Before the DMV, at the end of the Panhandle

A roller-skating coliseum, a long-lived laundry, and the origins of the Fell St Department of Motor Vehicles in San Francisco.

Southeast corner of Fell and Baker Streets, c.1958. (Photo from author’s private collection)

In the late 1950s, the State of California determined to move the San Francisco office of the Department of Motor Vehicles to the city block just off of the end of the Golden Gate Park panhandle, bounded by Oak, Fell, Baker, and Broderick Streets. Most of the block — but not all of it — was vacant at the time, surely an appealing target. The State bought up much of what was there, vacant and otherwise, and bulldozed it to install the office building and huge parking lot you see today. The DMV wasn’t the first building in that location dedicated to wheeled transport — stick around for more on that below.

Let’s start with some rarely-seen images of what was there just before the State came in, and then find out what ghosts roamed the block. Here’s a current view of the middle of the block on the Broderick St side. (This is across the street from Nopalito, and is one of the entries/exits to the DMV parking lot.)

DMV entry, mid-block on Broderick St.

Here’s that same stretch of sidewalk, circa 1958:

West side of Broderick St between Oak and Fell, c.1958. Buildings are numbers 313, 315 and 317 Broderick. (Photo from author’s private collection.)

The Century Electric Construction Company occupied #313. This outfit has existed in the city since 1905 and today is located not far away from here at Oak near Gough.

Next door at #315 was the Son Loy Laundry, another long-running city business. There’s evidence it had been around in this very location since at least 1914, and after being ousted from Broderick Street, Son Loy relocated to Stanyan St in Cole Valley and remained a going concern for another half-century, closing in 2014.

The building to the other side of the laundry with the snazzy tower and signage was the home of Leo Epp’s contractor business. (The blocky vertical lettering reads LEO EPP.) Epp was a local real estate developer, speculator, and contractor. At various times Epp and his firm had owned the de Young building and the Central Tower downtown, and had built affordable housing in North Beach, among other projects. The building at #317 Broderick was a large warehouse and office complex, with roll-up truck doors and a 1,000 gallon gasoline storage tank on site.

Epp’s headquarters was almost industrial in usage, and was at the time non-conforming with the city’s zoning designation for this block (entirely residential). The other businesses here were also non-conforming. But because these uses predated San Francisco’s original 1921 Zoning Ordinance, they were all grandfathered in.

Epp himself died a few years later, in 1966. On the same property to the right (north) of the warehouse was a long-vacant lot, fenced in as seen here and used for junk or storage. (The edge of the Epp warehouse is at left of the image.)

Looking north on Broderick towards Fell St. (Photo from author’s private collection.)

A similar view of the end of that block today:

Looking north on Broderick towards Fell St.

Notable in this contemporary photo: the Edwardian apartment block on the corner of Broderick and Fell has been there all along. In fact, that building of 12 units— numbers 1301 and 1303 Fell Street — is the only property on the entire block that isn’t part of the DMV complex. Once you notice that, it sticks out like a sore (and aggressively peach-colored) thumb.

Here’s an aerial view of the block, you can see the apartment building at the upper right corner, at Fell and Broderick. Everything else is DMV and parking lot:

Satellite imagery from USGS.

The history on the DMV project appears to be as follows: The previous offices had been located at 160 South Van Ness Ave. The State determined to consolidate that office (along with another one out on Noriega) by building a new central office here. In April of 1958, the State presented its plan to the San Francisco City Planning Commission, which viewed it positively. The State’s Public Works Board approved the acquisition of most of the block in July of that same year, with an anticipated opening in 1961.

Here’s a diagram showing what was on each parcel as of 1958. The lots colored in red below are the ones assessed and acquired in 1959 and 1960 in a quick series of eminent domain transactions and merged for the construction of the complex. In other words, the original plan:

The orange colored parcels at the southeast corner were not acquired by the State until years later, as late as the mid-1970s. Only then were the additional buildings razed and the parking area expanded, leaving behind that sole survivor at the Fell St corner. The Chronicle records that the State initially “economically refrained from purchasing” the apartment buildings at the corners of Broderick; perhaps it was just a real estate cost tradeoff.

(Today one might assume there had been some consideration around minimizing residential displacement from the higher-density structures, but given that this was the era of full-scale urban renewal just blocks away in the Western Addition, it seems more plausible that this mattered only insofar as it would have made the overall property acquisition costs prohibitive.)

Here are a couple snapshots ofthe vanished residential streetscape, starting on Fell Street next to those peach-colored apartments that remain:

Left: 1323–1333 Fell St in c.1958 before acqusition and demolition. Right: The same view now. The apartment building at left of image is the corner lot with Broderick and remains standing. Photos from author’s private collection.

Here’s the southeast corner of Oak and Broderick, looking west along Oak:

Left: northerly Oak St, looking west from Broderick, c.1958. Right: The same view today. None of these residential structures remain. It’s possible that that lamppost is the same. Photos from author’s private collection.

To complete the picture, this is an aerial view from 1938 that shows the block in essentially the same configuration as it was twenty years later:

1938 Aerial image (detail). Photo: San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library

Leaving aside the residential structures and businesses on Broderick, let’s turn our attention to the elephant in the room: what is going on with the enormous vacant(ish) lot that occupies over half the block at the western side? The header photo at the very top of this article shows that lot as it looked just before the DMV. It’s a prominent site — after all, it’s the hard frontage edge to the panhandle of Golden Gate Park, and that suggests that it would have something prominent done with it. So how did it manage to get survive to 1960 as a big lot without anyone building on it?

