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By Jonathan Haeber
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.
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
- Schlage was acquired by Ingersoll Rand in 1974.Â 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.
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.
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.
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.
Environmental Impact Report EIR (with Historical Background)