By Nicholas Kusnetz
The Mechanic’s Bank opened its new Point Richmond branch in the newly restored Santa Fe Reading Room Monday, marking the rebirth of one of the city’s oldest buildings. Representatives from city and state government joined bank officials and community leaders to commemorate the event at the corner of Garrard Boulevard and East Richmond Avenue.
The opening marks years of work by Point Richmond residents and community groups, which moved the structure from its original place at the Santa Fe Rail Yards north of Point Richmond to its new spot at the gateway to the historic and wealthy neighborhood.
“This is one of those situations where the outcome is greater than the sum of its parts,” said Richard Mitchell, Richmond director of planning and building services. “From a planning standpoint, this works well.”
Built around 1903—the date is assumed but not certain—the building served as a reading room for employees of the railway and for the public, then later became the home and office of the Richmond trainmaster. But in 1992 operations were moved elsewhere within the rail yard, and the building began to slide into disrepair. The railway proposed to demolish it.
But after several studies on the building’s historical importance and a separate lawsuit that needed to be settled to open up the new site, the city moved the old reading room and transferred ownership to the Point Richmond Gateway Foundation, Inc., and Point Richmond gateway, LLC., which leased the building to the bank in March.
Some wanted to restore the building as a public facility, even as a train museum, but ultimately that bank was the only buyer willing to pay for the $1.4 million renovation, said Councilmember Tom Butt, who led the fight to save and restore the building.
“Somebody has got to pay for it,” he said.
The railroad was one of the reasons Richmond was built in the first place, said Pat Pearson, vice president of the Point Richmond Historical Association. People would come to Richmond by train before loading ferries for San Francisco.
“It was the terminal for all the trains coming from the East Coast,” she said.
After the ceremony, Richmond resident Alyce Williamson reminisced about coming through the building in its previous incarnation. During World War II, Williamson worked in communications for the FBI in Washington D.C. and she would come through the trainmasters building to visit her parents.
“I can’t believe they made a bank out of it,” she said. “What a beautiful way to preserve an old building.”
Supporters of the plan say a historic building was saved, and it improves the entrance to the Point Richmond neighborhood. But many wanted to see it become a train museum, said Geonnie Banner, who has lived in Point Richmond for 15 years.
“The Santa Fe is so wrapped up in this town,” she said. “In keeping with that, a train museum seemed like a good idea.”
Instead, the bank hopes to serve the community from the building, said Rauly Butler, senior vice president, adding that the new site has better visibility and lower rent than the previous building nearby.
“We kind of helped the town out and the town really helped us out,” he said.
And many in the town appreciate that help. Gil de la Roza, who has lived in Point Richmond for 10 years, said the town is losing its history and that any preservation is good for everyone.
“They’re adding something to the community,” he said. “It’s pretty awesome.”