Kahn & Keville — a San Francisco Landmark

Photo by J. Steegmans - Creative Commons Attribution 3.0
In front of the Kahn & Keville tire shop on the corner of Turk and Larkin, an old fashioned yellowing marquee stands on rust-flecked legs of painted steel, sharing an ever-changing message with the city.

The message is not one of advertising. For more than 50 years, the marquee has featured thoughts inspirational and otherwise, quotes from Thomas Jefferson, E.M. Forster, Goethe and Ozzy Osbourne—wedding proposals, advice, aphorisms and anecdotes.

Herb Caen, Pulitzer Prize winning columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, called the sign "the city's biggest fortune cookie."

Once every month or so, Bill Brinnon, co-owner of Kahn & Keville, pulls an old cardboard box down from a shelf in the back office and sorts through clear plastic squares printed with black letters. He's taken on the responsibility of updating the sign, though he describes the process as a democratic one, in which co-workers, customers and passers-by participate. "Seven or eight years ago, a lady gave me this book of quotations," he said, pointing to a large hard-bound volume sitting on his shelf, well-worn and leaning tiredly onto a stack of ragged paperwork.

"Whatever we choose needs to be short," said Brinnon. "An aphorism. A zinger of some kind. Something with an ironic twist. We can't just say 'everybody be happy.'"

"We stay away from religious holidays now," said Brinnon. "We can't represent everybody. We try to keep our own personal politics and perspectives out of it."

In December, the marquee read:
IT'S OFFICIAL NOW
I'M A STATE LANDMARK

BETTER BE NICE TO ME

The property's new landmark status has nothing to do with the marquee, however. It has to do with the building's place in the automotive and architectural histories of San Francisco.

The shop, located at 500 Turk Street, designed by architect Henry A. Minton and structural engineer L.H. Nishkian, and constructed in 1935, is built in the Classical Revival style and features minimalist Art Deco detailing.

"It's perhaps not the first, but certainly one of the earliest examples of an automotive structure with space left on the lot for the maneuvering and parking of vehicles," said historian William Kostura, whose work led to the declaration of Kahn & Keville's landmark status.

Working for the San Francisco Planning Department, Kostura recently surveyed historic automotive structures along San Francisco's original "Auto Row," a three-block-wide corridor along Van Ness Avenue from Market Street to Pacific Avenue.

"Auto Row" developed in the early days of the 20th century. To stop the spread of the 1906 fire, the Army Artillery Corps., working with the San Francisco Fire Department, dynamited much of the upscale residential neighborhood fronting Van Ness Avenue. When the rubble cleared, this land became the ideal real estate for the burgeoning auto industry.

Showrooms moved in.

"There are so many buildings here from almost the absolute origins of the auto industry," Kostura said. His survey evaluated 112 buildings, and recommended that 64 of them be considered historical landmarks.
Though the marquee may not be a feature of historical distinction, it carries on a storied tradition, a thread woven through San Francisco clear back to the early days of the automobile industry.

Harry H. Kahn and Hugh J. Keville went into the tire business in either 1912 — or 1915, depending on whom you ask. They opened shop in a little store front on Golden Gate Avenue, where the Federal Building now stands.

"Keville, the younger of the two partners, carried a little pocket notebook around with him," said Brinnon. "He filled it with helpful 'thoughts of the day.'"

Keville volunteered to serve in the First World War. "It was pretty bad," said Brinnon. "He saw a lot of his friends die. [The notebook] carried him along through the worst of it."

When Keville returned, he hung a blackboard in the office, and shared the inspirational thoughts and quotations he had collected. "It gave the customers something to talk about," said Brinnon.

Years passed, and the partners relocated a couple of times before the Great Depression, when they commissioned the construction of, and moved into, their current location.

They built the marquee in 1956 or 1957, Brinnon said. The aphorisms moved from the office blackboard out onto the street.

"There was a fire here in 1958," Brinnon said. "We don’t usually talk about it. ... Tires burn really well. It burned for three or four weeks." After that, they had to do a little renovating, during which they toned down much of the Art Deco styling.

"That's also when we got the Goodyear diamonds," Brinnon said, referring to two large neon signs, towering blue diamonds perched atop each wing of the building. "They might be our best features. When they're fixed, they're impressive. They move and blink. But we don't really have the money now to keep them running," he said.
In September, the marquee read:
A PAT ON THE BACK
IS ONLY A FEW
VERTEBRAE
AWAY FROM
A KICK IN THE PANTS

"There's no financial benefit," Brinnon said. "We get the distinction of being a landmark, and a plaque. They recommended we put the plaque on our front door, so people can see it, but we don't really have a front door." The west wing, that fronts on Turk Street, that's where the door used to be. It's just storage now. People now enter through a garage door at the junction of the two wings. "We'll probably put it on the wall somewhere in here."

Brinnon paused for a moment and looked around the space that once was a sales floor, taking in the split green vinyl cushions on the waiting chairs, the magazine rack filled with old issues of the New Yorker, and Harper’s, the stacks and stacks of tires, the faded paint, worn furniture and dog-eared piles of paperwork.

"At one point, we were the busiest television showroom in San Francisco," he said. "We were a big RCA dealer for a long time."

Kahn & Keville co-owner Ron Dhein isn't sure what their new status as a historic landmark will mean for business. "Seems odd to me," he said. "It's a tire store. I don't know what it's all about in the end. Maybe it's harder to tear it down."

"Times are tough," Brinnon said. "Especially for blue-collar, working class businesses. We deal with everybody in automotive, because we do wholesale. This is the worst we've ever seen it. We've lost a lot of customers. These small businesses just can't make it."

"People are hurting broke," said Dhein, "You'd never used to get so many calls from people checking prices. It's harder than it's ever been. Box stores like Costco. The Internet. You can buy anything you want on the Internet."

"The Internet is changing the way people do things, the way they do business," Brinnon said. "People now expect to be able to complete their entire transactions online.

"We want to see the vehicle," he said. "We want to look at it, put our hands on it. To see what kind of work needs to be done."

Brinnon gazed out through the old steel-framed windows and looked at the back of the marquee."We're an old fashioned business," he said. "And the sign reflects that. Most of the people here are pretty old too. ... I'm certainly beyond retirement age. ... Most of us are."

There's no younger generation of employees poised to take over management at the shop, said Brinnon.
"One day, when we run out of gasoline—maybe soon—these buildings will be like blacksmith shops or horse stables are to us today," Kostura said.

In July, the sign read:
IF YOU KNOW
WHAT YOU ARE LOOKING FOR
THE BACKWARD GLANCE
CAN BE A GLIMPSE
INTO THE FUTURE

"The future?" Brinnon asked. "Time will tell."
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