San Diego's

Santa Fe Depot

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San Diego's Santa Fe Depot is an outstanding example of the classic Spanish Mission-Colonial Revival style of architecture, including Moorish influences. It's in the the Historic America Buildings Survey, San Diego's Historical Site Board Register, and the National Register of Historic Places. It's a terminus of the nation's second-busiest Amtrak rail corridor, San Diego Northern's Coaster commuter trains, and Mexicoach bus routes; a hub of the San Diego Trolley light rail system; and home of the office and research library of the San Diego Railroad Museum and local Santa Fe Historical Society library.

Built by the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway for $300,000 and opened March 7, 1915, it replaced the California Southern Railway's 1887 Victorian depot. Built for the Panama-California International Exposition of 1915-16 celebrating the 1914 Panama Canal completion, it was designed by noted San Francisco architects John R. Bakewell and Arthur Brown, Jr., and built by the William Simpson Construction Co.

The Santa Fe Depot is 650 feet long by 106 feet wide, including the Baggage Express building, connected to its north end by arches and a track-side arcade. It's built of wood, bricks, cement and tile on a steel frame, with wide arches, tuscan columns, baroque cornices and heavy masonry appearance. The roof is of steel supported wood, with red "mission" tiles. Its twin towers have zigzag-pattern glazed tiles with Santa Fe's cross-in-circle emblem. The bricks around the depot were laid without mortar for long wear in a herringbone pattern.

The lofty waiting room is 170 feet long by 55 feet wide, with nine bays per side (some with clerestory windows) and five at each end. There are sixteen bronze and glass chandeliers, with six Santa Fe crosses on top of each one, and specially-cast light globes. It has a floor of fire hard-clay tile, soft oak benches and steam-heat radiators.

The walls have and 8-foot, six-inch high Moorish-style glazed tile wainscoting featuring Santa Fe's emblem, with a frieze at the top of southwest Native American origin. The unique, multi-colored tiles were made locally by Walter Nordoff's California China Products Company. The ticket counters, checkroom, and a few shops were originally in wood structures on the west side of the waiting room, later removed.

The depot's east side has a second floor, with now-unused offices. It had a 41-seat Fred Harvey lunchroom at the north end, closed in 1931 but reopened for two more years during the 1935-36 California-Pacific International Exposition. A mission-style patio and trolley car loop terminal at the south end was torn down in 1954 for use as a parking lot. Ironically, it's again an electric railway junction!

From 1916-51, the depot also served the San Diego & Arizona Railway (later SD&AE) as the Union Depot. Since 1971 it's also been called the Amtrak Station, but the correct name is Santa Fe Depot! A 1971 attempt by Santa Fe to tear it down was opposed by local residents, and in 1982 Santa Fe Industries gave it a $500,000 refurbishing. Now owned by Catellus Development Corporation (spun off by Santa Fe Pacific Corporation in 1990), it will be given to San Diego in 1997 for preservation, as part of Catellus' development of the area.

In 1972 and art connoisseur wrote: "The Santa Fe Depot was scholarly and artistically designed, and it stands on its own as perfect in every way. It is pure, with no idiosyncracies. Its graceful beauty leaves us with a sense of wonder. It has a restful beauty that counteracts visual pollution. It is as timeless as an Old Master".


With many Amtrak San Diegans, and San Diego Northern Coasters, and hundreds of San Diego Trolley LRVs, the historic, functional and architecturally outstanding Santa Fe Depot has a bright future, yet is a reminder of a bygone era of "steam trains and streetcars".

Compiled by W. P. Schneider, SDRM


Last update: 12/30/98

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