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The Landmarks: #246 James Lick Baths in SoMa

Welcome to Curbed's new series, The Landmarks. Once a week Curbed will take a look at one of the many San Francisco landmarks, listed either locally or on the National Register of Historic Places. Landmarks will be chosen at random, but if there are any that you're particularly interested in, drop a line to the Curbed inbox.

Public bath houses used to be all the rage in 19th Century San Francisco. The James Lick Baths 165 10th Street was constructed in 1890 to serve the working class population in the South of Market. Converted into a rare Japanese-run laundry in the 1920s, and later into office space in 1979, it was listed as Local Landmark #246 in 2004.

James Lick was a San Francisco big shot who had lucky timing - he moved to California in 1848 right before the Gold Rush and bought up land in SF, Santa Clara County, near Lake Tahoe, in Napa County, in Virginia City, Nevada, in present-day Griffith Park in Los Angeles, and the entire Catalina Island. He came from South America where he operated a piano business, and brought 600 pounds of chocolate from his neighbor to sell - a guy named Domingo Ghirardelli (the chocolate sold so well, Lick convinced Ghiardelli to relocate to SF). When he died in 1876, he was the richest man in California, but despite his reputation as a giant curmudgeon, he shocked everyone by leaving his vast fortune to charity. One of those gifts was the Lick Public Baths.

$150,000 (that's $3.7M in today's money) was used to construct free public baths for San Francisco's poor, and they opened in 1890. It was a pretty complicated operation - water was pumped from the facility's own wells, heated in boilers in the sunken boiler room, and hot and cold water was pumped into 10,000 gallon tanks in the tower. The baths were rebuilt after the 1906 Earthquake and Fire with some tweaks to the facade. It was a pretty popular place, with lots of citizens displaced after the earthquake and in need of a bath house. Usage declined one folks started moving to western parts of the city, and it closed in 1919.

It was converted to the Japanese-run People's Laundry, which operated from 1920 to 1973. Run by the Tsukamoto family, whose father was one of the first Japanese immigrants in California, the laundry was formed before many of the discriminatory laws were imposed. The family, and the business, were socially prominent in the Japanese-American community and served as connection for many Japanese immigrating into SF.

The whole place was redone in 1979 to convert it to an office building, and it was on the market back in 2004 for $3.9M. That same year it was listed as Local Landmark #246 for a whole slew of reasons: it's association with mega-rich James Lick, it's association with a prominent Japanese-American family in SF, and as a rare surviving public bath building. It now houses the offices of Gelfand Partners Architects.

· James Lick, Miser and Philanthropist [City Guides]
· Western SoMa Light Industrial & Residential Historic District [SF Planning]
· Local Landmark #246 [SF Planning]
· Lick Bath Houses [Gelfand Partners Architects]
· On The Market: James Lick Bath House [Curbed SF]