Thursday, October 1, 2009

How Much Difference Could a Few Years Make? Part 2

For the model railroaders who try to model a specific real moment and place (and there's more of us every year), we focus on "the real world" for a bunch of reasons. Maybe we end up with a model railroad that just seems more realistic. Maybe we enjoy the historical research to find out what buildings existed at a specific point in time. Maybe it gives us more details and facts for "dressing" the scene.

One problem, of course, is that we probably can't find an exact moment. Jack Burgess models the Yosemite Valley Railroad in August 1939, but even his huge collections of photos and documents can't tell him every detail about downtown Hopeton, California in that year. Without the right documents (or all the time in the world to search for every bit of historical data), we need to search, interpret, and extrapolate to figure out what should have been at that location at that point in time.

One problem is that the world changes all too quickly. I'm sitting here in modern California, and there's times where even I complain about all the changes that have taken place in our neighborhood in the last five years, let alone twenty. Earlier this year, I wrote about how ten years of railroad timetables showed how drastically the railroad's technology, work practices, and freight traffic must have varied in that time. At the same time, the villages changed to town, motor cars went from curiosities to bumper-to-bumper traffic, music changed, fashion changed… everything changed. It's fine for us to try to interpret how the world changed from a small number of photos, but we need to remember that a few years, let alone ten, is a huge time - a fraction of someone's life - and that the world we see in pictures from 1926 may be completely gone by 1936.

For example, here's one of the photos that inspired me to build my Market Street Station shelf layout. This shows Western Granite and Marble's shed at 396 North First Street in San Jose. A similar photo in Signor's "Southern Pacific's Coast Line" book got me interested in this stretch of track just east of the old San Jose railroad station. The shed later became Borchers Brothers' Building Supply, a San Jose institution which lasted into the 1990's.

When I needed to fill in that spot in the layout, I used the Western Granite and Marble photo as my guide, and added an interesting industry to my 1930's layout. For some reason, I thought that a shed like that needed a little office, so I put a small clapboard building inside for the office structure, and put some stairs up to a storage area on the roof.

That'll make things look like the 1930's, right? Nope.

I did some later research, and found out that shed probably disappeared around 1910, replaced with a more elaborate storefront, and then, in the 1920's got replaced again with a Mission-style store and office in the trendy style of the time.

Dave Caldwell, grandson of the founders, dropped me a note about six months ago, and was kind enough to give me some more photos showing all the changes in the building. He also kindly noted that the little office inside the shed was not in the original. Here's what the building looked like in 1910:

Here's the new building under construction around 1926.

And here's the new building completed. Note that the original shed still appears to extend behind the new storefront.

And finally the late 1930's or maybe even the 1940's. Someone who knows cars can probably tell me the exact date.

So in what seems like a small time -- what's twenty years, after all? -- that building I wanted to model went from a very utilitarian shed to an elaborate and curvy false front, and then to a Mission style front. Who knows how it differed in the 1940's and 1950's, though at least I know (because the building's facade still exists) that the building stayed mostly the same in the intervening years. Dave mentioned that Borchers Brothers sold the building (and a separate yard between 2nd and 3rd streets on the south side of the railroad tracks) in 1982, and moved their yard to Sunol St. near Del Monte Plant #3. It's now a false front for a condo development on the old property, but at least that cool Spanish Revival / Mission storefront is still there.

Am I very frustrated that I built the wrong building? Not completely. The shed fits the scene well, and on a recent visit to San Francisco, we walked by one of the old piers near the Ferry Building. The main door was open, and when we looked into the cavernous space, we saw a little raised office built on poles inside the main building - kind of like my model. I might not have captured Borchers Brothers correctly, but I did record a very California-like scene.

No comments:

Post a Comment