Historic buildings of Richmond forgotten but not gone

on October 20, 2015

Standing at the intersection of Harbour Way and Nevin Avenue sits the famed New Hotel Carquinez. Most of the people passing through the ornate entryway these days are senior residents of the subsidized apartments inside. There is no fancy restaurant, no bellhops, no grand chandeliers.

Although practically no trace remains, 90 years ago this historic building, once also called the Hotel Don, housed a much different scene. From the time the hotel opened in the mid-1920s and until the 1970s it was the heart of the community.

“Every significant history-making business meeting, dinner or luncheon for the Chamber of Commerce was held at the Hotel Carquinez,” reads the 1991 registration form of the National Register of Historic Places. “Also every service and social club convened in that hotel.”

A survey published earlier this year found that the Richmond community gives little priority to the preservation of historic buildings. The results of the National Citizen Survey—a service for cities that gathers opinion across a range of community issues—shows only 42 percent of Richmond residents considered preservation of historic buildings essential or very important.

By comparison, 93 percent assigned high importance to the reduction of crime. That was the top priority on a list of 16 choices. Historic preservation was last.

“People don’t always see its relevance,” said Lina Velasco, senior planner at the City of Richmond. “People will always prioritize their personal safety. It doesn’t mean it’s not as important, it means that sometimes you have some more immediate needs.”

Longtime community members, historians and city officials all agree that Richmond has a rich history that must be preserved. But it could be argued that other priorities are getting in the way.

Richmond’s historic buildings do not have interpretative panels and most of the preservation work on historic buildings and sites is financed with outside funds.

“Old buildings are very important for tourism,” said Melinda McCrary, director of the Richmond Museum of History. “For example, the [Rosie the Riveter National Historic Park] has generated a great deal of interest in Richmond.”

No formal walking or driving tours of Richmond are advertised, unlike some environmental groups which have offered “toxic tours” of the city’s hazardous sites.

Some community members regularly put on tours based on individual or group interests. An app developed by Sutro Media allows for a self-guided tour of some of the main historic sites, and even a small initiative by the city of Richmond called “Throwback Thursdays” shares periodically some of the more interesting images from the past.

Local history in general makes people feel pride in their community. Today, information about Richmond’s past is mostly hidden in the minds of the community and the archives of the Richmond Museum of History and Public Library.

“We need to do a better job at educating the public about the value of historic buildings and sites,” McCrary said.

Perhaps one of the more well-known sites is the Richmond Municipal Natatorium, restored to its full glory in 2010 and known affectionately as The Plunge, a place where many longtime residents have learned how to swim. Other prominent spots include the East Brother Light Station, today a bed-and-breakfast; Craneway Pavilion, formerly the Ford Assembly Plant; Winehaven, a onetime winery; and the historic district of Point Richmond.

There are already many initiatives underway to revitalize areas such as downtown Richmond, where many of these buildings stand. McCrary said these revitalization efforts would benefit if old buildings are restored rather than pulled down.

Velasco, the city planner, agrees, and said the city always looks for ways to assist in rehabilitation projects.

“With the declining economy in the past few years it’s been challenging,” Velasco said. “Richmond is a place with a lot of competing properties. But the city has a good track record of taking care of historic buildings.”

Few today know that a building like the New Hotel Carquinez once hosted Richard Nixon, then Vice President of the United States, or that the East Brother Light Station is one of the few historic light stations remaining in the San Francisco Bay.

“It’s a shame that people don’t know about it,” said McCrary. “It’s a lost opportunity for us. It all happened right here in Richmond in that building that you walk past every day.”

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