The Santa Fe Depot (SANBAG Office)

The Santa Fe Depot

SANBAG is honored to occupy the second floor of the historic Santa Fe Depot in San Bernardino. Once a bustling passenger and freight rail transportation center with a restaurant, living quarters and offices, the Santa Fe Depot fell into disrepair for many years. Thanks to a $15.1 million rehabilitation effort shared by SANBAG and the City of San Bernardino, the Santa Fe Depot has been restored to its former beauty.

SANBAG began occupying the Santa Fe Depot in June 2004. The Depot is located at 1170 W. 3rd Street, between Mt. Vernon Avenue and I Avenue, west of Interstate 215.

Learn More About the Depot Project...

  • Santa Fe Depot History
  • SANBAG Acquisition
  • Restoration Details
  • Future of the Depot

A Brief History of the Santa Fe Depot

Old photo of the Santa Fe DepotAtchison Topeka & Santa Fe Railway built San Bernardino’s first permanent train depot in 1886 to meet the growing number of rail passengers and to house its Los Angeles Division administrative and freight offices. This two-and-a-half-story wooden structure and other railway property were completely destroyed by a fire that started at 11 p.m. on November 16, 1916. The building burned in only an hour and 20 minutes. Heat melted the huge iron doors of the depot’s supposedly fire-proof vault, and 30 years of railway records went up in flames.

Shortly thereafter, city leaders asked the railway to design and build an impressive new depot that would befit the city image as the “gateway to southern California.” The resulting $800,000 depot, designed by company architect W.A. Mohr, was the largest west of the Mississippi. Upon its opening on July 15, 1918, the San Bernardino Daily Sun proclaimed “ Santa Fe’s station to be the finest in the west,” and “a credit to San Bernardino for showing the importance of the Gate City as a transportation center.”

Drawing of the
The New Santa Fe Depot in 1918

The new depot featured a Mission Revival style with Moorish influences. Four domed towers were built to anchor the center lobby area with its polished tile walls and floors. The eastern wing of the depot included dining areas. The depot’s western wing was designed for baggage handling and housed the superintendent’s office, mail room, telegraph office and Western Union office. Division headquarters operated from the second floor and tower floor. The station included modern amenities like a tube system, by which telegrams could be distributed among the many offices (without the need for a messenger boy) and a high-tech telephone system for dispatching trains. With hollow clay blocks within its walls, a red tile roof and stucco exterior, the new depot was fashioned to withstand fire. High beams, coffered ceilings and decorative column capitals all were handcrafted for the project. A 330-foot arcade extended between the depot and the tracks

Just a few years after its 1918 reopening, the depot expanded its eastern wing with a Harvey House Restaurant and living quarters above, which opened in 1921. From the 1880s to 1930s, Harvey Houses flourished along the ATSF railway lines. The waitresses, known as Harvey Girls, wore neatly pressed and heavily starched black uniforms with crisp, white cuffs, white bibbed aprons and starched white caps. The Harvey Girls served hot meals, bakery goods and good, strong coffee to weary travelers and to the San Bernardino community. The waitresses were required to sign a contract that stated they would work at least a year, not marry and not date. They were paid competitive wages starting at $17.50 per month, which included room, board and clean uniforms. The depot was a frequent community gathering place for Sunday dinners in the Harvey House formal dining room, with the San Bernardino Daily Sun reporting that the restaurant boasted serving between 1,000 and 1,200 people between 4 p.m. and 10 p.m. on July 4, 1921. The restaurant closed in the 1950s.

Santa Fe Depot - mid century
The Santa Fe Depot.

