Peter Espe, a senior project manager in HOK’s San Francisco office, has channeled his lifelong interest in architecture and historic places into his collection of roughly 3,500
Peter has steadily built this vast and varied assemblage of history for nearly eight years. The subject matter ranges from cities such as San Francisco, Chicago and Phoenix to small towns and villages in Northern Illinois such as Rochelle, DeKalb and beyond. Mostly, the collection reflects places where Peter has lived or that have a special meaning to him. While most of the postcards are of architecture or streetscapes, the collection also includes work by Edward Mitchell, a publisher famous for his scenes of exaggerated fruits and vegetables from California.
Peter grew up on a family farm near Rochelle, Illinois. When visiting the area for the holidays in 2004, he spotted some postcards in an antique store that illustrated what life was once like on the Lincoln Highway in Rochelle – before Wal-Mart moved in and the downtown declined. As someone drawn to observing ways that places change over time, Peter appreciated the history the postcards revealed. Back in San Francisco, his collection officially began after an online search revealed additional postcards for Rochelle as well as several others of nearby towns and villages.
Peter now mainly acquires new additions to the collection on eBay or similar web-auction sites, with some coming from postcard shows, individual dealers, and family and friends. The average cost is about $10, although the price varies based on the subject matter and if other collectors, such as railroad or baseball enthusiasts, are also interested. The most expensive postcard in the collection ($70) is of a CB&Q railroad depot in Steward, Illinois (population 200). Postcards of small towns are scarce, and this item was of particular interest to Peter. Based on the postmark date and his family history, Peter believes one of the people standing in front of the depot is his great-grandfather. The depot still exists today.
When asked if he has a favorite, Peter is unable to name just one but can describe in detail favorites within each group. It is the detail that really draws in Peter – the small details of construction; the composition of the scene; the signage in the streetscape.
The AIA San Francisco Exhibit
More than 1,000 of Peter’s San Francisco postcards were recently on display at the AIA San Francisco in the exhibit Greetings from San Francisco: Postcards from the City’s Past. The exhibit revealed an urban landscape at once foreign and strangely familiar.
A colored postcard of the iconic Ferry Building is immediately recognizable in form, with a bustling street scene beneath its beaux-arts arches and clock tower. Yet a closer look gives a hint into time – the date, 1915, above the clock and the words “California Invites the World – Panama-Pacific Exposition” facing out over the Bay reveal the welcome that San Francisco extended to fair-goers arriving by ferry from points east.
Some of Espe’s images predate the 1906 Earthquake and Fire. A card of a café in the St. Francis Hotel, dated February 15, 1906, tells the recipient that “this looks pretty” two months before the room was destroyed in the conflagration. In another image, a horse and carriage stand idly outside Sweeney Observatory atop Strawberry Hill in Golden Gate Park. The popular spot with its great view was not rebuilt after the 1906 quake destroyed it. These postcards are notable both for what has and hasn’t stood the test of time — through earthquakes, fires, and the ever-changing cityscape.
Portions of this article are taken from the AIA San Francisco Architecture and the City Festival Exhibition guide.