On the Waterfront


The Del Monte Warehouse,an Icon of Alameda’s Industrial Past, Endures

Most Alamedans think houses when they conjure up the special character of the Island City—thousands of them, in every conceivable style from Victorian to modern and beyond. Civic monuments like City Hall may also come to mind, or commercial landmarks like Croll’s.
    But how many Alamedans think
industrial? More and more, I hope, as the city’s waterfront heritage continues to  vanish piece by piece, year by year, fading away from neglect or suddenly reduced to rubble.
    Alameda’s oldest industrial property—the factory of the Dow Pumping Engine Company, built in 1909 at the northwest corner of Oak Street and Clement Avenue—is crumbling into decay. Nearby stood the Van Niel Foundry, a 1919 industrial landmark torn down in 2008 for a parking lot. And don’t forget the  sprawling ensemble at Alameda Point, those mighty hangars and streamlined barracks, whose fate remains utterly unresolved.
    Thankfully, the Del Monte Warehouse, one of Alameda’s finest waterfront monuments, appears to be in good hands. The building’s owner, Peter Wang, has been trying for years to come up with a cost-effective way to reuse the enormous structure, which encloses 250,000 square feet. His current scheme, calling for a market and hotel in the building, has been put on hold due to the current economic meltdown. But the building is being cared for.
    As it stands, the huge brick warehouse plays a prominent role as a placeholder and definer of the Northside neighbor- hood. Anyone driving across town on Buena Vista Avenue, or heading to and from Marina Village on Sherman Street, cannot help but appreciate this stunning monument to Alameda’s industrial past.
    The structure stretches fully 1,000 feet along Buena Vista Avenue, the majestic sweep of the façade curving in conformance to the street and the old Belt Line tracks. Approaching from the east, onlookers begin to notice the building at Grand Street. As they draw near, more and more of the façade becomes visible until suddenly it unfurls before them in all its dignity and deep russet tones. The walls are clad in richly textured, variegated brick inlaid with green tile; peaked parapets rise to the sky; ranks of steel-sash windows march down the façade, gleaming gold in late afternoon light.
    What is this building? Who built it? Why? And when?
    Answers to these questions require a glance back over Alameda’s history, beginning with the railroads. Trains were the formative force in the city’s development from the Civil War to World War II. Just as they carried commuters to and from their homes, they also transported materials and finished products to and from the city’s factories, foundries, machine shops and warehouses.
    Ships were as important as trains to the Island City’s industrial heritage. Federal harbor improvements in the late 19th century transformed the Estuary from a shallow tidal inlet into a waterway with deep-water channels for ocean-going vessels. This allowed maritime commerce to take hold on Alameda’s northern waterfront, notably shipyards, mooring facilities and shipping terminals.
    The most famous of the commercial sailing fleets to use the Estuary as a winter moorage was the Alaska Packers Association, the world’s largest salmon-packing concern. Headquartered in San Francisco, the company established a mooring and maintenance facility for its fleet of sailing ships in Alameda in 1904. The square-riggers were berthed in a basin cut from the marshy shoreline near Grand Street (now Fortman Marina). The fleet observed the seasons in stately rhythm, heading north in the spring and returning late in summer or early fall, holds laden with canned salmon.
    By the 1920s, the Alaska Packers Association was a subsidiary of the California Packing Corp., the state’s foremost canner and shipper of food products, notably fruits and vegetables. The company sold its products under the brand name “Del Monte” (later adopted as the company’s name). This was the corporation that built the first modern shipping terminal on Alameda’s waterfront, adjoining the Alaska Packers’ basin on the west, near Sherman Street. Known as Encinal Terminals, the new facility opened in 1925 and ultimately included its own berthing basin, three dockside transit sheds and a huge railside warehouse.
    Encinal Terminals was served by the Alameda Belt Line, a waterfront railway built by the municipal government in 1918 with profits from the Municipal Electric Light Plant (now Alameda Power & Telecom). Expanded in the 1920s, this local workhorse railway linked Encinal Terminals to the transcontinental rail lines in Oakland.
    Encinal Terminals flourished through the 1960s, when competition from the new container terminals of the Port of Oakland eventually put it out of business. Today the principal remnants of the facility are the big berthing basin on the Estuary and the Del Monte Warehouse on Buena Vista Avenue. The latter is set off by lovely Littlejohn Park, developed in the 1970s on the site of the Del Monte parking lot.
    Built in 1927, the Del Monte Warehouse marked the completion of the first phase of construction at Encinal Terminals, providing a place where goods delivered by ship or rail could be stored for longer periods of time. Trains typically brought in Del Monte-brand goods from canneries; these goods were then transferred to the dockside sheds for loading onto ocean-bound cargo ships. Freighters calling at Encinal Terminals also dropped off goods, which were stored in the warehouse prior to being shipped out by rail.
    The building’s designer, Philip Bush, was a civil engineer who drew up numerous plans for the California Packing Corporation in the 1920s. The Del Monte Warehouse survives as one of his masterpieces, and one of our architectural treasures—an uncommonly beautiful icon of Alameda’s historic industrial waterfront.

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