Watch Your Step - The Backstory
By Harriett Burt
Editor’s Note: The Martinez Historical Society’s current exhibit shows the history of sidewalk and street construction in early 20th century downtown Martinez through photographs of contractor’s stamps and extensive research by local resident Kristin Henderson. Accompanying it are corresponding exhibits of footwear and children’s outdoor games of the same period. On display through September 15, 2006.
To local resident Kristin Henderson, the neatest thing about her participation in the “Watch Your Step” exhibit of historic sidewalk contractor’s stamps and related street artifacts is what she calls “all the wild swirls and overlaps and coincidences” involved in conceiving and carrying out the unique project.
It all began, she recalls, in Spring, 2005 when she bought a relatively inexpensive digital camera with a video feature for the sole purpose of recording City meetings involving the St. Catherine’s Parish Hall application next to Susana Street Park. As a resident of the Miranda House, a historic four unit apartment building across from the Park, she was very concerned about a City construction requirement that would have removed a significant portion of the Park’s northeast corner for vehicle access to the proposed site. She and her neighbors succeeded in preventing that and Henderson made sure that announcement by City officials was put “on the record” with her new camera. And so the neighborhood moved on including Henderson, although in a direction she had not imagined.
“I was left with a camera, so noticing the wonderful textures, shapes and history of Martinez, I began taking pictures for pretty much the first time in my life. I took at least a thousand of the (St. Catherine of Siena) church, including the 1911 F. E. Nelson stamp on the sidewalk at northwest corner of Henrietta and Estudillo.” Enlarging, matting and framing some of her photographs of the Susana Park neighborhood including the contractor’s stamp, Henderson rented a booth at last September’s Art in the Park and sold some of her work, including pictures of the stamps.
With that encouragement, she walked further down the sidewalks of the City finding many more contractor stamps, some with dates from the first decades of the 20th century as well as the 1930s and 40s WPA (Works Projects Administration) stamps for sidewalks. These were constructed under the New Deal program to provide work during the Great Depression with the additional benefit of providing public facilities at little or no cost for communities such as Martinez.
While at the Museum to research the age of the building she lives in, she showed Museum Director Andrea Blachman her photos. Blachman spotted the FE Nelson sidewalk picture immediately….one of the spins of “the mad whirl of coincidence”.
Like Henderson, who moved into downtown three years ago, Blachman and her husband are fairly recent downtown Martinez residents living in the Phillip Butcher home on Willow Street. (Butcher was Councilmember Bill Wainwright’s grandfather and one of the School Board members who voted to build Martinez Junior High School). Blachman’s interest and participation in local history began in Clayton and has continued in Martinez where she was appointed Martinez Museum Director when Justine Sellick retired. A morning walker, she had noticed the sidewalk stamps and felt they should be recorded in some way especially because sidewalk replacement and curb cut projects were ongoing and she was afraid that and some of the restoration construction downtown was going to destroy this historic record. She and her husband attempted to take some photos but had not been able to put together a portfolio. So when she viewed Henderson’s photos, she saw an opportunity. Henderson was willing to photograph all she could find. And when she brought the photos in, Blachman recognized their quality and asked her if she could find out the background on these stamps. And so was born a unique exhibit of one of those everyday things that we all take for granted which turns out to be fascinating when explored – in this case, contractors sidewalk stamps .
Part of the serendipity involved in this project was that Henderson holds a Masters Degree in Library Science. And while her job as a rotating Branch Librarian in the San Francisco Public Library System is not directly related to research she says the habits of mind and training are.
“Being a librarian, you’re not afraid to ask things,” she notes. And taking to a digital camera so easily meant heading for Google on the computer to find out about historic contractor’s stamps was also easy. That led her to two recognized Bay Area experts, Lincoln Cushing and Ken Duffy. Cushing is a collector who has written numerous articles on the subject in East Bay publications and Duffy is an archivist and librarian who is greatly interested in the subject and has also written about it. They were glad to direct her to sources of information in the state archives in Sacramento and to share information with her about the names she was finding they were familiar with such as F.E. Nelson and his former employer, J. A. Marshall, one of the Bay Area’s leading 19th and early 20th century contractors who helped build some of the region’s most famous buildings including San Francisco City Hall.
