of a railroad that connected San Jose and San Francisco, running through what is now San Jose Avenue and Harrison Street.

In 1870, Mission Creek was manually filled to create land needed for continuing development in the Mission. San Francisco became the most important manufacturing center west of Chicago, and between the 1880s and 1950s, one-third of all San Franciscans made their living in industrial production, much of which happened in the Mission.

Center participated heavily in that growth, which is probably why he listed himself in the 1880 census as a “capitalist.” He owned the “John Center Company and the California Cotton Mills, and was a director of two banks, Mission and Mission Savings,” according to the city planning report.

When Center’s nephew George Center, a city supervisor, sold the land in 1924, it’s not surprising that the buyer, Sartorius Company, was involved in manufacturing.

In the early 1900s, the Sartorius Company manufactured ornamental iron and bronze for things like elevators, gates and safes. A 1905 book on San Francisco commerce described the company as having “integrity, reliability and excellent workmanship.”

After the 1906 fire, the company moved to 15th and Utah streets, where Albert F. Kindt took over as president. Kindt had the “eye of a good business man,” according to a 1908 Daily News Article.

The Sartorius Company moved its business to the Mission, where it built the wooden warehouse seen today. Even though wood structures were more susceptible to destruction, and rare after 1906, they were quick and easy to build.

The Mission at the time was filled with other small and medium-sized manufacturing companies, including, according to a city planning report, such operations as vinegar and piano works; trunk, broom, candle and soap factories; a brewery; a planing mill; and a dairy. More commercial-industrial operations were established in the less populated southern Mission. Shoe factories, a potter and a house-mover were located near the railroad station at Valencia and 25th streets; lumber yards came to fill the empty, irregular plots along the railroad alignment.

The property on Hampshire was owned by Sartorius until 1974, when JC Market’s Raymond Leong and his two brothers purchased it. They’ve been the owners ever since, using it to store their market’s products.

In 2008, the San Francisco Planning Department conducted a survey of buildings in the area. Moses Corrette of the survey team told Mission Loc@l that planners found the warehouse to be “not architecturally significant.”

That may be so, but it does have a part in Mission history.

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  1. My ancestors were personal friends with John Center while living in Scotland. They were so impressed with what he was doing in SF. (He shared details while on a visit back home) that they traveled back with him to SF and eventually migrated to Oregon in 1870-01. William Chalmers Family, Aberdeenshire. And yes Center St. WAS named after him according to our complete book of Heritage.

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  2. I will read and enjoy more articles in this series. Terrific story line idea.

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  3. Interesting historical article. Let’s not forget that the California Pioneeers Society was a remarkably racist group. Read any one of the books they published on the history of San francisco and note the references to the inferior Jewish and “mongoloid” races, etc. They were avowedly against Asians moving into SF and are one of the reasons Asians couldn’t own property in SF until late last century.

    Racist white europeans are the history of San Francisco, less we forget…

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    1. 1946 is the “middle of last century”, not “late last century”

      It’s important to get these things right.

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