Shop Local Disrupted: San Francisco Mission’s depression era facelift

1988 Illustration by Ben Pease.

In our occasional series, Shop Local Disrupted, we are taking a look at how e-commerce is changing retail in San Francisco. To offer some historical perspective, this piece looks back at a Mission Street revived during the country’s worst economic crisis. 

The building at 2205 Mission street is striking. Even with shattered windows, and an exterior of weather-stained plywood, the façade that curves gently around the corner of 18th and Mission Streets retains a sense of grandeur. When cartographer Ben Pease sketched it in 1989, the building was still intact.

“It was clearly from the era of the mezzanine department store,” Pease said. “I didn’t know what it was, but I could tell it had been something. That stretch of Mission was like a miniature downtown. One side of the street was designed in this slightly exuberant art-deco style.”

That style, known as Streamline Moderne by San Francisco City Planners, came to define 2205’s historic designation thanks to the tale of the two men who owned the property from 1912 to 1961 and ran it as the Gernhardt-Strohmaier Stove Store.

Behind its modernization is the story of a little-known New Deal program that offered government-insured loans to residential and commercial property owners. Mission Street, in fact, was saved from the ravages of urban blight, during the Great Depression’s unprecedented economic catastrophe because property owners like Louis J. Gernhardt and Jacob C. Strohmaier modernized their storefronts.

Newspapers at the time report that The Better Housing Program of improvement loans put 12 to 17 million workers to work in neighborhoods and main streets across the country. It was a national effort to end unemployment by building new housing and revitalizing blighted main streets, where empty buildings with faded signs reading “to let” were a common sight. From 1934 to 1943, the government spent $5 billion to build new housing and overhaul storefronts and commercial buildings on main streets across America.

One of those buildings was 2205 Mission St. now abandoned looking and owned by a former Facebook executive. It’s in the final stages of being sold again to a developer who plans to open a medical dialysis site, but the site has been a blight on Mission Street for more than a decade.

The Post-Earthquake Boom

“Mission Making Rapid Strides In Building Business Structures And Apartments” was the headline in the February 17, 1912 issue of the San Francisco Call. “No better sign of the progress of the Mission District could be given than the recent purchase of the southeast corner of Mission and Eighteenth Streets for a theater site.”

Thomas R. Leahy, owner of the Portola Theater on Market Street, planned to open a “high class” theater capable of seating 2,500 people. Leahy, who correctly foresaw the thirst for entertainment in the Mission, purchased two lots and made them one. The ample footprint of the building—147 feet long on 18th street and 65 feet wide on Mission Street— was perfect for a large hall and stage. But Leahy’s timing was off.

By 1912, live entertainment was pushed aside by a growing demand for moving pictures. Leahy, who had constructed a one-story wooden building before he realized the theater plan was a bad idea, prudently decided to rent the building instead.

Two merchants who knew what the Mission needed—stoves and liquor—rented the space. Stoves were in high demand, along with furniture, as earthquake refugees resettled themselves in the new apartment buildings and single family-homes springing up in the Mission. The 1914 Sanborn Insurance map shows the demand for household goods. Eight furniture stores line Mission Street between 18th and 19th streets.

Louis J. Gernhardt, a member and the former president of the Gas Appliance and Stove Fitters union, local 12432, decided to sell stoves. The Mission Stove store’s advantage when it opened in 1912 was offering customers the rare ability to chose among several brands. Gernhardt also had a repair shop in the back of the store. Located next to him was Lotzen’s saloon, run by Hugo Lotzen. A third tenant, a tailor, was wedged between the two businesses.

In 1919, Gernhardt took fellow union member Jacob Carl Strohmaier as a business partner. They changed the name of the store to Gernhardt-Strohmaier, signed a ten-year lease— a risky move, since they wouldn’t own the lot until 1921, when Leahy sold it to them for $70,000—and decided they’d outgrown the small wooden store. Demand for stoves was growing. A bigger building would do a better job capturing the business coming their way.

Even before buying it in 1921, the owners of the stove store ripped the wooden building down, according to a family history. The store that took its place was a stately rectangular building, far larger and expansive in design. A mezzanine lined the second story, with a skylight centered over the sales floor.

Business Card (Gernhardt-Strohmaier Co.), 1922.
Paper Printing, 4 x 2.5 in. Collection of the Oakland Museum of California.
Gift of Mr. Erwin Strohmaier

Glass windows ran the length of the exterior. A large black and white sign bearing their names with the slogan “Quality Counts” was mounted under the roof on both 18th and Mission Streets. The store had an element of transparency. Passersby could look inside the tall glass windows, or browse a sales floor that was illuminated in sunlight. A drinking fountain was installed in front of the entrance.

The wooden building with its formal angularity and ornamental details like the egg-and dart embossed roof trim, reflected permanence, a quality that mattered in a city that had seen so much destroyed in so little time. An ad in the San Francisco Chronicle captures the pride of Gernhardt and Strohmaier. We are the pioneers in San Francisco in introducing Porcelain enameled stoves and we have reason to be proud, for we have made good.

 They weren’t exaggerating. The store became the largest stove store on the Pacific coast, according to newspaper reports. “Business kept increasing every year,” Erwin Strohmaier, the founder’s son, recalled in a short history of the store. This changed abruptly when the stock market crashed.

The Great Depression & the New Deal’s Better Housing Program 

When the depression hit, business on main streets across America evaporated, threatening the mass closing of America’s estimated 1.5 million retail establishments. Retail sales plummeted by 50 percent by 1933. By the mid-thirties, 75 percent of the nation’s commercial buildings were in bad shape. Blighted buildings were bad for everyone’s business. The solution to mass unemployment and urban blight came from the Roosevelt administration in 1934: modernize main street.

