We’ve got photos from Saturday’s “Re-Re-Re-Re-dedication" of the historic Emperor Norton plaque, the story of which is nearly as interesting as that of the emperor himself.
The Salesforce Transit Center is home to a lovely rooftop park, a totally sweet gondola, and pretty nice bathrooms that are not yet totally destroyed. But the high-tech transit hub unveiled a new attraction this weekend that's a blast from the past. The 80-year-old Emperor Norton plaque, an homage to San Francisco’s favorite eccentric folk hero, was unveiled in its new and beautifully restored state at the transit hub. The vintage 1939 plaque, which used to live at the old Transbay Terminal, was unveiled and christened with booze Saturday afternoon, with video of that special magic revelatory moment below.
Be warned that it is not super easy to find the new location of the Emperor Norton plaque. It’s not on the ground floor, but instead on the second-level bus terminal, between bus bays 7-10.
But just look at the restored plaque, showing its true bronze hues again after a careful restoration by the de Young Museum staff. Notice the very early emoji work with hands on either side of the top “Pause, Traveler” proclamation. Of course, the plaque is not usually dripping with wine, realize it had just been christened.
Now we really get a look at the emperor’s chiseled face, against a backdrop of his hounds Bummer and Lazarus, his old friend Karl the Fog, and the Bay Bridge which legions of local fans feel should be named for him.
The plaque was originally commissioned by the local chapter of E Clampus Vitus, a sort of whimsical historical and benevolent group that cared for it after was removed from the old Transbay. Cast in 1939, the plaque never made it onto the Bay Bridge as its creators had hoped, but it did find a home at the Cliff House in 1955, before moving to the Transbay Terminal in 1986. The sign had made a few cameos at local bars since that structure was torn down, but has mostly been in storage at Caltrans. (Another plaque from the East Bay E Clampus Vitus chapter is mounted alongside.)
Despite the appearance of that airport bottle, the wine used the christen the plaque was not Sutter Home. “It’s actually a fine Chardonnay from Savannah-Chanelle winery down in Saratoga,” explains ‘Mad Dog’ Gleason, a member of E Clampus Vitus (they call themselves “Clampers.”). “Since this is San Francisco, we thought that even though Anchor Steam is traditional, we have a reputation as quiche-eating, wine-sipping snobs. So why not pour wine.”
And as you’d expect of a group that thinks the Bay Bridge should be named for Emperor Norton, they are none too fond of the man for whom the bridge technically is named — former mayor Willie Brown. “Of all the more recent abominations, the most blatant political blunder of late was the Board of Supervisors’ decision to bestow honors onto the former mayor by naming it the Willie Brown Bridge,” declared Rick Saber, the Emperor Norton impersonator seen above with the Sutter Home, to a chorus of boos and hisses at the mention of Brown’s name. “Have you ever heard this [term used] in the context of our beautiful city? What, may we ask, did Willie do to inspire or build this fine bridge?”
The effort to save the plaque was spearheaded by Bob Planthold, seen holding court with the ‘emperor’ above. He notes the de Young Museum performed the restoration free of charge. “That has been exposed to salt, fog, and mildly acid rain for decades out at the Cliff House,” Planthold told SFist.
The Transbay Terminal had its own issues. “Caltrans construction had to jackhammer off the big plaque because it was bolted into the wall," Planthold said. “Then they just put it in storage. The staff building the new Transbay Center who took control and possession, they packed [the plaques] up to make sure they would not break. Because these are fragile.”
When you see an Emperor Norton character about town, you’re probably seeing Joseph Amster, of Emperor Norton's Fantastic San Francisco Time Machine tour guide fame (Amster was unable to attend Saturday’s dedication, as he was off giving a tour). But Rick Saber has been playing the emperor role even longer, and in fact, there is always a designated Clamper who plays Norton for the anniversary ceremonies of his birth and death. “There have been three previous Emperor Nortons that took on the role of the original emperor,” Saber explained.
Only about 50 people showed up for Saturday’s dedication, but the Salesforce Transit Center estimates the place accommodates 100,000 passengers every weekday. And for all of the super-modern bells and whistles in the brand spanking new facility, a venerable, 80-year-old throwback might be our new favorite attraction there.
Related: Emperor Norton Paid Homage With Interactive Map of His Life [SFist]