National Register of Historic Places in Alameda County
The Union Iron Works Power House is an excellent example of a building type, the beautiful power house, for which the San Francisco Bay Area was nationally know. It was designed by Frederick H. Meyer, a prominent architect in the evolution of this type.
The Union Iron Works Power House is also of interest as the principal power house for a shipyard that played a major role in both World Wars. It is one of the last buildings remaining from that shipyard, along with the Turbine Machine Shop (National Register listing #80000794).
The building is one of many designed for the Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) in northern California between 1905 and the 1920s, which was treated in imagery borrowed from classical antiquity and the Renaissance. As such it represented the influence of the City Beautiful Movement in the respectful treatment of what had previously been considered a type of building unworthy of the consideration of an architect.
Frederick H. Meyer was one of San Francisco's leading architects between about 1905 and 1955. He is best known for his role in the development of the San Francisco Civic Center, for his many downtown San Francisco office buildings, and for his careful and imaginative use of orthodox ornamental detail. He was one of those architects most closely associated with the design of classical power houses for PG&E.
The building is the first PG&E substation in Alameda, for the city had its own Bureau of Electricity, as it does to this day. The power requirements of the Iron Works were so great that they established a contract with PG&E in 1916, to the great displeasure of the city. Considerable discussion was raised over the issue.
The building was built by Lange and Bergstrom for about $60,000. During the First World War, it was the main electrical generating plant for what had become known as the Alameda Works of the Union Plant, a division of the Bethlehem Shipbuilding Corporation. The Alameda Works was the largest shipbuilding plant on the Pacific Coast at the time, and during the War it set numerous records for speed of construction and tonnage produced per man.
Since World War II, the shipyard's activities were at first greatly reduced, and then ended. Through a succession of owners, most of its buildings have been destroyed, with the notable exceptions of the power house and the Turbine Machine Shop.