The Geneva Car Barn and Powerhouse is a historic building located in the Balboa Park District of San Francisco and owned by the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department. Built at the turn of the century by the Reid Brothers as the home of the City’s first electric railway, the building is the one of the last physical reminders of San Francisco’s first electric rail system. The building was severely damaged in the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989 and subsequently saved from demolition by a group of community members. In 2010 the Geneva Car Barn and Powerhouse was designated a National landmark for its architectural integrity of design and materials as well as its historical associations. The building is comprised of two distinct parts, both of which are historic—a two story brick office building called ‘the Car Barn’ and the tall one-story brick and concrete Powerhouse, an industrial space that historically generated electricity for the trains.
In 2009 the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department, together with the Friends of the Geneva Car Barn and Powerhouse, began an effort to adaptively reuse the building as a community cultural and education center, providing training for underprivileged youth in arts-related fields including digital, literary, media and technical arts. The Car Barn portion of the building is intended to house the classroom spaces as well as an 88-seat black box theater and a 70-seat restaurant. The 3,400-square-foot Powerhouse provides a 300-person community event and performance space. The first phase of the project, the adaptive reuse of the Powerhouse, was completed in the summer of 2020.
In adaptive reusing the Powerhouse, the design has focused on highlighting the layers of history while deftly inserting new program elements into the historic shell. Due to the decay of the historic building and its lack of seismic stability, every surface of the building was touched in the rehabilitation. All brick surfaces required lead abatement, which was done with a wire brush and sealed in order to preserve the layers of history evident on the surfaces. Damaged plaster surfaces were repaired only where needed using a subtly different color so as to distinguish the new from the old while respecting the patchwork that pays homage to the building’s age and place in history. Where structural concrete walls were added for stability, they were cast as board formed in a similar patterning as the original concrete ceiling, adding richness to the palette. Graffiti added through the years was retained, giving credence to the building’s recent history as well as its past.
In adapting the Powerhouse for its new use as an arts event space, new elements were introduced in a manner that respected the existing historical structure. New steel and glass entry portals frame the existing openings, held away to allow the existing wood door frame to read while extending outward to both to provide location for new signage. To house the needed functional spaces within the large volume, small plywood rooms were inserted beneath the historic mezzanine, their materiality providing warmth to the space while reinforcing the industrial nature of the building. A larger central plywood form serves as a green room, its location within the room creating a pre-function entry foyer and forming a backdrop for the theatrical use within. Structural glazed floors enclose the existing floor openings where turbine engines had once generated the power for the streetcars, creating vitrines where artifacts will be displayed.
Throughout the space, there is an interplay of new and old that enlivens the reading of each. The end result is a historic building that has been given new life to serve the community while honoring its past.