San Francisco

107-Year-Old Tenderloin Garage to Close, Marking End of Iconic Sign

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The longtime Kahn and Keville automotive garage in San Francisco’s Tenderloin is closing up shop after 107 years in business — which also spells the end for the business’ famous street sign which since 1956 has greeted travelers with rotating poems, quotes, messages —  and occasionally a subtle political dig. 

The property was purchased by developer Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation which plans to develop the site into affordable housing.

The garage, which opened in 1912 and moved to its current location at the corner of Larkin and Turk in 1935, planned to close its Art Deco garage doors by the end of the year. 

“The neighborhood is changing pretty fast,” said garage co-owner Ron Dhein above the din of a tire change. 

The garage was founded by Harry Kahn and Hugh Keville, two buddies, who after opening the store ended up later fighting for the U.S. 60 miles apart in World War I. 

After returning home from the war, Keville was known to scrawl daily messages on butcher paper and display them on an easel in the showroom for his customers. In the fifties, the messages apparently outgrew the butcher paper and a large sign was erected on the corner of Larkin and Turk to display the changing messages, becoming a neighborhood fixture. 

Dhein was among several partners who bought the business in the late 70s — which mostly focused on selling tires, brake jobs and oil changes — and kept the tradition of the sign going. 

“Never talks about money or tires or brakes,” Dhein said of the sign. “It only talks about maybe events around it.” 

The messages might quote diverse sources such as David Bowie, U.S. Women’s soccer star Megan Rapinoe or Pope Francis. They were occasionally esoteric, requiring viewers to ponder the intent of its authors. 

A recent sign featured the message “I Google therefore I am not” by New Yorker staff writer Jill Lepore. 

Another simply said “A loss for words.” 

Another called for support for recent youth climate change protests and one listed a thinly veiled dig at President Trump. 

“Not too political,” grinned Dhein who said the business occasionally got visits by people angry over a particular message. “Once-in-a while it’s slightly political.”  

Passersby were constantly checking the board to see the next message, which changed every couple weeks. Dhein noted that the same mechanic who changed tires also changed the sign, made up of plastic letters. 

Across the street from the garage, in his bar Emperor Norton’s Boozeland, co-owner Kevin DeMattia would anxiously look forward to what message would come next. 

“It just touches everyone who walks by,” DeMattia said, “It’s like the original Twitter where you need to convey an important message in a very small space with not a lot of characters.” 

Last week as the garage’s shutdown began, the signage had been pulled off the garage leaving a pale silhouette of the letters that once spelled out “Kahn & Keville,” and “Auto.” The vintage Goodyear sign was gone and aside from stacks of tires, the garage looked like it had already stepped into the notes of time. 

But even though the sign was also going, it wasn’t going too far. 

A TNDC planner said the group planned to retain a wall of the old Art Deco building and incorporate the sign inside the lobby of its new affordable housing building to continue to display changing messages for its residents. It also planned to install some sort of digital sign on the corner in homage to the original, although those details hadn’t yet been worked out. 

The business will continue on as well -- Kahn and Keville will consolidate operations to its second location in South San Francisco.

DeMattia looked out the window of his bar, gazing at what would likely be the sign’s last message which read “When old people die it’s like a library of stories burning down.”

DeMattia offered his own epitaph to the corner’s lexicon of notable quotes. 

“This greasy landmark is going to be gone,” DeMattia said, “and it’s just sad.”  

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