Severn Dairy

Detail of Severn Dairy mural. (Click to enlarge.)

Detail of Severn Dairy mural. (Click to enlarge.)

In June 2000 the Regan Building on California Drive in Burlingame was demolished to make way for a new structure. When the walls came tumbling down on this mid-1920’s building, a surprise was in store. On the adjoining building, hidden from view for over 70 years, was a beautiful piece of 1920’s Americana. Looking quite clean and unscathed, a full 14’ x 53’ wallscape advertising the Severn Lodge Dairy was revealed. Painted sometime between 1917 and 1925 this colorful advertisement features a smiling boy driving a milk delivery cart across a stylized silhouette of San Francisco.

Over the next few years the wallscape began to deteriorate significantly. Through the efforts of Burlingame Historical Society board member Jennifer Pfaff and major funding from Clear Channel, the sign was restored to its original color and vibrancy. Read about the Discovery & Restoration and the The Lost Art of Sign Painting.

You can also read a historical perspective on the Burlingame Dairies, or just enjoy these photos from the offical rededication ceremony on Sunday, October 19, 2003.

The discovered mural. (Click to enlarge.)

The discovered mural. (Click to enlarge.)

Discovery & Resoration

In June 2000 the Regan Building on California Drive in Burlingame was demolished to make way for a new structure. When the walls came tumbling down on this mid-1920’s building a surprise was in store. On the adjacent building, hidden from view for over 70 years was a beautiful piece of 1920’s Americana. Looking quite clean and unscathed, a full 14’ x 53’ wallscape advertising the Severn Lodge Dairy.

No longer protected from the elements, the wallscape began a slide into deterioration. Colors began to fade and chip with each season. The Historical Society expressed great interest in restoring the piece, yet funding remained a major roadblock. In the Fall of 2002, a letter writing campaign was undertaken to find a donor for the project.

One such letter was sent off to the Dairy Council of California. Other letters were sent to major advertising corporations, like Clear Channel Outdoor. Michael Colbruno, Vice President of Governmental Affairs with Clear Channel Outdoor/Northern California, called the Society, pledging major funding to restore this rare piece of Americana. He was very well aware of its importance as an original outdoor painted advertisement. On a special trip to the Archives, he educated Society Board Members about the origins of outdoor advertising, billboards and wallscapes from the past to the present.

This particular wallscape is a standard size of 53.5 feet wide and 14 feet high. It was created by Foster and Kleiser Outdoor Advertising, a company originating back to 1901, that would eventually become Clear Channel Outdoor. Colbruno stressed that it would be extremely unlikely that another one of this quality would ever be found in California. To make matters even better, he had just the right person, Mike Manente, to restore it.

Restoration in progress. (Click to enlarge.)

Restoration in progress. (Click to enlarge.)

About the Painter, Mike Manente

Mike Manente was born in 1949 in Toledo, Ohio and raised in Cleveland. He received his MFA from Kent State, eventually teaching art for several years. He stumbled across the world of “pictorial painting,” while trying to sell inter-office supplies (intercoms) to various businesses. In 1979, while making a pitch to a painting studio that sub-contracted for Foster and Kleiser outdoor, he discovered the sign painting industry and begged for a job. He proved himself by painting the now famous “Coppertone Girl” for the owner and was offered the job on the spot.

The Lost Art of Sign Painting

There are not many true sign painters around anymore. Those who still paint advertisements use the same methods that have been used for more than a century.

Early on, many advertisements, like the Severn Lodge Dairy advertisement, were drawn freehand, on site, without using a pattern. Later on, patterns were used. Generally, a pattern is drawn on large, overlapping pieces of paper. Images may be enlarged on the paper using overhead projectors in a darkroom.

A ’pounce pattern’ is made with a rotating wheel that punctures the paper with a pattern of holes along the lines of the drawing. Then a “pounce bag,” a pouch full of loose charcoal, is used on site to “pounce” or powder the pattern through the holes, onto the surface to be painted. When the pattern is pulled away, a charcoal image remains.

