Schlage Lock, SF: “Green” Housing Swallows an Industrial Giant

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By Jonathan Haeber

schlage_lock_factory

In my first few months of ‘seriously’ exploring, I formed a personal list of targets. I was pleased to have visited, four years later, the inside of each and every item on that list… With the exception of one building.

The Schlage lock and key factory has a storied history in the annals of San Francisco industry. Walter Schlage emigrated from Germany after completing his apprenticeship at the renowned Carl Zeiss Optical Works in Jena, Germany. After a jaunt across the Atlantic, and a brief foray through Brazil and the West Indes as a ship engineer, he landed on the shores of San Francisco – not much older than myself.

When he arrived in early 1900s, San Francisco’s Visitacion Valley was little more than a railway stop for the Southern Pacific, occupied by a veritable playground for San Francisco businessmen, including lodging, trap & rifle shooting, boxing, drinking, and other forms of “recreation.” Schlage purchased his three-acre tract of land from a local maker of custom mining machinery, the Bodinson Manufacturing Company. He hired Bay Area Architect William Peyton Day to build a Spanish colonial administration building – quite a flourishing design for what was – at the time – a very utilitarian industry. In addition to the four-story office building, Day designed Schlage’s Factory 1, a quintessential early-20th century industrial design, with its trademark sawtooth roof and triangular shape – not too unlike the iconic designs of famed Ford architect Albert Kahn.

industrial_washroom

Today, the administration building looks exactly as it did over eight decades ago. The same fire escape descends into a dark corner where pigeons have made a roost; where standing water stagnates. Today, this 1926 “spanish colonial” is all that will soon remain of what was once a central hub of San Francisco industry. The rest of the site will be quickly converted into affordable housing and “Green” certified condominiums — surely a boon for the Visitacion Valley neighborhood, but also a sad loss for what had been a prescient reminder of San Francisco’s proud, industrial past.

Schlage’s Toxic Legacy

Fast Facts

  • Schlage was acquired by Ingersoll Rand in 1974.  Schlage Lock then became part of the Ingersoll Rand Door Hardware Group.
  • Tetrachloroethylene (TCE) and Trichloroethylene (PCE) can affect human central nervous system and can have both acute and chronic health effects.
  • 3,074 pounds of VOCs have been estimated to have been removed via soil vapor extraction at Schlage since 1999.

I wouldn’t pretend to be opposed to such projects. In fact, Schlage was a rampant destroyer of the area’s water table, contributing – at minimum – 3074 pounds of VOCs to the groundwater (and that’s just the stuff that’s been filtered out through remediation efforts). But make no mistake about it: This project’s intention is to cover up and end what has become a legal maelsorm for two big corporations – a developer on one side and an industrial multinational on another (both have claimed that the other should assume responsibility for cleaning up the mess of VOCs).

When I first discovered this site in 2004, I had attempted to go the “legal” route of photographing the historical complex. I contacted the planning commission, who put me in touch with a representative at Schlage, who then put me in touch with someone at the parent company, Ingersroll Rand. In the end, probably because Ingersroll Rand didn’t want a young photographer “snooping around” their industrial trash heap, I was denied access. Little did I know what I would find out later: That the grounds were covered in Tetrachloroethylene (TCE) and Trichloroethylene (PCE) – synthetic compounds that are known to affect the central nervous system and cause acute health effects, even in small amounts.

Development Victory for Paragon leads to “Demolition Celebration”

My final chance came in early 2009, when the approval for demolishment had gone through. Hundreds of millions of dollars were involved in the purchase of land, soon to be followed by a multi-year legal battle between Ingersroll-Rand and Universal Paragon Corporation. It all culminatd in February of 2009 with a “Demolition Celebration” (an oxymoronic phrase, if there is one, to most explorers). It was my last chance, and I had to take it.

demolishment_schlage_sf

Not much remained when I first entered the Schlage complex. Demolition crews graded mechanical components from A1 to A18. Each memo likely indicated the component’s historic merit, because the plan called for “mitigation” of historic industrial components. It’s likely that this meant most of the demo crew would be able to keep whatever spoils remained. As I climbed the balustrades of the historic building, pigeons were alerted to my presence. They fluttered into another room. The main lobby was buffeted by original varnished paneling. Each room contained two of its own, dedicated arched windows, over 8 feet high each — not something that every office monkey could brag about these days. There was an original safe for every floor. On the top floor, a lone, dead pigeon – decayed to its bones – remained. Within a few inches of its contorted corpse, a demo crewman with an astute sense of humor claimed the corpse with a piece of labeled, blue tape — just like other crewmembers had with historic dials and panels downstairs.

pigeon_skeleton

I spent all day walking among the corridors and twisting passageways of this Escher-like atmosphere. There were blueprints that contained plans for Ingersroll Rand’s satellite lock operations in Tecate, Mexico — a real relic of its own merits, illustrating the start of America’s move into offshore “maquiladoras” – the very deindustrialization of the American landscape that has put us in the quandry that we find ourselves today.

Ironically, by the time it had been acquired by Ingersroll-Rand, Schlage didn’t even use its own locks on the doors of its own factory. I made this discovery in an upstairs room (one of many rooms in Schlage’s self-heralded “Schlage University,” an in-house learning institution in all things lock and lock-related); on the door of that upstairs room, I looked in shock at a Chinese-produced door lock – its own ominous reminder of what we had become in San Francisco – one of the most marked dichotomies in history. In less than a hundred years, we had gone from a producer of mining machinery, metal locks, and vast naval ships, to a producer of 0′s and 1′s inside of microchips and database-driven social networking sites.

sean_at_schlage

In a way, I’m glad to see a site like Schlage leave the Visatacion Valley. Its contribution had long passed when its counterpart factory broke ground in Tecate. At least now, it will provide homes for people, and maybe contribute a little green space. I only hope that future generations will look at the lone remaining Spanish Colonial building, and wonder why it’s there. I hope they will glance at the mysterious lettering near the Muni stop that says “Safety Subway,” and ask about its origin.

