Look downward, angel

The story of San Francisco -- as told by manhole covers, sewer vents, and patent stamps



STREETSCAPES I'm Christopher Radcool Reynolds. I am a builder. I always have been. As a kid the only toy I played with was Legos, spending hours creating cities and landscapes. Later in life, along with my best girlfriend Alysia Sebastiani, I created Reynolds-Sebastiani Design Services (www.reynolds-sebastiani.com), a landscape and outdoor construction company. We craft residential and commercial work in the Bay Area, including stone walls and paving; woodwork decks, screens, fences, benches, and pergolas; and lighting and irrigation systems.

I'm an avid student of historic and current civic growth. One of my favorite pastimes is researching the early development and construction of San Francisco. This last year I become obsessed with photographing, researching, and cataloging patent stamps on historic paving, manholes, and sewer vents. I do paving and utilities at work, so this pastime has been a natural pairing of my professional and personal passions. I started using Facebook to collect these images and was surprised by how much response I got by what I thought was a dorky trivial pursuit.

Initially, I loved the manhole and cared less about the ubiquitous sewer vent covers. There is one in front of every building. A small percentage have the mark of the plumbing or concrete contractor that set them. I didn't think the mass of them was altogether very interesting. As I researched, though, I realized the small sewer vents can be more interesting. Part of the draw is the crap shoot. You never even know if you will find a reference; most have no reference I can find. Some only have directory listings, which helps to date their years of operation but doesn't really offer any more insight. However, sometimes there are a lot of publications containing information on one particular fellow. That's the coolest part. You can piece together the life of this contractor who helped build the city so many years ago and would be forgotten if not for the iron bearing their name and some obscure references in obsolete publications. It's kind of amazing to relive the lives of these individuals.

Unlike the intimate scale of sewer vents, large manholes bearing the marks of an obscure utility or railroad company, though exciting to find, tell the story of big business. This story is more of vast wealth and power struggles and less the story of a individual craftsmen out to seek their fortunes in the Wild West. As one of these craftsmen myself, I can relate to the little guys in the trade, so I like to discover their stories and retell them. Both big business and small business are integral in the story of America. (The difference is, most of the big utility companies already have a Wiki page.) Below are descriptions of interesting items I've found on my walk to work. Check the corresponding photo above to see the image they relate to -- and for more, visit the "On the Walk" gallery of my Facebook page, www.facebook.com/captainchristopher.

1. Super-cool Works Project Administration sidewalk patent stamp from 1940 on the corner of 22nd and Capp streets. This means that the sidewalk was laid using money from the Works Progress Administration, the Obama stimulus money of the 1930s and '40s. (Editor's note for font freaks: the WPA used more than 900 typefaces on its projects, most of them handmade and most of them emblematic of the Art Deco design sense of the time. The squared-off "9" and "0" in "1940" make this stamp a particularly unique beauty.)