Emperor Norton Plaque Slated for Transbay Center

A newly restored, 80-year-old plaque honoring Emperor Norton may bring some eccentric San Francisco history to the Salesforce Transit Center.

The Salesforce Transit Center has had a rough couple of months, but just got a bit of historically good news. The brand new transit hub has been closed longer than it’s been open after cracks were found in its steel beams in late September, and the facility remains shut down indefinitely. But once it reopens, plans are in the works to give the terminal a shiny new tribute to beloved 19th Century icon Emperor Norton.

A coalition of Emperor Norton enthusiasts known as the Emperor’s Bridge Campaign announced the restoration and possible Salesforce Transit Center installation on their blog last week. “The plaque has been restored with a view to reinstalling it at the new Transbay Center,” the group said. “It will be good to welcome back into the public arena this rare and wonderful tribute to the Emperor.”

It’s actually the exact same plaque that was on display at the old Transbay Terminal until that facility was torn down in 2011. But the plaque, originally sculpted in 1939, was in terrible shape from exposure to elements and decades worth of bus exhaust fumes. It’s now restored to the shiny and less soot-y condition seen above.

“As an artifact alone, this plaque is a beautifully and impressively rendered work of art,” Emperor’s Bridge Campaign president John Lumea tells SF Weekly. “The plaque also has significance as one of the earliest permanent physical memorial tributes to Emperor Norton, and the only one — so far — whose purpose is to honor the Emperor’s role in setting out and popularizing the original vision for the Bay Bridge.”

But in true Emperor Norton fashion, the plaque is based on a hoax. The “August 18, 1869” proclamation date listed on the plaque has long been debunked as bogus, and the Emperor did not actually write that proclamation. [The claim had not yet been debunked when the plaque was commissioned in 1939.]

“As it happens, August 1869 was the date of a fake Proclamation — there were many of these, jokes at the Emperor’s expense; this was one published in the Oakland Daily News — that had the Emperor calling for a bridge ‘spanning’ an absurdly malingering route from Oakland to Goat Island (now Yerba Buena Island) to Sausalito to the Farallon Islands,” the Emperor’s Bridge Campaign points out. “The original bridge to nowhere.”

But the gist of it is more or less true. Norton did propose a more conventional Bay Bridge in a Jan. 6, 1872 proclamation, as well as two similar Bridge proclamations later that year, giving this plaque some legitimacy.

The plaque’s restoration was handled by a fraternal organization called E Clampus Vitus, the very group who commissioned the plaque in the 1930s.

“When we got it back after it was finished, it looked like a prehistoric caveman who had just gotten dethawed from an ice block and got a manicure and a pedicure,” E Clampus Vitus member Confusion Kai tells SF Weekly. “You can actually read it now, it’s not apocalyptic-looking anymore.”

We could not confirm the Salesforce Transit Center’s plans for the plaque, but the Emperor’s Bridge Campaign published an email from Transit Center project coordinator Joyce Oishi.

“There has been space on a wall at the Bus Deck Level (between Shaw Alley and 1st Street) that has been identified for installation of the plaque,” the email says. “Details are still being worked out but we look forward to piquing the interest of passing bus patrons with the hope they Google the Emperor for more information.”

The Salesforce Transit Center obviously has much bigger problems to sort out right now, and exhaustive safety testing underway will probably keep it shut down at least through the end of the year. But once the center opens again, it may welcome an old friend from yesteryear.

Update: This post has been updated to reflect that Emepror Norton issued three Bridge proclamations in 1872, not one as had been originally reported.

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