Herhold: Historical photos make courthouses more welcoming

Posted: 07/22/2009 07:00:00 PM PDT
Updated: 07/23/2009 09:35:18 AM PDT

Several years ago, U.S. District Court Judge Charles Breyer was dining with his wife at San Francisco's Omni Hotel when he noticed a set of nicely framed historical photos on the wall. Thinking them remarkable, he asked who put them together.

From that question has come a small revolution in the aesthetics of federal courthouses in San Francisco, San Jose and Oakland. Jurors, attorneys and courtroom visitors no longer stare at blank walls. They imbibe a sense of the past by gazing at old photos.

Next time you groan when that federal jury summons arrives in the mail, think of it as an excuse to learn something about the shape of the original Stanford church or the vista of Santa Clara Valley in 1880.

In Silicon Valley, Breyer is known best as the judge who handled the trial of ex-Brocade CEO Greg Reyes or the jurist who will sentence William "Boots" Del Biaggio on fraud charges. In legal and political circles, he's considered a smart and fearless judge, the younger brother of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer.

A San Francisco native who once aspired to be a Shakespearean actor, Breyer, 68, is also a history buff. And his question at the Omni, after a bit of coaxing, led him to Bennett Hall, a tall and talkative 54-year-old from Oakland who put together the historical photos.

Transformation

Since then, drawing on a fund paid into by lawyers admitted to the bar,

Hall has installed more than 150 photos in the San Francisco courthouse and 100-odd more in San Jose. He and Breyer have transformed the tiresome wait in the hallway into a history lesson.

"When somebody has to go to court, it's usually compelled,'' Breyer told me. "So it's been very interesting to hear people's reaction, which has been overwhelmingly positive. They come here expecting one thing and discover something else.''

I can vouch for that statement firsthand. Having had to spend a fair amount of time outside Breyer's San Francisco courtroom during the Reyes and Del Biaggio cases, I've come to regard the old photos of San Francisco on the walls as friends — the Sutro baths, the Panama-Pacific exposition of 1915, the original Cliff House.

Hall has served as scavenger, production manager and layout designer for this exhibition. He gets a surprising number of his shots from the public domain, like libraries. He's also resorted to eBay and once even bought 30 rolls of photos of the Transamerica tower's construction. (The Web site of his company, Business Image Group — which also prepares photos for corporate offices — is www.businessimagegroup.com.)


Tight captions

With an exacting Breyer as editor, Hall has distilled long descriptions into tight captions that fit well under the Twitter line. "I've busted my chops learning to edit,'' he told me. "We've probably spent nearly as much time on the captions as in reproducing the photos.''

The photos, which are generally placed in 24-by-30 inch frames, reach back far enough to tell a story that departs from the standard travelogue: In San Jose, for instance, they include an early shot of the Lick Observatory on Mount Hamilton. There's another 1875 shot of the original Palo Alto — the big tree for which the town was named — and still another of an aging Leland Stanford breaking ground for his university in 1887.

In deference to U.S. Magistrate Judge Howard Lloyd, a train buff, Hall has included at the San Jose courthouse several photos of early trains, including one of a trolley arriving at Alum Rock Park.

In San Francisco, the variety stands out even more. One of my favorites shows a gathering of Hollywood stars at the Palace Hotel in 1932 for a private party. In the photo is an unmistakable Edward G. Robinson.

An even older photo shows sand dunes on the site of Golden Gate Park, shot from the site of the Cliff House before the park was developed. Not far away is a shot of a couple at the Top of the Mark in the 1940s.

There's a special reason for that one. It's where Judge Breyer proposed to his wife.

Contact Scott Herhold at sherhold@mercurynews.com

See article in Mercury News


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Lick Observatory, shown in 1890, was the first permanently occupied... (Courtesy, California Images)


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