A 2012 article by Chronicle writer Peter Hartlaub contained an impressive list of long-gone Bay Area landmarks. Among this list were two Emeryville icons: The fabled Mudflat Sculptures and the lesser celebrated Sherwin-Williams “Cover the Earth” sign.
While the sign was removed in 1976, some longtime bay area residents may still posses a vague memory of the massive illuminated sign. The sign sat on top of the long warehouse building that still stands at 1450 Sherwin Avenue along Horton street.
Railroad Access and Favorable Tax Rates Draw Large Manufacturers to Emeryville
The history of the Emeryville plant and the sign begins during of the industrial age of Emeryville. Most of the East Bay Shoreline was rural and agricultural until the 1900s. Then, most of this land began being subdivided for the residential boom in the wake of the 1906 earthquake.
The biggest parcels of land in Emeryville were occupied by the Oakland Trotting Park and Shellmound Park. After Trotting park closed in 1915, the large parcels of land began to be subdivided for industry and they became very desirable to large manufacturers.
Railroad and bay front access in tandem with favorable tax codes made Emeryville very attractive to industry and the city quickly became known as the ”Little Giant” of Industry in the 1920s. At the time, the Oakland Tribune Yearbook proclaimed, “practically the entire city is a manufacturing district.”
Many companies began moving and expanding operations in Emeryville including Shell Development, The Paraffine Company and Westinghouse Electric.
One of the companies interested in expanding its West Coast market was a paint company founded in Columbus, Ohio by Henry Sherwin and Edward Williams.
In 1919, Sherwin-Williams Western Plants Manager L.W. Walcott built and opened the Emeryville manufacturing plant at a cost of one million dollars. His plan was to expand its products of lead-based paints and Dry Lime Sulfur pesticides to the west coast. The operation quickly became profitable and the company expanded operations and built out the 10-acre property with additional Facilities.
By the mid-1930s, America was working its way out of the depression with massive civic projects with the help of FDR’s New Deal. The creation of the Eastshore highway and the opening of the Bay Bridge in 1936 dramatically impacted the visual landscape of Emeryville.
The Eastshore Highway was a plan to create a frontage highway along the east shore of the San Francisco Bay from Albany to the new San Francisco Bay Bridge. This would relieve traffic on San Pablo Avenue, which was the main thoroughfare through the East Bay since the days of stagecoaches and Mile Houses. The construction of the Bay bridge made Emeryville a central distribution point for the entire Bay Area and a quick drive from most communities.
The new transportation infrastructures made the bay shore of Albany, Berkeley, and Emeryville visually exposed to daily drivers. Anticipating the negative effect of the exposure, traffic, and visual clutter of highways, Berkeley moved to ban billboards along its section of the Eastshore Freeway. It also created the Aquatic Park as a tranquil buffer between the highway and residents.
The City of Emeryville made no such law and in fact embraced this as an opportunity. The highway gave the city greater ability to fill the bay for more industrial real estate and the ability to expose daily drivers to their “brand”.
The automobile culture of the 20th century had a massive effect on architecture and civil engineering that shaped our landscape. This influence was especially apparent on the Industrial era of Emeryville.
In the 1930s, the Bayshore Freeway was built in tandem with the construction of the Trans-Bay Bridge. Suddenly, the industrial areas of Emeryville became very visible to drivers of the newly constructed freeway.
Evolution of the Sherwin-Williams Logo
The initial Cover the Earth logo was first created in 1893 by Sherwin’s advertising manager George Ford. Despite initial reservations about the design, General Manager Walter Cottingham considered it an accurate representation of the company’s ambitions for rapid growth.
It became officially the symbol of the company in 1905 replacing the previous chameleon changing colors logo shown above (source: postalstationary.com).
The Logo was a depiction of a can of paint being excessively pouring over the globe. In great illustrative form, the paint was depicted dripping down the side of the earth in perfect droplets. Within the red paint dripping down the sphere of the globe, the logo spells out, “Cover The Earth.”
Treasure Island Selected for Golden Gate International Exposition
In 1936, Treasure Island was chosen as the site for the The Golden Gate International Exposition (GGIE) to celebrate, among other things, the completion of the region’s two newly built bridges. This represented an opportune time for the company to do a bit of self promotion and planned the largest neon sign west of the Mississippi.
