By JAMES DAVID MARTIN, director of the CIIS Communications Department
When CIIS purchased its main building at 1453 Mission Street four years ago, the Institute took a major step in establishing its first permanent home. Through this purchase, CIIS also began the long-term project of renovating a building that was originally built in 1912 as the headquarters and factory of a company that produced knitted clothing—most famously swimwear—and turning it into a 21st century urban university.
Over the past two years, Jonathan Mills, CIIS' director of facilities and operations and an alum of the East-West Psychology Department, has held workshops, conducted an extensive survey, and had many discussions with an advisory team comprising faculty, students, and staff in order to create a master plan to serve as a framework for the renovations. The goal of his efforts was to provide members of the CIIS community the opportunity to help envision the direction we would like to see the renovations take.
In the introduction to one of these workshops, Mills mentioned the name of the company who originally constructed the building that would one day be our home—Gantner & Mattern. Inspired by our unlikely beginnings, I set out to learn a little about our architectural forefathers, and, in true CIIS fashion, my inquiry turned up a lot more than old wool swimsuits, and branched off in several directions, ending up in unusual places. This is the first installment of a series blog posts that examines how our building, like CIIS itself, is woven into the history of San Francisco and the Bay Area.
The story of Gantner & Mattern is long and has some interesting twists and turns. The company was founded by two first-generation Americans, John Oscar Gantner (1868-1951), whose father was a Swiss saloonkeeper, and George Alfred Mattern (1864-1945), whose father was a German boat maker. Both men got their start in the clothing manufacturing business at the J.J. Pfister Knitting Company, founded by Swiss immigrant John Jacob Pfister (1844-1921) in San Francisco. Gantner was the corporate secretary, and Mattern was the mill superintendent. After less than 10 years they would see J.J. Phister leave to form a rival company that eventually eclipsed their former employer.
According to reports from documents from the time, Gantner & Mattern went into business sometime around 1899. The business managed to survive the 1906 earthquake—it was located in an area that was not destroyed by fire—and a few years later the owners commissioned Henry J. Brunnier, a structural engineer, to design their new factory and headquarters at 1453 Mission Street. Brunnier also designed the Memorial Golden Gate Museum for M. H. de Young, and the old Civic Center Library (now the Asian Art Museum).
An article about the new Gantner & Mattern building from the June 1915 issue of Concrete-Cement Age begins with, “That San Francisco is keeping abreast with the best in business and building practice is exemplified in the construction of the most complete and modern knitting mill in the world. It also typifies the growing tendency of industrial men to have their establishments housed in up-to-date fireproof buildings." The tragic fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory had taken place a year earlier, so there was great concern that new manufacturing buildings have state-of-the-art fireproofing, and the building at 1453 Mission Street received the benefit of these concerns.
In my next installment, I will discuss the original layout of the building.