Rare Artifact Coming Soon to MI | Mechanics' Institute

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Rare Artifact Coming Soon to MI

In the small hours of the morning on March 15, 1924 something started to smolder within the salesroom of the A. Lietz Manufacturing Company at 61 Post Street. Perhaps it was an employee’s abandoned cigarette or something more combustible. But within minutes the plate glass windows shattered, sending tinkling glass out onto the sidewalk. The explosion sent “the menace of the fire roaring into the street.” Immediately, a three-alarm sounded and “all available downtown fire apparatus” were brought to the scene.

The firefighters undoubtedly, with the memory of the 1906 conflagration on their minds, worked desperately for two hours to prevent the spread of the blaze to the adjoining restaurant, the million-dollar library of the Mechanics’ Institute upstairs and the rest of the block. By the time the flames were extinguished, the library was safe. It, and a portion of Gus’ Fashion restaurant (at 65 Post Street), sustained only slight damage by smoke. The interior of 61 Post was not so lucky; the costly technical surveying and nautical instruments – the transits, telescopes, and theodolites - so artfully displayed in the Lietz shop were a total loss. The “damage was estimated at more than $25,000.”

Until recently I had not heard of the A. Lietz Manufacturing Company nor its catastrophic fire. However this June, I received an interesting query that brought this history to light. MI Member Adrian VerHagen, a Chief Land Surveyor for the City’s Public Works, wrote to ask if the Institute would be interested in receiving and displaying on “long term loan” a piece of 100+ year old survey equipment that was purchased by the City from A. Lietz Manufacturing Company, the Institute’s former tenant.

Of course, my interest was piqued. Over the next several weeks we corresponded further. Due to a recent move, Public Works, eager to find homes for its retired equipment, had been reaching out to local museums, libraries, and historical organizations. Mr. VerHagen, a member since 2015, thought the Mechanics’ Institute would be a natural home for the “Precise” Surveyor’s Level (serial #977).

Founded in 1882 in San Francisco, by German immigrant Adolf Lietz, the A. Lietz Manufacturing Company, operated a showroom on the ground floor of the Mechanics’ Institute building from approximately 1916-1936 in the space now occupied by Indochino. Mr. Lietz occasionally exhibited his surveying instruments at the Mechanics’ Institute’s industrial fairs in the 19th century. But perhaps, due to stiff competition from established companies like John Roach and Thomas Tennant, he didn’t win any notable awards. 

The 1906 earthquake and fire however wiped that slate clean and Lietz, joined by his son Adolf Lietz Jr. started over. They enlarged their factory at 648 Commercial Street (now Empire Park – a patch of beauty in the heart of the Financial District, the site of MI’s imperial member, Emperor Norton's last home) and expanded operations. By 1924, the company was a leader in surveying, drafting, and nautical equipment, especially their patented sounding machines that found custom with the United States Navy. Lietz & Company continued to occupy 61 Post Street until 1936 when they moved to a larger space further down Post Street.

I met Mr. VerHagen on Mission Street near his office several Wednesdays ago to pick up the piece. An earnest man with a warm smile, I recognized him instantly - it turns out, we had met some five years ago on one of the evening tours. He was so smitten with MI’s “quirky narrow spaces and its grand spiral staircase” that he joined right away. On the sidewalk, and through our masks, he showed me the workings of the level and explained how it was used. A Surveyor’s Level, such as #977, is a telescope that is fitted with a spirit level and mounted on a tripod. It is used by surveyors to measure the height of distant points in relation to a benchmark (a point for which the height above sea level is known). A practice that is still in use today although with more modern technology. 

Surveyor Level #977 is indeed a thing of beauty, crafted of patinaed brass with expertly wrought fittings. Its wooden storage box, lined in velvet is a treasure as well. According to Lietz’ product catalogs, the instrument was manufactured around 1904. Though not actually purchased on site, #977 was surely brought to 61 Post on a regular basis during its career to be calibrated for accuracy and without a doubt was “instrumental in helping the City rebuild after the 1906 disaster.”

Back in the early to mid-20th century, the Mechanics' Institute was a center for the city’s population of architectural, civil, electrical, or mechanical engineers and their related and supporting professions. For decades, the clubrooms of the American Society of Civil Engineers were headquartered on our 9th floor and today, architects continue to be on our register of tenants. To ensure an interesting display, Mr. VerHagen has loaned the Mechanics' Institute his personal copy of the 1919 Lietz catalogue to show along-side the level. The catalog pictures the Lietz storefront on the ground floor of the Mechanics’ building, looking pretty much the same as it does now.  Many thanks are due to Mr. VerHagen. I appreciate his efforts to illuminate and make tangible this piece of MI’s story and bring #977 back to Post Street. 

Archivist Diane Lai plans to house the level in the display case within McNamara classroom A on the 3rd floor. Though it is uncertain when the Institute will be able to reopen, it all depends on the course of the pandemic, I hope you will find reason to swing by and gaze at A. Lietz Manufacturing Company’s Surveyor’s Level #977. It’s a small piece of San Francisco and Mechanics’ Institute’s industrial history but it surely helped build the city we so enjoy today.  


1.  Post-Street Fire Menaces Library, San Francisco Chronicle, March 16, 1924.

Posted on Sep. 1, 2020 by Taryn Edwards