In 1938, the Sherwin-Williams began construction on the existing three story steel frame and concrete warehouse. On top, they built a frame to hold the sign that stood an additional three stories and was the length of a football field.
The sign itself was designed by The Chicago Neon Company and assembled by Electrical Products Corporation (EPCO). Thirty tons of steel was used, a mile of neon, 1000 transformers, and six miles of wire were used to construct the mammoth earth and letters of the company name.
It was meant to be seen from the juncture of all directions of the base of the Bay Bridge. At night, the neon-lit the Bayshore sky with the animated logo. Its lights from the neon could be seen as far as treasure island. During the day without the lights, it was just as bright and noticeable.
The imaginative and aggressive logo equaled the intensity of the 20th-century industry. In 1939, it was a symbol of American Industry and unionized labor leading the charge out of the Great Depression and into wider American prosperity.
For many people in the bay area, the Industrialized Emeryville represented a way out of the depression. In 1937 Emeryville employed 6000 workers and had 125 factories running. For perspective that was one-fifth of the commercial and industrial development of the metropolitan Oakland area, yet Oakland’s population was 22 times larger than Emeryville’s.
This little industrial city was putting people to work after years of lean times and was growing the middle-class population of the East Bay. That newly minted middle-class grew up with this neon sign as they drove to school, went to work, and traveled.
The sign became a beloved local landmark for many people of the East Bay. But as much as people loved it, the imagery and the invasiveness of bright neon would soon be coming to an end.
Modern Day Environmental Movement Begins
By the 1960s, the issues of smog, lead contamination, and other byproducts of industrial progress became personal issues for Californians. This aided the changing awareness of environmentalism and its political symbolism.
By the late 1960s, the Sherwin-Williams experienced a steep increase in the cost of its raw materials. It also felt demands to modernize its manufacturing process and its products.
The growing awareness of the detriments of lead-based paints and their effects created a demand on Sherwin-Williams products to retool their production that had not changed for nearly a century.
In 1974, the Sherwin-Williams company also opted to refresh its logo. It wanted to affirm the safety of its products with its customers. In a press release, they felt that Cover the Earth logo did not reflect an environmentally aware, diversified manufacturer.
In July of 1976, the lights on the Sherwin-William Cover the Earth Neon Sign in Emeryville went dark for good. The company quickly dismantled the landmark in its anticipation of a company makeover. The sign went down quickly and its sudden disappearance was briefly noticed by local newspapers and residents. But like most landmarks, they are quickly forgotten if not visible.
In 1982, apparently due to consumer backlash, they brought back the iconic logo. Despite this reprisal, they opted to not replace the rooftop billboard.
There have been many calls to eliminate the logo since, but the company has remained steadfast in retaining it and even affirmed it in their recent 150 year celebration.
1450 Sherwin Avenue Today
The Emeryville plant ceased operations for good in 2006 and most of the plant was demolished. Sherwin moved existing operations from the plant to less environmentally regulated Nevada.
The building that held up those neon lights will soon have a new life. The existing building that once hoisted the sign will be converted to 74,000 square feet of commercial space. The remainder of the vast 10 acre development project will accommodate 500 apartments and 3.5 acres of publicly accessible open space and paths.
The toxic land required extensive remediation that took years. There are a few scattered artifacts remaining at the site. The loading docks along Horton, a few construction markers on Sherwin Avenue and the awning at the South-East corner entrance.
At the time of the creation of the neon sign, the idea of an American product asserting itself around the world was a pursuit of a collective patriotism. Covering the earth with paint with red, white, and blue, would have not had the same connotations as it does today.
Today, the context of covering the world has ominous effects. In the shadow of late-stage capitalism, climate change, and current global politics, the logo of Sherwin-Williams represents something in the distant past.
We have seen the harmful toll of the production of lead-based products and the environmental disasters caused by spills in Emeryville. There is new hope with Sherwin-Williams’s development that can gain new associations of hope and prosperity for Emeryville and the greater East Bay.
Our needs as a city and as a population constantly change. Nothing illustrates that more than a paint can covering the earth with drippy red paint. Once a symbol of hope and prosperity, now a haunting reminder of the 20th century’s mistakes.
Feature Image: The Bob Fitch Photography Archive