Preserving remnants of car culture 

As city leaders and residents increasingly shun cars in favor of bikes and public transportation, a corridor once filled with showroom, garage and body-shop buildings is being recognized for its historical role in the rise of the automobile.

A survey of auto-related buildings along Van Ness Avenue — which long ago was known as Auto Row — could lead to protecting some of the aging structures from future development.

San Francisco was home to just a handful of automobiles in the late 19th century, but dealers began springing up along Golden Gate Avenue in the early 20th century as vehicles became popular among wealthy Californians.

Carriage owners frequently traversed the avenue between downtown and Golden Gate Park, providing the trailblazing dealers with high visibility among prime customers.

By 1905, 25 dealers specializing in the gas-fueled machines had opened for business in San Francisco, according to a city-funded study by architectural historian William Kostura.

In 1906, however, the earthquake and fire destroyed many of those businesses and reshaped The City.

Most buildings along nearby Van Ness Avenue, which until 1906 had been dominated by mansions, burned down or were toppled to create firebreaks as the post-earthquake conflagration consumed San Francisco.

The disaster created a blank slate along the flat and wide Van Ness Avenue corridor at the same time car ownership began skyrocketing.

Rebuilding along Van Ness Avenue between Mission Street and Broadway was dominated by auto-focused entrepreneurs and businesses.

Nearly 300 garages, salesrooms, service stations and other auto-focused buildings popped up along the corridor between 1906 and 1960, when the construction spree ended, the study found.

“This corridor, about 22 blocks in length and slightly over three blocks in width, contains by far the largest concentration of auto-related buildings in San Francisco,” Kostura wrote in a report due to be reviewed Wednesday by The City’s historic-preservation panel.

As car popularity dwindles and city policies promote bicycling and public transit, some of the 112 buildings that remain in good condition along Van Ness Avenue could soon be declared city landmarks.

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John Upton

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