“C of C to back Better Housing Program Here” announced the San Francisco Chronicle on September 1st, 1934. The San Francisco Chamber of Commerce had formed the local organization of the Better Housing Program, an offshoot of the National Housing Authority. The program was coming to San Francisco to “stimulate employment in all lines of the building industry.”

By 1932, California lost a staggering 70 percent of construction jobs. In San Francisco, where the building trades accounted for almost ten percent of San Francisco’s total labor force, architects, bricklayers and carpenters all faced unemployment, a huge blow to the unions that flourished during the post-earthquake building boom.

The idea of the Better Housing Program was simple: it didn’t provide relief, but low-interest loans backed by the federal government. Private capital was “coaxed out of hibernation” and enlisted in the effort to put men back to work, building new homes and re-designing commercial buildings. A public relations campaign was launched with its own literature and slogan, “Modernize Main Street”. Booklets were sent to 8,000 participating cities nationwide.

The Chamber of Commerce set itself to the task of convincing property owners to apply for $700,000 in loans and begin the lucrative business of “beautifying the city,” which would bring back “prosperity without taxation.” The real estate pages of the San Francisco Chronicle were drafted into the effort to get hesitant property owners to apply for the loans. Organized by the Chamber of Commerce, an “elaborate canvass” of the entire city was announced, with civic organizations, churches, and merchants associations participating, according to newspaper reports of the time.

By October 1934, businesses had applied for $400,000 in loans.

The Chronicle ran laudatory articles on San Francisco merchants who had modernized their stores. Lachman Brothers, one of the grandest furniture stores on Mission Street, was praised for modernizing and Gernhardt-Strohmaier was saluted too, three years before they undertook modernization.

In an October 24, 1934 story entitled “Home of the Range,” applaud Gernhardt-Strohmaier for offering a wide range of stoves and newer gas ranges. “In the true spirit of these modernizing days, Gernhardt Strohmaier offer a reconditioning service declared to be unique on the Pacific Coast.” The gas ranges that were purchased with low-interest Better Housing loans, showed that modernizing efforts weren’t limited to building renovation or redesign.

By November, the Chamber of Commerce, declaring the program a success, reported that $800,000 in loans had been pledged, a boom that would create an expected 23,035 jobs. Later in the decade, the program became known as the Credit Modernization Plan, reflecting the emphasis on merchants. By 1936, 47 percent of the low-interest loans were issued to commercial businesses.

“In the Thirties, the San Francisco Store was remodeled inside and out,” wrote Erwin Strohmaier. (The company had acquired a second store in Oakland in 1923) The angular edges were smoothed and rounded into a curved exterior made of steel and porcelain.

“This kind of material was experimental at that time,” noted Strohmaier in the history. The porcelain enamel was manufactured by the Ferro Enameling Company, in Oakland. The luminous porcelain tile changed the look of the store completely: it was now pale ivory, with maroon and green trim.

San Francisco Public Library, 1938.

Porcelain tile was one of the most innovative building materials on the market. Durable, and easy to clean, it was the perfect foil for the large neon sign the partners added—the second largest in San Francisco—which was mounted on the roof. Glowing in neon letters were the words “Universal Stoves,” the brand of stove that the company had sold since opening. A clock tower was built and a “single face” neon clock manufactured by the Pacific Neon Company was installed.

The porcelain tile must have reflected the light of the sign and the clock, making a radiant beacon on a clear nights, or glowing softly in the fog. Gernhardt and Strohmaier paid $9,115 for this work, or roughly $158,731 in 2017 dollars. The partners were proud of their new building and celebrated their newly remodeled store in ads they ran in the Chronicle.

Erwin Strohmaier doesn’t mention if the founders took out a loan to modernize their building. But, they, like other merchants from Mission Street to Union Square, undoubtedly responded to the call to modernize. This is clear from their ad copy and the re-design of their building. In 1939, the Mission Street Merchants Association was honored by the Chamber of Commerce for convincing 50 businesses in the Mission to modernize.

Gernhardt-Strohmaier closed in 1961. The founders had died and the sons wanted to do something other than sell stoves. The store’s façade lasted 75 years until December 2013, when then-owner Guadalupe Hernandez defied the city’s historic preservation standards and removed its historic porcelain façade. The workings of the neon clock are visible; the glass that protected the mechanism shattered long ago and the clock hands are frozen in place. In 2014, Owen Van Natta, a former Facebook executive purchased the building for $5 million. After racking up multiple complaints and three notices of violation, the a developer is in the final stages of purchasing it and plans are underway to make it into a site for medical dialysis.

The building of the future now sits marooned in the present. As capital reshapes the Mission, and retail companies struggle to keep their doors open, 2205 Mission St. has only the promise of being renovated – a promise made earlier but never followed through on.

Pease, who illustrated the building long ago, hopes it will be restored. “I was glamorized by it,” he said. “They should put it back the way it was. They should fix it.”

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2 Comments

  1. michael johnson

    This fine article aptly portrays how change, “disruption”, shifts of population, businesses opening closing and adapting to a changing city and world are the order of the day not just a nerfarious plan. It shows that there are forces that dictate change in concert with and also above and beyond capital, and that to solely blame capital is myopic and ahistorical. Population shifts, historical events and technological advances are major forces that dictate how and where capital is used. It also shows that attempts to remain in a golden (imaginary) past while well intentioned always fail because change is constant and inevitable. If not the residents of 1912 may have kept things “perfect” as they were then… Good article.

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