As the railroad industry expanded and grew in importance, so did its importance to San Bernardino. From the 1920s to the 1950s, between 60 percent and 85 percent of the city’s population was employed by or dependent upon Santa Fe. This time reflected the nation’s heyday of passenger train travel, before the dominance of the automobile and popularity of air travel. A June 12, 1938 Santa Fe timetable lists 13 eastbound and 13 westbound trains per day departing from the depot approximately every two hours. The trains bore names of the southwest -- El Capitan, the Navajo, the Scout, the Grand Canyon Limited, the Chief and the limousine of sleeping cars favored by Hollywood stars, the Super Chief. During World War II, there were also “troop trains,” and travelers frequently would see the depot filled to standing room only with soldiers inside the depot. Restaurants, bars, boarding houses, small businesses and hotels all thrived in the area, such as the Cave Cafe, Pirate’s Den, Eichenberg’s Cafe, the St. Augustine Hotel, the Maryland Hotel and the Travelers Hotel.

SANBAG Property Acquisition, Depot Restoration Funding

Construction on the interior of the DepotAs railways began converting their engines from steam to diesel fuel, a move that required smaller work crews, and as travel by automobile and airplane became increasingly popular, the railroad industry began downsizing. The 1960s saw the beginning of a reduction in workforce. Santa Fe turned over its passenger travel to Amtrak in 1972. In 1992, Santa Fe transferred most of its workers to Topeka and moved many switching operations to Barstow. Santa Fe’s focus is strictly freight service today.

In 1992, SANBAG acquired the depot and property from the railway as part of a larger property acquisition in preparation for Metrolink commuter rail service, which began operations in October 1992. Although Metrolink and Amtrak riders now use the train platforms, the depot itself has not been fully functional for many years.

In the mid-1990s, recognizing its history and the value of the depot as a community asset, SANBAG obtained cost estimates for the restoration of the 57,000 square foot structure. SANBAG and the City of San Bernardino began working to secure federal grant funds for this effort. The agencies secured $11.6 million in federal grants, the City of San Bernardino contributed $1.96 million, and SANBAG contributed $1.53 million for this $15.1 million project A portion ($456,976) of SANBAG’s local match is provided by Measure I. Work began in November 2002 after a ground-breaking ceremony on October 24 of that year.

The Depot Before Restoration
The Santa Fe Depot Before Restoration.

Restoration Details

More interior construction on the SANBAG officesThe historic restoration of the Santa Fe Depot has included the original 1918 structure and the 1921 addition. Architect Milford Wayne Donaldson was awarded the contract to help develop an adaptive reuse study and final design for the depot. MWD was charged with maintaining the historical architectural guidelines for the depot, which is listed in the Registry of National Historic Buildings. Soltek Pacific was hired as the construction contractor, and Transtech Engineers was named the construction management firm. Both Soltek Pacific and Transtech have worked diligently to restore the depot to its original beauty and prominence.

The project included the removal of a number of items, including:

  • Nearly $1 million worth of asbestos, which was found in the wall insulation, attic and roof of the building
  • Pigeons and approximately 30 tons of pigeon droppings
  • Bees and 500 pounds of honey from inside the walls
  • Climbing fig (Ficus pumila) vines that had grown into the structure and wrapped tendrils around columns, walls and restroom fixtures
  • Lead-based paint
  • Heating ducts
  • Plumbing systems
  • A mother cat and litter of six kittens that had taken up residence in a storage area
  • A lost, disoriented hawk

Other interior improvements included the installation of new heating and air conditioning systems, plumbing, electrical wiring, telephone wiring, fire detection equipment and ceiling sprinklers, an elevator, wheelchair lifts to move between levels on the second floor, carpeting in selected areas and a security system. Wherever possible, original doors were retained and refurbished. Windows were replaced with new “restoration glass,” which are sheets of modern-day glass made to look old by rolling small glass balls across the hot glass during the manufacturing process. This process creates a wavy texture to resemble glass used in 1918.

