Historic preservation-minded San Franciscans rushing to City Hall's second floor men's room this month were hit with a double whammy. First, the restroom was closed, necessitating a frantic search for an alternate venue. Second, a capitalization-happy sign noted that the "Historic Toilets" within would all be removed in favor of "New Water Efficient Toilets." ("Sorry for the Inconvenience.").
The realm of toilet history is, for obvious reasons, a rich vein of lowbrow humor; in one of the most glorious coincidences of human history, the field's seminal figure is Thomas Crapper. But, it turns out, the 75 crappers and 17 urinals being replaced in City Hall are not "historic" — regardless of what city luminaries' leavings they doubtlessly piped away.
They are merely old. And not up to snuff in the water conservation category. In a $250,000 Environmental Protection Agency-funded project, loos at City Hall and other Civic Center buildings are being replaced with sleek, modern commodes. The new toilets will use 1.25 gallons per flush as opposed to 5 to 7 gallons. The urinals will require only 1/8 of a gallon per flush, down from 2. All told, the city estimates it'll save nearly 7 million gallons of water.
It turns out, however, there are indeed "historic toilets" in City Hall, which date back to the structure's construction from 1913 to 1915. There's an ancient one in the anteroom of the Board of Supervisors' chambers. Others are behind the fourth floor hearing rooms, which used to be judges' chambers. Another may be in the city administrator's office. Rachel Gordon, a spokeswoman for the Department of Public Works, notes that the historic part of a historic toilet isn't the bowl itself but "the marble and wood around them." Removing a century-old toilet, she added, would require more than a sledgehammer and a whim; the City Hall Preservation Advisory Commission would have to be consulted.
Ellen Schumer, the chair of that commission, said that the replacement of a century-old toilet and installation of its successor would be an exceedingly delicate process; Sunny Jim Rolph's throne belongs in SFMOMA but, alas, Marcel Duchamp isn't around anymore to put it there.
As for phasing out potties that are merely old, they can't go fast enough.
"My office is on the fourth floor, and, for a period of time, they were replacing the toilets on the ladies' room on the fourth floor," she says. For an agonizing stretch, the restroom was closed. But it is open once more — "And I am very glad."