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San Francisco Landmark #238: San Francisco Labor Temple Capp Street (With Fire Escape)
&
16th Street (Hidden Behind the Trees)
San Francisco Landmark #238: San Francisco Labor Temple 1939 Addition on 16th Street

10 May 2012
(Click Photos to Zoom)

San Francisco Landmark #238
San Francisco Labor Temple
AKA Redstone Building
2926-2948 16th Street at Capp
Built 1914
Expanded 1939

The San Francisco Labor Temple is a steel framed brick and concrete structure designed by the prominent firm of O'Brien and Werner. The 16th Street and Capp Street façades are faced with red common brick laid in an English bond pattern. The east and north walls are made of board formed concrete which has been painted.

In 1939, the San Francisco Labor Council added a three-story east wing that was integrated with the existing exterior. Today the exterior of the building looks much the same as it did when it was built.

From San Francisco Planning Commission Resolution 16638, October 2003.

The San Francisco Labor Temple was built in 1914 by the San Francisco Labor Council as its headquarters and a center of union activity. There were over 130 member unions in the council.

The weekly union newspaper, The Labor Clarion, heralded this "splendid new home of the Labor Council" with its large auditorium and assembly hall, jinks halls, seven lodge halls, and 24 offices. "The opening of the new Labor Temple will add new life to Sixteenth Street, as it will bring thousands of men and women daily into the district who formerly gathered in their headquarters and meetings elsewhere in the city."

The May 1916 Union Directory shows 54 unions using this building for their meetings. The bakers and bakery wagon drivers, the bindery women, blacksmiths, butchers, carriage and wagon workers, cigar makers, coopers, horseshoers, ice and milk wagon drivers, janitors, sail makers, and tailors all met at the Labor Temple.

In the atmosphere of the times when American capitalists had an almost religious fervor for business and office buildings were built to resemble gothic cathedrals (look at the Russ Building, sometime), this building was designated as a haven from the boss, and it was called The Labor Temple. It was the place where workers could come, away from the boss, and the boss' culture. A place where workers could help each other understand the world through working eyes, with a working sensibility. It was the one place the boss couldn't come.

To facilitate this, the Labor Temple had pool and billiard tables, as well as reading rooms, and on the south side of the auditorium, a ladies parlor. On the second floor, the west hallway was the hospital, and the north hallway, the dentist's offices. Medical care at prices workers could afford. In those days, a worker's union membership might be as important as their church or synagogue membership, and the Labor Temple was the center of working class life in San Francisco. Here workers had space for family gatherings, picnics, holiday parties, benefit dances, sports leagues, and theatrical events. The seamstresses might have a dinner with the webpressmen, or the Women's Bindery Union might have a dance with the plumbers.

The most significant historical events at the Labor Temple took place in July 1934 when the longshoremen and maritime workers led San Francisco workers in the momentous General Strike that changed the labor movement forever. The waterfront workers lived on the fringes of society in conditions that, even for those times, were abominable. The longshoremen had to pay for their jobs on the dock; the seafarers were little more than slaves on the ships. They wanted no more than any worker wants: dignity on the job and off, justice, a living wage. They were willing to strike because their conditions were so bad, and they had almost nothing to lose.

The longshoremen and seamen had been out on strike for about three months without much success. The shipping companies were determined to bring the strikers to their knees and stop the strike. They had hired armed guards as well as San Francisco police to do their dirty work. For several days there had been fighting on Rincon Hill. On July 5, just outside of the strike kitchen at 113 Steuart, an unnamed policeman fired into a crowd of longshoremen and their sympathizers, shooting several of them. Two died. The deaths of Howard Sperry and Nick Bordoise stunned the public. This infamous day in San Francisco labor history became know as Bloody Thursday and galvanized the rest of the unions to support the struggle.

The next day Council members packed the auditorium in the Labor Temple with hundreds more spectators jamming the halls overflowing onto 16th Street. A growing demand for a general strike was on the minds of the rank and file members. Fourteen unions had already taken action supporting a general strike and others were planning action.

Harry Bridges was in attendance and asked for immediate action on an International Longshoreman's Association resolution underscoring its position that the question of union hiring halls "cannot possibly be submitted to arbitration." The resolution was approved without dissent as was a second resolution condemning Governor Merriam for calling out the state militia. This resolution urged a peace based on "simple justice and not military force." At this meeting the Labor Council set up a Strike Strategy Committee to "make plans for a strike that will stop every industry in the city."

On July 9, a funeral procession bearing the bodies of the two slain unionists walked down Market Street. Estimates range from 15,000 to 50,00 in the procession. Thousands more lined the sidewalks. There was no talking, no sound except a quiet funeral dirge, and the tramp of feet. The march ended at 17th and Valencia at the mortuary, just two blocks away from the Labor Temple.

Although a number of unions, including the Teamsters, had already decided to strike by July 12, the Labor Council's Strike Committee had not yet formally acted. It was in the audition of the Labor Temple where the vote was taken that sent the 175 unions of the SF Labor Council out on stinker in support of the Longshoremen and Seafarers. The S.F. Chronicle of July 15 reported the strike decision inside the Labor Temple: Amid scenes of wildest conditions, with hundreds of delegates shouting and scores of others in a condition approaching hysteria, labor made the most momentous decision in many years. Throngs milled about the Labor Temple at Sixteenth and Capp streets during four hours... Finally, a hod carrier by the name of Joe Murphy made the motion.

The historic San Francisco General Strike went on four days, ending July 19, 1934. The strike was a success. The maritime workers won the most contested issue, hiring halls with a union selected job dispatcher. Longshoremen won a six-hour day and 30-hour work week while seamen won an eight hour day.

The solidarity with their brothers on the docks shown by the General Strike in San Francisco was heard around America in the midst of the Great Depression. Labor historian David Selvin called it a "new day" when workers acted from a new awareness of common grievances and common purpose, a newly recognized class identity that inspired workers nationwide.

As unions got larger, stronger, and more numerous, the Labor Temple expanded in 1939 to meet the need. But as times changed and unions got richer, it became fashionable for them to build their own union halls. By the 1950's, there were vacant offices in the building. In 1968, with only ten unions still in residence, the building was sold and renamed The Redstone.

In 1997 the Clarion Alley Mural Project, named for the Labor Clarion Newspaper, spent six months doing research which culminated in the murals seen in the lobby and first floor of the building.

From San Francisco Planning Commission Resolution 16638, October 2003.

San Francisco Street Trees

Consider Highclere Castle (Downton Abbey). Lovely building.

Consider the Taj Mahal, the Doge's Palace, the Parthenon, the Lincoln Memorial, the Sagrada Familia, the Winter Palace of the Tsar, the Hagia Sophia, San Francisco's own City Hall and Opera House and Legion of Honor.

Lovely buildings, all. Essential to their appeal is that they stand unobstructed to be admired from any angle and at any distance.

Over the past twenty years or so, many of San Francisco's most distinctive buildings have gone into hiding behind ill-considered street trees. Except for the Spreckels Mansion Spite Hedge which clearly flips the bird to San Francisco, most of these trees were planted in good faith to beautify the streetscape, filter the air, increase property values; but like the cute SPCA puppy who grows up to be a two hundred pound mastiff, many of our street trees would be more at home in the country than the city.

Here is a short list of some striking San Francisco buildings which I wish were more clearly visible. I'm sure the Hop-On Hop-Off tourists would enjoy them too. They can see an ineptly pruned ficus or an ailing plane tree anywhere.

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