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Butt shows off Richmond’s architectural riches

on November 1, 2013

City Council Member Tom Butt was incredulous when I told him I had never stepped foot inside any of the old manufacturing buildings at Ford Point. So he agreed to give me a guided tour of some of Richmond’s historic buildings.

“You need this in the worst way,” he said with a smile.

Though he’s 69, Butt doesn’t waste any time: He sets a pace that can leave a young reporter out of breath. “We’ll only be gone an hour,” he told his secretary, as we whisked out the door of Interactive Resources, his Point Richmond architecture firm.

Butt is a strong proponent of saving historic buildings. He has helped to preserve several properties that are now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, earning a handful of awards for his efforts. Renovating and reusing old buildings makes good economic sense, he said. It also helps to challenge a common perception of Richmond as a “dirty, unsafe place to be.”

Butt’s preservation victories haven’t come easily, though. “There has been a battle over almost everything,” he said. “There are a small number of people who for whatever reason are just adamantly opposed to anything involving old buildings.” Despite the opposition, Butt and other preservationists have managed to save several historic buildings in Richmond.

The first stop on our tour was a small one-story building with a gradually sloping roof that originally served as a Santa Fe Railroad reading room. The building was nearly torn down on several occasions. But after a 15-year struggle to save it, Mechanics Bank stepped up and spent about $1.4 million to rehabilitate it, and move it about a half-mile to its current location.

“They put it up on wheels and brought it right down under the freeway,” he said. Butt’s architecture firm did some of the initial structural work on the building, pro bono, because as a city council member he isn’t allowed to do paid work for the city.

We then merged onto the 580 freeway, heading west, exiting just before the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge tollbooths. After the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, wine growers began shipping their grapes to Richmond, and in 1908 they built what was then the world’s largest winery at Point Molate.

Winehaven is an enormous red brick building that looks sort of like a medieval castle, with large turrets and battlements on the roof. After prohibition, the US Navy used it as a fuel depot. The city later acquired the building from the Navy, and in 2004, it entered into an agreement with the Guidiville Rancheria Band of Pomo Indians and a developer to build a casino on the site.

Butt, along with several other city council members, initially supported the casino plan, but he later turned against it. The city council ultimately rejected the proposal in 2011, and the tribe currently has a pending lawsuit against the city.

“Everything here is just mothballed now,” Butt said, as we drove past the enormous building. “But some day that’s going to be something nice.” He’s hopeful that the lawsuit will run its course within the next year.

I soon realized that Butt played a role in preserving every building he included on the tour. Butt isn’t shy about taking credit for many of Richmond’s historic preservation victories. He may have been tooting his own horn, but he has done the work to back it up, said Mildred Dornan, president of the Point Richmond Historical Association.

“He was the main force behind establishing a Richmond historic preservation committee,” said Dornan. “He has been a real central figure.”

After passing the old winery, the car coasted to a stop near Point San Pablo, and Butt rolled down the window and pointed towards East Brother Island. There, Butt helped to preserve an 1874 Victorian lighthouse – the oldest building in Richmond, which was in danger of being torn down. The lighthouse is now a bed and breakfast that is operated by a nonprofit that Butt helped to form.

Next, we drove over to Ford Point, where there are six or seven WWII-era manufacturing buildings that are in various stages of rehabilitation. Richmond grew up around its waterfront, Butt explained, and most of the city’s historical buildings are located along the bay.

We were unable to enter any of the buildings because of the government shutdown. So we parked the car and peeked in the windows of the old Ford Motor Company Assembly Plant – now known as Craneway Pavilion. The building, which was designed by Albert Kahn in 1930, was severely damaged during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, breaking 40,000 windowpanes and 6,000 skylights. All of those had to be replaced before it was reopened in 2009. Today, the building, which is almost as big as a football field, hosts festivals and concerts, and several green businesses occupy its commercial space.

As we got back in the car, I posed a question: How do these old buildings on the waterfront benefit people in the inner city? “All of these buildings have been economic successes,” Butt said. He argued that historic preservation makes sense for the entire city, even when the restoration costs are high. “You look at what people are interested in, and they’re all interested in jobs,” Butt said. “This brings jobs to Richmond – it brings businesses to Richmond.”

With that, my hour with Butt was up. He handed me about a half-dozen brochures that he pulled from the car’s center console, and we sped back to Point Richmond so he could get back to work.

1 Comment

  1. Richard E. Stollings on November 4, 2013 at 7:38 am

    The building is on South St Richmond. The International Hotel. What about that building that not on the water front?

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