A reverie at San Diego’s Santa Fe Depot

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Most beautiful station? The graceful waiting room of the Santa Fe Depot is more than just a refuge from the San Diego sun. Kevin P. Keefe
Is San Diego’s old Santa Fe Depot the most attractive big-city station in America? I found myself asking that question after a brief visit not long ago. It’s a logical question, and for a lot of reasons.

First, there’s the sheer beauty of the station building. With its elegant twin campaniles, finished atop in tile with the Santa Fe “cross” emblem on all four sides, and its spacious promenades outside, it’s a nearly perfect expression of Spanish Mission architecture. You’d think it was built 200 years ago in the era of Mexican Gov. José Figueroa, except that underneath that creamy stucco-like exterior is a steel-frame structure completed December 31, 1914.

Then there are the trains — lots of them. Amtrak runs 26 Surfliners in and out of San Diego every day. Throw in more than 20 Coaster commuter trains each weekday, and the constant hum of the city’s red San Diego Trolley light-rail trains running along the edge of the station, and you have virtually of non-stop action. All of this can be easily and safely observed, either from the station’s platforms or out along adjacent sidewalks. 

A Santa Fe E1 in Warbonnet dress idles beside the San Diego station in the late 1930s or early '40s. San Diego Chamber of Commerce
The Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe built a lot of beautiful depots, of course. It was part of the railroad’s DNA to construct stations as appealing as its trains, and cities from Amarillo to Albuquerque to Pasadena were beneficiaries of the railroad’s high style. 

There was an additional reason to do San Diego on a grand scale: the railroad wanted a suitably impressive station there to coincide with the Panama-California Exposition of 1915–16, a world’s fair that helped thrust the city onto the international stage, even as it was celebrated in the lengthening shadow of World War I.   

In architectural terms, the station has a California blue-blood pedigree. To design it, Santa Fe hired Bakewell & Brown of San Francisco. The firm’s work includes far grander structures, many of them in San Francisco, including the extravagant City Hall, a domed French Renaissance monument completed in 1916; the Art Institute, a Spanish Colonial-style museum opened in 1926; and Pacific Gas & Electric’s 1925 Beaux Arts headquarters, just up the street from Southern Pacific’s building on Market Street.

A San Diegan train glistens in the night among the palm trees and arches of the Santa Fe depot in 1951. Robert Hale
The San Diego depot was a smaller commission than all those others, but I’d argue that Bakewell & Brown made it one of their masterpieces. When you stand inside the lofty waiting room, under its graceful arches and redwood beams, then gaze at the large Santa Fe emblem commanding the main window, it’s like being in church. For writer Lucius Beebe, this was the essence of “Santa Fe in its farthest continental dimension.”

The city of San Diego was just as proud as the railroad. It’s no accident that a photo of an Electro-Motive E1A Warbonnet diesel pausing beside in the station’s twin towers is credited to the local chamber of commerce. 

My own brief reverie on the platforms at San Diego stuck with me when I got back to Milwaukee, and I couldn’t resist digging into Kalmbach’s photo files to revisit some of the black-and-white photos in the AT&SF category file labeled “San Diegans.”

I wasn’t disappointed. The station was a favorite foil for two of California’s greatest photographers, Robert Hale and Richard Steinheimer. In the cases of both men, I was drawn to images that weren’t necessarily what you’d expect. 

Boys returning from a field trip to the San Diego Zoo pass between 4-8-4s as they head for their train back to Santa Ana in May 1952. Richard Steinheimer
Take Hale, for instance. He is best known for vivid, muscular photographs of steam in its finest hour, especially his thrilling pacing shots, made all over the country but especially along the Santa Fe in southern California. Yet here we have Hale in repose, capturing a night view of a northbound San Diegan ready to depart on December 9, 1951. The glowing drumhead, the palm trees, and those station arches conjure something with the feel of film noir. 

Then there’s Steinheimer, who was always ready for something unusual, especially if it involved action and human beings. Thus this delightful May 4, 1952, view of a pack of young boys, running to catch a special train back to Santa Ana. All of them were newspaper carriers for the Long Beach Press-Telegram and the railroad had assembled a special five-car special train for a visit to the San Diego Zoo. You wonder how many of them appreciated the fact that one of Santa Fe’s magnificent 4-8-4s was handling their train. 

When you visit San Diego today, those words by Beebe will ring true every time you look up to marvel at the huge blue-and-white Santa Fe sign atop the depot’s roof.

It’s important to note that the formal title of the building remains “Santa Fe Depot,” the same name used by the investment company subsidiary that bought the place in 2017. The company says it is dedicated to preserving the building as a landmark, even as they move forward with commercial plans to redevelop its interior.

That’s good to know. Sandwiched between San Diego’s fabulous waterfront and its lively downtown, the depot is in a unique position to remind today’s Amtrak passengers and Coaster commuters that, once upon a time, this was the Santa Fe Railway territory.  

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