Schlage may have a dirty past, it may have passed its time – but it doesn’t mean that knowledge of its past can’t help us move forward.

Further Research

Environmental Impact Report EIR (with Historical Background)

Developer’s Web Site

11 comments on “Schlage Lock, SF: “Green” Housing Swallows an Industrial Giant

  1. Scott Haefner on said:

    Wow, Jon, incredible piece. I’m always impressed by your writings, but this is the best one yet. And one of the better collection of pics I’ve seen from you on top of that. I hope I get a chance to see it before it’s too late.

  2. Jonathan Haeber on said:

    Thanks Scott!

  3. Andy Frazer on said:

    Jon,

    Wonderful article, and great writing, as always. I’m sorry I wasn’t able to make it up to the City to see this place.

    Andy

  4. AmyHeiden on said:

    Fantastic writing. You have a skill for using words. These are some great photos. I agree with Scott, one of your best sets. Glad you were finally able to see this place…

  5. Basim on said:

    Great writeup, Jon!

  6. Its kind of a bittersweet thing to see a factory such as this demolished in SF. It reminds people that at one time, it was possible to have an ordinary “Joe Job” and actually afford to live here versus now where you almost have to be making 6 figures.

  7. Henrik Kam on said:

    Hi Jon – Fine piece on the legacy on what was one time SF’s largest industrial employer!
    I think I met you during the Demo Party; I was upstairs making portraits of some of the employees who had come to view the place one last time. I have now posted the a site with the images from the last 5 months of shooting the demise of Schlage. Check it out –
    http://web.me.com/henrikkam/SCHLAGE_LOCK/Home.html

  8. Piper McKnight on said:

    That was great! It was far more interesting than anything I’ve read in the Chronicle OR the Tribune in quite a while. And are you the only historian that chronicled its demise? Seems like an unique opportunity for you, if so. Regardless, I love your work, your way of thinking, and your writing – it makes me proud to be a Geographer! (BA, Humboldt State, 1992)

  9. bonnie on said:

    Thank you so much for sharing this piece of San Francisco history in an often overlooked neighborhood…I lived 3 blocks to the east from Schlage Lock during the mid to late 1990′s…I always wondered what it looked like inside, and imagined it to be quite grand…It’s just too bad you weren’t able to gain access before so much of the internal demolition had already occurred…I’m sure that would have made for a pretty awesome photo set…Thank you again…I hope you plan on doing more photo sets in San Francisco, you’ll never run out of beautiful and historically interesting locations…

  10. I liked the info on the history of the company. Being in the biz it is always nice to get a bit more data about a company that is near & dear to my heart. I took a training class there and we were taken to the cafe’ and allowed to order what ever we wanted which was fun. It was also bitter sweet as we were told that we were the last group that would ever be taking a class in the building. Most of the operations were long gone by then.
    I do not doubt that there is pollution there. And I do not doubt that different corporations have been more or less ethical about their handling of such things. But there seems to be a spin that “corporation bad”, “green good” that just makes me want to puke. In noway am I condoning polutting the Earth as we all have to live here but many people hate technology. It is technology that is pulling those chemicals back out of the ground…
    Being in the biz as I said I was astounded by the amount of work that Schlage farmed out along the Peninsula. A guy I took machine shop class with at CSM was making a huge automated machine that assembled latches. A company in Redwood City called Holt Tool & Die that I was doing work for was making stampings for the Schlage K Series mortise locks. When I questioned them about what I saw they showed me many more projects they were working on. So the loss of Schlage is the old pebble in the pond ripple effect. I would personally rather wander through an old industrial complex or warehouse district than to see the Schlage site be the planned,”Green”, high density housing with rent control and low cost housing, retail street level master planned community.
    I think Schlage has contributed more to San Francisco then people would ever think.
    Long live the spirt that built such a fine company and the United States of America!
    Doug Schneider

  11. Art Fernandez on said:

    I don’t know how or why, but I stumbled upon your post after doing a google search looking for updates on the old Schlage Site. I think it was because today I caught a glimpse of the old 1920′s headquarters building from CalTrain as I sped by and thought of my father.

    Schlage for me and my family was synonymous with everythin in our lives. My dad started at Schlage in the 1940′s knew the Schlage family as well as the Kendricks and went on to manage and run International Operations as their Director from the late 50′s until his retirement in 1977. So, as a kid, I personally knew the Schlages and the Kendricks and spent many an hour at the Schlage facility. I was there when they dedicated the new headquarters about 1 mile south of the old HQ building.

    When my father passed away, I went through his old archives and found historical shots of the factory, the offices, and also the many events in the company’s history that my family was a part of. It made me want to dig deeper and get back to the factory before it all came down and the memories were tied to the past and not bound to buildings and places that no longer existed.

    Thank you for being brave enough to do what I had thought about doing for years–photographing the plant. I had thought about many times contacting IngersollRand through my family contacts to gain access, but never did.

    The valley needs redevelopment and I wish things would move forward. But, I now find it ironic that I essentially have the same commute to and from work via CalTrain and see what’s left of Schlage every day. While they were a company and no question a poluter, the people behind the company before IngersollRand were people that gave a lot and I personally am endebted to that experience.

    Art Fernandez
    (son of Arturo Fernandez, fmr Director of Export Operations, Schlage Lock Company, San Francisco)

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