The cleaning, repair and replacement of tile also was a significant part of the project. On the walls, tiles in shades of green, gray and brown were used as wainscoting in the general lobby, the women’s waiting room and the men’s smoking room. Over the years, many of the tiles were damaged. Workers sent the tiles to San Francisco and to Arkansas for professional color matching. Small hexagonal floor tiles also required work in the men’s and women’s restrooms. In the former baggage area, which has been converted to a community room, the brick flooring had settled and differed in elevation as much as five inches. All of the brick was re-set, a process which took about three weeks.

The depot contains many decorative touches that required repair. Capitals at the tops of columns had broken, and artists were hired to re-carve broken pieces. Crown moldings were patched or re-carved. Ornamental lights in the coffered ceilings were falling off and had to be rewired to meet current electrical standards and reattached.

An original marble staircase was discovered under a black rubber coating. The rubber was removed, and the marble was cleaned and polished.

Upstairs, the dropped ceiling was removed to uncover skylights. Restrooms were added for women; formerly the only restrooms were for men. A new staircase was installed, walls were repainted, an old metal outdoor fire escape was removed and a kitchen/break room was added. New casings were built around windows. Office doors were installed in the western end of the building, while doors in the eastern end are original; markings from the hardware still are visible.

Other interior improvements include new carpet and tile in the area previously used by Amtrak, as well as Metrolink-funded tenant improvements, including offices for a Metrolink manager, staff and training rooms. Limited improvements have been made to the former Harvey House dining area and to the living quarters above the restaurant. These spaces are available for lease. Future tenants would be responsible for site improvements.

Exterior improvements have been extensive. These include the installation of a new roof and chimney, drainage fixtures, canopy over the double doors, lighting and a parking lot on the east side of the building. Red roof tiles were cleaned, repaired and replaced. About 90 percent of the wood trim was replaced, the remainder was repaired, and all of the trim was painted. The brick arcade that runs between the depot and the train tracks was rebuilt. Additional personalized, engraved bricks are available for purchase by individuals and businesses. Stucco was patched as needed. The entire building exterior was steam cleaned to remove years of dirt.

SANBAG began occupying the second floor of the building on June 21, 2004. Metrolink moved into its offices later that year.

Final exterior restoration in 2011
Exterior restoration in progress in 2011.

Santa Fe Depot District — Looking to the Future

The City of San Bernardino is working to establish a “Mercado Santa Fe Depot District” with shops, restaurants, landscaping and other features that follow the Mission Revival architectural theme. City officials hope that the restoration of the depot will serve as a catalyst for future redevelopment of this area. Other improvements are proposed for this area by the City of San Bernardino, as follows:

  • Improvements to the commercial area to the south of the depot and facing 2nd Street to provide essential uses for residents and to serve as a community gathering place
  • Light industrial development in the area between K Street and Interstate 215
  • Future residential improvements, including the relocation of historic homes from the Lakes & Streams Project and other areas planned for clearance to vacant lots in the Depot District
  • Other residential improvements, including a “Neighborhood Spirit Property Improvement Program,” pre-approved home plans ready to build, an in-fill housing development program and housing rehabilitation programs
  • Future roadway improvements that will extend from the Santa Fe Depot to Interstate 215 to the east, Rialto Avenue to the south and Mt. Vernon Avenue to the west
  • Site improvements, including new shade trees, a landscaped traffic median along 2nd Street between Mt. Vernon Avenue and K Street, new street lights in a style reminiscent of the depot’s heyday, pedestrian sidewalks, a bike path, Historic Depot District entry monuments and the realignment of Viaduct Boulevard to create a four-way intersection with 2nd Street and Giovanola Avenue.

Santa Fe Depot in 2011
The Santa Fe Depot in 2004

The San Bernardino Railway Historical Society also is seeking financial and volunteer support to establish a permanent covered home in the Depot District for restored steam locomotive 3751, which was donated to the city by the Santa Fe Railway in 1957. According to the Railway Historical Society, this steam locomotive “has come to represent the great railroad heritage of the southwest as a fully operational ambassador of the steam era.” For more information about steam locomotive 3751, see the link below.

For More Information