Spring Valley Water Company
Constructed in 1922 by the San Franciscan architect Willis Polk, the office building located at 425 Mason St has an architectural identity unique to San Francisco but has sadly sat vacant since 2003 as an important yet largely overlooked structure of San Francisco history. Located in the Lower Nob Hill/ Tenderloin area of the city this intriguing yet unassuming structure has ties to the historic water planning efforts within the city as well as architectural details made to emphasize this connection. Standing 7 stories tall and an interior size of 34,500 sq ft the building is constructed of reinforced concrete with a stucco facade and relates well in both height, color, and materials to surrounding structures.
Water Textured Facade
The buildings characteristic feature is the street level facade, of a sculptural relief of dripping water, visually embodying the buildings connection to its original use as the offices of the Spring Valley Water Company, which held a monopoly on water services to the city of San Francisco from 1860 until 1930. Spring Valley Water became known as corrupt, providing water services tho those with influence and money while the rest of the people living in a city surrounded by sea water struggled to have access to a fresh and stable water supply. In the book "Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthy Ruin" the author goes into detail on this fight for water between the people of San Francisco and Spring Valley Water Company and in an excerpt the author states:
Between the mid 1860s and 1930, San Francisco’s water supply was controlled by the Spring Valley Water Company. As one of the most powerful private monopolies in the state, Spring Valley was controlled by, and used largely for the benefit of, the local land barons and financiers who authorized the development of a wide variety of often-destructive hydrologic projects. Efforts to de-privatize the city’s water supply began under the Progressive mayoral administration of James Phelan, and pressure mounted after the failure of the water supply during the 1906 Earthquake and fire. Eventually the Hetch Hetchy source was secured for the city, ending Spring Valley’s corrupt monopoly....The Spring Valley Water Company was a private company that held a monopoly on water rights in San Francisco from 1860 to 1930. Run by land barons, its 70-year history was fraught with corruption, land speculation, favoritism towards the moneyed elite, and widespread ill will from the general populace.
This beautiful relief work was the design of Emily Michals, a San Francisco high school art teacher at Mission High school, who worked with and inspired many figures within the Catholic art community. Beyond her work as a teacher she also worked in the office of Willis Polk, the architect of 425 Mason, as a designer of decorative, sculptural elements for churches, banks, and other buildings within San Francisco. In an oral interview (pages 75 - 92 of the PDF document) with Mrs. Michals, conducted on May 27th, 1981 by the Regional Oral History Office out of Bancroft Library, of the University of California, Berkeley. The interview of Mrs. Michals makes note in a biographical statement from her that:
She was an architectural scale model maker in the office of Willis Polk, and other architects after his death. She did architectural ornamental sculpture, such as the facade of the Water Department Building on Mason St., San Francisco, figures over the Post Street entrance of the Crocker National Bank, Montgomery and Post Streets, figures for the forestry department panorama and models for heads of wax and papier-mache mannequins.
Additionally Mrs. Michals also stated her opinion on liturgical and contemporary art as:
"I had intended to produce figures and reliefs in terracotta for the church upon my retirement, BUT, when I saw the kind of monstrosities in scrap metal and the brutal faces of some statuary being installed in some churches, I quit. I believe that art should inspire BEAUTY, PEACE. 'The tranquility of ORDER is PEACE. ' A lot of contemporary confusion and chaos is expressed in what we call contemporary art. I wonder if it has an inspiring place in the church?"
425 Mason St., Today
Upon the sale of Spring Valley Water to the City and County of San Francisco on March 3rd, 1930 the building served as the headquarters of the San Francisco Water department until 2003 when it was declared as a surplus property and placed onto the market. As of June 2007 the sale price was listed at $5,6000,000.
Today the building still remains unoccupied waiting for a buyer to reinhabit the aging structure and ultimately take preservation efforts to restore and stabilize the iconic building, it's deteriorating facade and other historic details.
Historic Photos (unknown date)