Then it was back to the City and County for local records. Another of the coincidences is that her landlord, Mitch Avalon, is a high official in the County Public Works Department so was encouraging and helpful. And since she had been involved with City Commissions and public hearings over the Church project and lived just a block from City Hall, it was easy to go over there and ask questions.
“City staff was very helpful,” she says. “Mercy Cabral took me over to the Water Plant to find old minutes. Mostly people were very receptive to my questions and fascinated by this project.”
She can date the beginning of the intensive research period as December, 2005 by recalling that “the staff Christmas Party was going on at City Hall while I was reading minutes. I was sitting there in a closet in the Planning Department while staff walked by eating chocolate!”
From her combing of the City minutes, many handwritten pages of which she photocopied for inclusion in the exhibit’s written record, she identified a number of different early 20th century contractors, some local and some regional plus several examples of dated and undated WPA projects. While she was able to find information about most of the contractors, she discovered a local mystery – she was unable to find any information in any City or Chamber of Commerce records about the Martinez Concrete Company which constructed several sidewalks south of Green Street in the 1920s as shown by its distinctive heart shaped contractor’s stamp.
For many years, streets were identified not by standing signs but by stamps in the sidewalks. In her research, Henderson also found records of street name changes, some of which were made on the metal street signs but not on the sidewalks such as at the intersection of Masonic (formerly Thompson) and Estudillo. Her interest was also peaked by records of the installation of so-called “public works fixtures” that accompanied the new sidewalks and newly paved streets: manhole covers, drainage grates and water system caps.
Thus was created another couple of spins of the coincidence whirl. One of Henderson’s first pictures of the fixtures was of a water cap embedded in the intersection of Susana and Estudillo. A small, round, easily overlooked metal cap, it features the name “Forni,” a well known contracting company of the early 20th century. Blachman recognized the name immediately as the contractor’s daughter was a Clayton Historical Society friend of hers and contributor to local history preservation.
But the greatest coincidence yet was about to be revealed when Henderson began her research on the manhole covers that were stamped with the name Phoenix Iron Works. The company, known for its “nonrocking” machined covers, was founded in Oakland in 1901. In the course of her research, Henderson discovered that Carol Russell, the company’s current vice president and great-granddaughter of one of the founders, had moved to Martinez a few years ago. She and her husband, Bob Schultz, bought the Rocco and Marguerite Costanza home on E Street near Alhambra Avenue. Russell was happy to come down to the Museum to be interviewed by Henderson and Contra Costa Times columnist Nilda Rego, author of the popular “Days Gone By” columns and books. That column, in the August 6, 2006 issue of the Contra Costa Times, was the second of two Rego wrote on “Watch Your Step”.
All in all, Henderson estimates that between early 2005 and the opening of the exhibit in June, 2006, she spent about 400 hours photographing, researching, compiling, and helping set up the exhibit. She is quick to add, however, that many volunteers at the Museum spend hundreds of hours more than that all the time doing everything from research to keeping the glass display cases clean.
And will there be other similar projects blending art and history? Perhaps, Henderson says. “There are so many wonderful textures in Martinez….the art and the history are inseparable because there is a great beauty in the historic structures of Martinez.” So, she and Blachman are talking about a photo/research exhibit centered around some of the unique buildings and remnants of buildings in the downtown.
She also observes that projects like the sidewalk stamps could become endless. Noting that the day before the exhibit opened, she found a new (to her) stamp with a company name she had not come across previously, she knew she had to stop.
“I could have gone on and on but you say ‘okay…enough’”
Fortunately, Kristin Henderson didn’t say “enough” until she had made us want to watch where we are going in the past every time we walk down a Martinez street in the present.
Martinez Historical Society
1005 Escobar Street - Martinez, CA 94553 (925) 228-8160