Wall painting is done using a long narrow platform or “swing stage” and ’rope falls.’ The swing stage used to paint the Dairy Boy was 24 feet in length. The stage is hung into place with hooks at the top of the building. The painter usually wears a harness for safety. He then picks an area, pulling himself and his paints and brushes to the top, paints and then lowers the stage platform with the ropes.The work is completed from the top of the piece, to the bottom, to assure that the stage does not disturb any of part of the wet section just completed. When the section is complete, the rig is moved along to the top of the next section and the process continues.

There is generally a two man crew, consisting of a Journeyman (who can do lettering) and a helper. Lettering is most commonly done, beginning with large swatches of the desired letter color. When dry, the letters are “cut-in” with the background color, using a small brush. Though it is working inversely, this is a faster, easier process than filling in pre-drawn lettering, and doing the background later. If any kind of imagery is used, usually a pictorial artist is called in. This artist is trained in a painting style that “reads” well from a distance.

Freestanding billboards, on the other hand, are created on large plywood panels of 8’x 14’. The work can be completed entirely in a studio, and then brought on site and mounted. The advantage is that the advertisement can be dismantled and moved to other locations, if desired.

Outdoor advertisement today is mainly computer generated on vinyl sheets. These are glued into place like wallpaper or are produced with adhesive backing. They can also be prepared with grommets, so that they can be fastened tightly over an existing billboard, using ropes to tighten them from the back.

The restored mural. (Click to enlarge.)

The restored mural. (Click to enlarge.)

Burlingame’s Dairy Past

At the turn of the last century, Burlingame was a rural, bucolic community. Like other nearby suburbs of San Francisco, the blossoming town had a handful of local dairies, serving the growing population.

One of these dairies was owned by the Howard family, that once owned thousands of acres of land in San Mateo County, acquired during the Gold Rush. In 1856, widowed after William Davis Merry Howard died, Agnes Poett-Howard married his brother, George. They had four children. The eldest, George Howard, Junior, would later became a prominent architect in Burlingame and Hillsborough.

After having been widowed once again, Agnes married Henry Pike Bowie in 1879. Bowie was a prominent San Francisco attorney, with whom she shared ownership of the Howard land and dairy. In 1888, Henry and stepson George designed a grand estate in Hillsborough that reflected Mr. Bowie1s affection for Japanese art. It had terraced gardens, designed by John McLaren. Bowie would name it “Severn Lodge” after Severn Lane, the street in Hillsborough that bordered part of the tract on which the estate was built. The estate would also have a dairy.

Early pictures show cows grazing on the Severn Lodge property in Hillsborough. His cows also grazed at Coyote Point and the Delaware area of San Mateo. The Severn Lodge Dairy, though located on the Bowie estate, had offices on Burlingame Avenue as early as 1914. By 1917 the creamery and distribution plant are listed at 220 California Drive in Burlingame. In 1921-1922, the structure became a parking garage concession (Severn Lodge Garage) for the short-lived Pacific City amusement Park at Coyote Point. The dairy is listed at 222 California, next door to the south. Bowie died in 1920.

In 1922, the Dairy Delivery Company, in business since the great quake, erected a large pasteurizing plant and garage on the southeast corner of Howard Avenue, a block away (198 California Drive). The company had formed in San Francisco in 1906, as a way to distribute free milk from several dairies to earthquake refugees. In 1925, the Regan building was erected on the lot adjacent the “Dairy Boy” wallscape, covering him from view for several decades.The Dairy Delivery Company continued to process and deliver the milk of several Peninsula dairies, and was purchased by Borden in 1938. It eventually closed in 1970.

The Severn Lodge in Hillsborough was demolished in 1985 and the lot was subdivided. In June 2000, workers clearing rubble from the Regan Building discovered the Dairy Boy, looking quite pristine after 75 years in darkness.

In January-February 2023, Mike Manente and his son refreshed the Dairy Boy again. After being covered for 3 years for its protection, the painted advertisement in all its splendor now adorns the foyer of a new brick office building where it remains visible from the street and will be appreciated for years to come. Many thanks to Dewey Land Company and DivcoWest for their commitment to preserving local history.