Many consider the Hibernia Bank to be the Tenderloin's greatest monument. The century-old building stands on the corner of McCallister and Jones, its powerful facade and ornate detailing appearing in marked contrast to its graffiti-covered walls and the massive holes riddling its glass roof. Declared an historic landmark by the City of San Francisco, it seems impossible to believe that city officials are letting this century-old building slowly waste away. Yet this is exactly what's happening.
The Hibernia Bank represents a case study in San Francisco's entirely inadequate historic preservation laws. Because the bank is owned privately rather that by the City, there are only minimal requirements put upon the owner to keep the building in shape. And since maintaining historic buildings costs money, the owner is not even concerned with meeting these.
Built in 1892, the bank has gone through a series of hands in the past 25 years. As recently as 1987 the bank remained a bank, serving to add foot traffic and some security to the Tenderloin's historically rough lower Turk area. After sitting vacant for some time, The Police Department took it over as a Task Force Station, which they operated for several years until a new station opened up nearby.
The Hibernia went up for sale, and Thomas Lim of Berkeley snatched it up. His organization, the Chinese Cultural and Philosophical Foundation, claimed it would be turning the bank into a Buddhist Temple. It never happened.
Instead, the building has sat almost completely neglected for the past four years, the only work done on it being putting a chain link fence around its entrance and occasionally scrubbing the graffiti. From the upper stories of a nearby hotel, one can see that vandals have been throwing rocks and bottles onto the glass roof of the building's atrium, putting large holes that leave the marble-lined ceilings and elegant offices inside vulnerable to rain damage.
According to Charles Chase, Executive Director of the historic preservation advocacy group San Francisco Architectural Heritage, the City is largely powerless to stop the owner's negligence.
"Even on buildings that are historic landmarks, there are minimal maintenance standards in San Francisco," said Chase. "As long as the building isn't accessible, we have nothing on the books that would require property owners to maintain a building in a way we would like.we can't even force building inspectors to go take a look at it."
A series of offers have been made on the building, both to purchase and to sell it. The last offer came from a local non-profit, Lawyers for the Arts, to create a space for themselves and other non-profits. Yet all offers have been turned down, in large part due to the inability of prospective buyers or renters to contact the owner, Mr. Lim, who many believe does not live in the country.
A similar situation occurred recently with the Belli building in the Jackson Square Historic District. This historic landmark was slowly deteriorating to the point of complete destruction, and might have been totally lost had it not been for the relentless efforts of Supervisor Aaron Peskin. Peskin, along with community activists, ultimately saved the building.
The fact that it would take the concerted efforts of an elected official in order to simply keep up an historic building at a decent level seems ridiculous. Yet because the City lacks any real laws to prevent this from happening, buildings like the Hibernia bank sink into disrepair. After waiting a number of years, owners can then use the building's poor condition as an excuse to demolish it.
Perhaps the most unfortunate aspect of the bank's situation is that it could provide a solid foundation to the revitalization of one of the most neglected parts of the Tenderloin.
"It's an absolutely beautiful space, especially inside," said long-time community activist Brad Paul. "The community could certainly use a bank there, or you could put part of the building to cultural use. It really seems they could find someone to use it - it's such a shame that instead it's just a boarded-up building."
Paul claims that should a prospective owner want to purchase the building, they would be able to obtain historic preservation tax credits that would significantly offset restoration costs. Yet no legal avenue exists to force the current owner to sell the building.
It's time to explore ways to give real teeth to our preservation laws to protect our historic landmarks, no matter who they are owned by. In a city that prides itself on its Victorian homes, its battles against Redevelopment, its Palace of Fine Arts, and so many other issues of historical pride, it's outrageous that private owners can be allowed to slowly demolish important structures through willful neglect.
Every day that goes by, the Hibernia Bank is slowly being destroyed. San Francisco needs find a way to stop this, and fast. The Board of Supervisors must act before another city landmark devolves into dust.