There are several “Flatiron Buildings” across the country. These buildings are so named because their wedge shape resembles an old flatiron appliance. Perhaps the most famous is the Flatiron Building in New York City, built in 1902. San Francisco’s Phelan Building at 760 Market Street, rebuilt in 1908 after being destroyed in the 1906 earthquake, is a fine example of flatiron architecture.
Buildings constructed in the manner of a flatiron usually reflect the dimensions and limitations of their site. This article is about why, in central San Rafael where the street pattern delineates most land parcels in a rectangular shape, there is a well-known flatiron building located at 724 B Street.
The story of the San Rafael flatiron building begins with the story of local railroad development. The first railroad in San Rafael, and the first in all of Marin County, was the San Rafael and San Quentin Railroad (SR+SQ) completed in 1870. This route was built to carry passengers the 3.5 miles from the ferry terminal at San Quentin Point to the B Street station in San Rafael.
To build the railroad, in 1869 the company condemned a 60-foot wide right-of-way from San Quentin Point to B Street. Today Anderson Drive, from A Street to the Central Marin Sanitation Agency property, is located on 90% of what was the SR+SQ right-of-way. The railroad also acquired a 2.1 acre plot for a yard and station house that is now the site of the B Street Safeway.
In July 1874 a second railroad, the narrow gauge North Pacific Coast Railroad (NPC), reached San Rafael by an extension along 2nd Street from Junction (San Anselmo). The NPC tracks on 2nd Street crossed B Street to reach the B Street depot.
By March 1875 an agreement was reached for the SR+SQ to be leased to the NPC. It called for the NPC to reduce the broad track gauge of the SR+SQ to the narrow 3-foot gauge and construct a new depot, car sheds and turntable. In May a new station house was opened to the public immediately southeast of 2nd and B Streets.
The agreement also required that the two railroads be connected by April 4, 1875. To do this the NPC had to acquire a right-of-way from 2nd at B Streets to the SR+SQ yard near A Street. As conveyed to the NPC by Jacob Short in a deed dated March 8, 1877, the NPC purchased an 18-foot wide strip leaving a wedge shaped parcel along 2nd Street just east of B Street.
The north side of the remnant parcel extended from the corner of 2nd and B Streets 90 feet easterly along 2nd Street. At its east limit it was 54 feet wide narrowing toward the west to just 5 feet of width along B Street. A slightly curved boundary formed the NPC right-of-way on the south side of the parcel. This parcel, APN 013-011-05, is the site of today’s flatiron building.
The parcel was purchased by F. S. Walsh in 1883 where he constructed a building to fit the wedge shaped lot. The building’s exterior was clad in wood siding with a dogtooth trim. The bracketed cornice, flash glass in the bay window and date of construction has led historians to identify the architecture as the Eastlake style. The unusual octagonal corner bay was designed to project out over the main entrance at the corner of 2nd and B Streets.
By 1891 the building was known as the Depot Saloon and Rooming House. The saloon was on the first floor with rooms to rent upstairs. It served railroad workers and travelers for the next several decades. In the early 20th century the Depot Saloon was part of the business corridor along B Street connecting the B Street railroad station with the commercial center of the city at 4th and C Streets.
The building continued to operate as a bar and rooming house until 1939 when it was listed as the Flatiron Hotel. In 1975 a fire destroyed the second floor. The damaged portion was rebuilt and restored to reveal the original siding and some early signs. Following a brief period when it was used as an antique store, it has housed a bar ever since. In 1982 the City of San Rafael recognized the building’s importance by designating it as a San Rafael Landmark.
Today it is occupied by the Flatiron Saloon, a popular sports bar. The building remains with its unusual shape in a town of typically rectangular structures.