The answer is that it didn’t. Although vacant (save for some billboards) when the State acquired it, it had a rather impressive previous life. From 1907 until the early 1920s, this large parcel was the site of The Coliseum, a large covered roller-skating and events arena:

The Coliseum as seen in March 1911. View of the northeast corner of Oak and Baker. Note that in the distance along Oak St at the right of the image, you can spot at least one of the buildings that remained until the State arrived as seen in other photos above. Photo: Western Neighborhoods Project, OpenSFHistory/wnp71.0044.

The Coliseum cost some $100,000 to build and opened in late January 1907 with a band concert. It appears to have been available as a skating rink when it wasn’t being used to host shows and events. “Moonlight Skates” with electric overhead “moon” lights and musical accompaniment were special attractions during the season — a 1910s version of a disco skate.

The original Coliseum burned down in 1909 and was rebuilt and reopened in 1911; the photo from above shows it during (or just after) reconstruction. The fire caused the deaths of 21 horses in the building’s stables, but no human casualties. It’s not clear what the original iteration of the building looked like — the initial intention as illustrated in the San Francisco Call in late 1906 was something close to a copy of New York’s (first) Madison Square Garden:

Illustration of the plan for the Coliseum prior to its construction, showing the Baker Street side with Fell St at left and the trees of the panhandle at right foreground. 1906.

Parts of the interior were definitely reconfigured in the reconstruction after the fire, so it’s plausible that the exterior may have been simplified or otherwise changed also.

Ladies Free.

Aside from skating, the Coliseum hosted industry and trade shows, exhibits, and other functions. Boxing and tennis exhibition matches were popular events, particularly toward the end of the decade.

By 1922, however, the Coliseum’s run had come to an end. The Scottish Rite Masons of California purchased the property in late spring of that year for $100,000 intending to replace it with an expensive temple building— with a 5,000-person seating capacity. The Masons demolished the Coliseum, but never got around to building the venue. They filled the newly-vacant lot with billboards (and possibly gasoline pumps) for a time. The Masons were still owners of the land in 1958 when the State of California spied a great opportunity to locate their new DMV, and the dream of another grand public edifice rising to front the park panhandle ended.

Former location of the Coliseum, northeast corner of Oak and Baker. Left: in 1958 filled with billboards. Right: Same view today, in use as DMV complex (DMV building itself visible at left of that image). Photos from the author’s private collection.

The San Francisco Planning Commission was livid about the resulting complex once it was being readied for opening. The so-called “bureaucratic architecture” came in for a drubbing but it was the vast parking lot occupying 80% of the project that was most distressing for the city. It “reduc[es] the tip of the Golden Gate Park panhandle to an asphalt desert,” summed up the Chronicle of the late August 1961 Commission meeting. Quotes from commissioners included: “A sea of asphalt,” “a blacktop desert,” and “a disgrace.”

It’s hard to disagree, especially having seen the ambitious structure that had fronted the park in the early decades of the century. The site seems to deserve better. But the Commission had no authority over State building projects — their assent to in 1958 it was just a pro forma hearing of the plans.

The DMV was dedicated in late September of 1961 “with assurances from many officials that it will look better when the landscaping is done.”

The Noriega and South Van Ness offices closed up shortly thereafter and ever since, 1377 Fell has hosted the DMV office in San Francisco. By the late 1970s, all the other buildings on the block besides that one 12-unit apartment were gone and part of the complex.

This block has seen more than meets the eye: in addition to roller skaters and laundry customers, other old ghosts of the DMV block include: a private ballroom dancing academy in one of the Broderick buildings (1927); the domicile of one of the “Boy Bandits” who terrorized a number of west coast cities (1924) at another address; and a shoe store, a plumber, a glove factory, and a soda works at various dates.

For 60 years now, the block bounded by Oak, Fell, Baker and Broderick has played host to other kinds of stories — those of kids getting driver licenses and registering first cars — real San Franciscan stories to be sure — but perhaps some day something new and exciting will once again be done with the tip of the Golden Gate Park panhandle. Dare we expect fancy skating once more?

Fancy Skating Expected. San Francisco Call, 1913.

All photographs and diagrams in this article are owned by the author except as noted; reproduction rights are reserved. You can reach me at bzotto at gmail dot com. I’m a de facto historian at the Hayes Valley Neighborhood Association in SF and the author of a handful of other short local San Francisco histories with photos which are also here on Medium.

Selected Resources

  • “New York’s Madison Square Garden Building Will Be Duplicated at Park Panhandle” San Francisco Call, 18 November 1906, p43.
  • “New Coliseum Will Open Wednesday With Concert” San Francisco Call, 23 January 1907, p4.
  • “San Francisco Coliseum Burns” Sacramento Union, 21 November 1909.
  • “Origin Of Fire Is Unexplained” San Francisco Chronicle, 21 November 1909.
  • “Electric Moon Will Give Skaters Light” San Francisco Call, 26 July 1912.
  • “Plan $1,000,000 Scottish Rite Temple in S. F.” Sacramento Union, 5 June 1922.
  • “9 Caught In Boy Bandit Cleanup Net” San Francisco Chronicle, 23 October 1924.
  • “Planners OK Vehicles Dept. Building Here” San Francisco Chronicle, 11 April 1958.
  • “State To Start Buying Land For Motor Bureau” San Francisco Chronicle, 10 July 1958.
  • “Asphalt Sea Engulfing Panhandle” San Francisco Chronicle, 1 September 1961.
  • “Vehicles Building Dedicated” San Francisco Chronicle, 21 September 1961.
  • “What’s Moving Into The Former Son Loy Space On Stanyan?” Walter Thompson in Hoodline, 18 December 2014.

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