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February 25, 2007

Baker-Hamilton building

Baker-Hamilton building: 601 Towsend St, San Francisco... the main Adobe building in San Francisco... I didn't know it was on the National Registry of Historic Places, until reading this PDF from the California Preservation Foundation. "The Baker & Hamilton building is the last remaining piece of an industrial and commercial complex important in the development of San Francisco and the West. The building was originally designed for the Pacific Hardware and Steel Company by architects Sutton & Weeks and constructed in 1904-1905. Completion of this building initiated the development of its surrounding neighborhood as a manufacturing warehouse district in San Francisco. The building survived the 1906 San Francisco earthquake without damage and narrowly avoided the resulting fire." More historic notes after the jump....

Even though Baker-Hamilton sits on flat ground near sea level, and is surrounded by the China Basin inlet, the old Mission Creek and lots of reclaimed land, the ground beneath the building itself is solid... the Baker-Hamilton building survived the 1906 earthquake (and fire), and was retrofitted further after it survived the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.

Those big wood pillars throughout the center of the building... those trees must have started growing in the 1700s, to reach such girth when harvested for use in the 1904 construction...!

A very old photo shows why there's railroad track in front of the building... the right side of the old photo goes west on Townsend and shows that what's now the front was originally a side, where equipment could be loaded directly from railcars. The left side of this photo looks south on 7th St and shows the original main entrance to the building. The King St. side held covered loading docks for truck deliveries.

The San Francisco library has a catalog from the Pacific Hardware and Steel Company, which merged with the Baker-Hamilton Company in the first half of the 20th century. Here are some butter churns sold out of this building; here are some files... other searches show people using Baker-Hamilton for fine knives, engines and ploughs.

Amazon lists "A century of hardware and steel,: Being the story of Baker & Hamilton, a business institution which has helped to write the history of California and the Pacific Coast", a 119-page book from 1949 by David Warren Ryder (who also wrote a 1939 book on Emperor Norton, of whom Malaclypse the Younger once said "Everybody understands Mickey Mouse. Few understand Hermann Hesse. Hardly anybody understands Einstein. And nobody understands Emperor Norton.").

This 1956 area map has some more recent overlays (PacBell Park, eg), but clearly shows the railroad understructure of the area. A homerun baseball could conceivably drift straight down from McCovey Cove to within a block of the building. The old Banana Triangle area was the main locus for banana distribution to the West... the United Fruit boats from Central America would be pulled into the Channel by tugs, then pulled backwards out again because there wasn't enough room to turn around. Del Monte didn't build their historic China Basin Building there until 1925.

Railway photos from the 1960s and 70s, showing clearly the 7th St. front of the building.

A photo in the 1990s showed how the building housed a number of different antique and curio shops.

Jen deHaan posted photos of the day Macromedia moved in, Jan 24 2005. Vera Fleischer took photos of different Macromedia buildings in the area.

An older profile of the Baker-Hamilton building is still available at The Internet Archive.

If you're in the area, then Anchor Brewing offers daily tours and is just a few blocks away... Henry's Hunan is on Brannan near 7th and has some of the best Chinese food around... Mars Bar is the traditional after-work joint. (People swear by the grilled cheese sandwiches at Suze's Cafe, but I haven't dared to brave it myself.)


The Baker-Hamilton building played a key role in hardware support for the western United States, connecting rail and sea with landlines, the Capital of the West with the world. The people of Baker-Hamilton didn't make things themselves so much as provide others with the practical means to do so. When railroads were the main distribution channel, this building helped technology producers to reach their audiences, bringing enabling technologies to all. It's a very appropriate heritage, that.

Posted by JohnDowdell at February 25, 2007 10:16 PM