In early 2015 I got a call from the project manager handling the rebuild of the Kaiser Permanente Redwood City Medical Center. He asked if Heritage Resources might be interested in the old signage from the sides of the 1968 building designed by Portland, Ore., architects Wolff and Zimmer.
My answer was immediate. “Are you kidding? Of course!”
A year and a half later I finally drove my van over and picked them up. Our archive does not have a lot of objects – most of what we have are photographs and documents – and these artifacts were glorious physical treasures from an important medical facility.
The lettering is distinctive, and was common to the whole suite of Henry J. Kaiser’s many international industries from the 1940s through the late 1960s – steel, aluminum, cement, engineering, and even the proud lone survivor, the Kaiser Permanente Health Plan. The huge word KAISER in a version of this lettering (note the slightly different “K”) graces the side of Oakland’s iconic Kaiser Center, which was built in 1960.
But what exactly is this lettering? It’s not full-blooded anything, but was produced specifically for Kaiser. We don’t know if it was done in-house or by an outside design firm. California typographic historian Alastair Johnston thought it was “…probably influenced by Aldo Novarese, who designed Microgramma type.” Noted American design author Steven Heller chimed in: “…kind of looks like a [reworked] version of Eurostyle, the O is almost square or like an outline of a TV set. Novarese also designed Eurostile, it’s the same family of square-based gothics. [Kaiser] … overemphasized the italic.”
Regardless of typographic pedigree, these 15-inch tall letters are powerful historic artifacts. They were hand crafted from heavy gauge sheet steel, enameled the equivalent of our brand’s Pantone 307 blue. They held up very well over 46 years of exterior use.
Corporate logos and building signage are the proud public faces of an organization. These physical veterans extracted from Redwood City have now been retired to fulfill a new role in sharing our history.
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Investor’s Business Daily writer Scott Stoddard recently noted “Henry Ford built cars, William Boeing built airplanes, and Cornelius Vanderbilt built railroads. But Henry J. Kaiser built just about everything.”
Henry J. Kaiser (1882-1967) was a household name in the United States between the 1940s and the 1960s, but today few know much about him and what he accomplished.
Stoddard’s article “Industrialist Henry Kaiser Made Everything His Business” under the “Leaders & Success” section goes a long way toward elevating his stature as a significant American figure of the 20th century.
And more than that, much of what Kaiser accomplished sought to improve social conditions. At Grand Coulee Dam in 1938 he and Sidney Garfield, MD, offered employees an affordable and effective prepaid health plan. In 1942 he founded what would become Kaiser Permanente, which today is one of the nation’s largest integrated health plans.
The noted California historian Kevin Starr, quoted in the article, once told an audience at the Commonwealth Club that “Kaiser the industrialist was powerful enough, but the Kaiser Plan, with Sidney Garfield… it’s the great big social idea to come out of the war.”
Several biographies on Henry J. Kaiser help to tell his story, as well as regular articles in this History of Total Health blog that cover his role in such diverse topics as housing, support for merchant mariners, and employment discrimination. The blog also looks into his more idiosyncratic pursuits, which included race cars, the iconic Jeep, geodesic domes, and catamarans.
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On August 14, 2016, 2,270 people (yes, men were allowed!) all dressed as the iconic “Rosie the Riveter” gathered in the giant Ford Assembly Building craneway in Richmond, Calif., to beat the current Guinness World Record for such an event. More than a record-breaking gimmick, it was a testament to the impact of the World War II Home Front, and specifically honored the women who participated in the war effort.
The record had been previously held by 2,096 women at the site of the World War II Willow Run bomber plant in Michigan. During the war the workers at that Ford-owned factory turned out B-24 Liberator bombers; in 1945, the upstart automobile manufacturer Kaiser-Frazer moved in and by June 1946 began producing cars for the huge postwar market.
During World War II the Ford plant in Richmond was surrounded by four Kaiser shipyards, which together produced 747 ships to help win the war. The social programs that accompanied the war effort – such as efforts to integrate housing, provision of quality child care, acceptance of women in the industrial workforce, opportunities for women and people of color in trade unions, and the Kaiser health plan – were precursors of many subsequent social justice efforts, including the civil rights movement and second wave feminism.
The Rosie the Riveter WWII Home Front National Historical Park in Richmond is the only National Park to cover this important period in national (and California) history. It’s well worth a visit – on most Fridays, you can visit with these real Home Front workers from World War II. Please call the Visitor Education Center for schedule, (510) 232-5050.
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