History of the Depot

Charles Allerton Coolidge

Doug Offenbacher

History is a fascinating realm to explore – an unimaginable matrix of pathways winding through infinite possibilities – all leading to the here and now. Exploring these paths might seem simple since ours is a culture of records, but all too often the records are lost, and once gone, they can be as hard to reconstruct as a forgotten dream.

The Kenwood Depot, and our sister depot in San Carlos, stand today as unique railroad buildings in California. Unique in that their architectural style, Richardsonian Romanesque, was virtually unpracticed on the west coast in the 1880s but for Charles Allerton Coolidge of the Boston firm, Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge.

Leland and Jane Stanford had brought Coolidge to California to design the buildings for Stanford University. During that period, Stanford, also president of Southern Pacific Railroad, had need for two handsome depots to crown real estate projects in which the railroad was invested through their North Pacific Land Improvement Company. Those projects were the planned communities of San Carlos and Los Guilicos (renamed Kenwood in 1895).

We know those benchmark stations were built and their design style was that of Stanford University. We know that Charles Coolidge was the most capable architect in the Bay Area at that time to execute such designs. We know that Coolidge’s firm had a long history of railroad station design beginning with Henry Hobson Richardson, the firm’s founder. Could there be any other conclusion but to credit Coolidge with the design of these two depots?

But this seemingly clear pathway from then to now becomes murky. There are no surviving plans for either structure. There is no corroborating evidence in the form of letters, media accounts, journals or even hearsay, that Coolidge – or anyone else – was the designer. Add to that the historic records of the Boston firm, still in operation today under the name Shepley Bulfinch. I’ve spoken several times with their full time archivist who denies any involvement of the firm in the two depots or even the possibility that Coolidge might have been involved as a “side job.” It’s as if the lack of authorship was intentional.

Enter another player by the name of Arthur Brown, Superintendent of Buildings and Bridges for the entire Southern Pacific network. We’ve previously spoken of his son, famed San Francisco architect Arthur Brown Junior.

Arthur Brown Senior was a most capable, if not particularly artistic, civil engineer and architect. His notable accomplishments are far too numerous for this column but suffice it to say his involvement in the design of these two mystery depots is becoming ever more likely.

Trusted explicitly by Stanford, Brown was an advisor in the university project at various levels. As such he became close friends with Coolidge. Brown was also a director in the San Carlos real estate project and, in his official railroad capacity, would have been responsible for the construction of both depots, San Carlos and Los Guilicos.

If I’m laying this out clearly, you should begin to see a possible collaboration between Coolidge and Brown that could account for an intentional omission of credit. Support for this theory is, I believe, in the detailing. Upon even casual inspection, it’s obvious the wood components for both depots share a common origin, presumably one of Brown’s many Southern Pacific wood shops of the era. But you also find a high degree of finish work that Brown would have found hard to justify given a depot’s utilitarian mission. The detailing is ornate and meticulous, unlike the simplicity or weak ornamentation of the typical Southern Pacific station.

As some have suggested, it is conceivable that Arthur Brown could have drawn the plans for these two depots. But given Brown’s practical nature, it’s inconceivable that a more artistic influence, such as that of Charles Coolidge, was not carefully guiding the process from start to finish.

I hope this inspires some of you to visit the depot and really look at it as you never have before. And should you head south, stop and visit the San Carlos Depot, minutes off 101 in San Carlos. Join the Kenwood Community Club – your club – and help us reunite these two historic depots during our “Sister Stations” program throughout 2013.