Archive for the ‘Arthur Brown Jr.’ Category

The mystery of the Gilded Age architect and his artist brother

June 18, 2011

The Pissis brothers worked together on the 1905 Sherith Israel Temple

Albert Pissis was one of San Francisco’s most respected architects from the Gilded Age to the post-fire building boom. To me, he is also one of the era’s more quietly fascinating figures in local architecture, described after his death as having been a man of “dominating will power,” “naturally reserved,” but frank in expressing his opinion, even to “the extent of criticizing his own work.”

Pissis was born in Guaymas, Mexico in 1852, but his family moved to the scrappy town of San Francisco when he was around six. He gradually rose from a designer of rather typical Victorian homes to become a force in local architectural circles. He helped bring a sense of order learned at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris at a time of architectural chaos in the young metropolis.

In addition to his work, including landmarks like the Flood Building and the Hibernia Bank, his client and personal relationships have intrigued me. But Pissis is hard to research. His office files burned in the 1906 earthquake and fire. The firm’s work post-fire was considerable but those records,  passed on after Pissis’ death in 1914 to his successor, Morris M. Bruce, cannot be found.

Pissis was the oldest of five children born to a French physician and his Mexican wife. One aspect of his life that is murky was his relationship with his brother Emile, who was two years younger. Emile also had a creative gene, and became an artist. But they rarely worked together, even in an era of growing appreciation for the arts and culture in a city that was keen on labeling itself as the Paris of the West.

While researching an article on Pissis and the Hibernia Bank for the San Francisco Historical Society’s journal, The Argonaut, I  began to wonder if Albert and Emile had a falling out later in life.

Albert Pissis circa 1880s, courtesy Alex Finn

The two must have been close, at least in their early years and part of their adult life. But even though Emile was a talented artist, it has struck me as odd that they worked on only a few known projects together: a home in Pacific Heights, and the temple for Congregation Sherith Israel on California and Webster streets, completed in 1905. Emile designed many of the art glass windows for the Byzantine-Romanesque temple. The windows are now more visible (see photos) as a result of a major renovation and seismic retrofit, which has also included removing the salmon colored paint and restoring the building’s Colusa sandstone exterior. The dome is next on the list for paint removal.

Historians only re-discovered Emile Pissis’ involvement in the temple several years ago, after finding a receipt for payment  to him for the art glass windows in the Sherith Israel archives. Emile is not mentioned in any newspaper articles at the time of the September, 1905 opening of the temple. Albert Pissis is cited as the architect, along with frescoes by artist Attilio Moretti. An excellent doctorate dissertation on Pissis and Arthur Brown, Jr. in 1986 by historian Christopher Nelson discusses Emile’s art glass windows.

Exterior view of art glass by Emile Pissis depicting Moses

Emile Pissis, the artist and agitator

Emile studied art in Paris, while Albert was studying architecture at the Ecole. Upon their return to San Francisco, Emile worked for about 16 years at various importing firms, as a clerk and then a bookkeeper, possibly through connections in the French community.  Based on listings in San Francisco City Directories, around 1888, Emile was able to stop working, perhaps aided with his share of his father’s estate, and focus on his art.

In 1890, Emile returned to Paris for a few more years. By January, 1894, he was back in San Francisco, and mentioned in The Morning Call as one of 10 local artists, including Arthur Mathews, who were contemplating sending their work to exhibit at the Midwinter Fair in Golden Gate Park. He was living in the family home, by then on California Street and listed as “artist” in the city directories. 

He also rented a studio downtown on Sutter Street for a couple of years, and played a vocal role in the goings-on at the San Francisco Art Association in its early days in the mansion built by railroad magnate Mark Hopkins. In 1893, Edward Searles, who had married Hopkins’ widow Mary, donated the Nob Hill manse after her death to the artists’ group. The sprawling Victorian was renamed the Mark Hopkins Institute of Art and a glowing article in The Argonaut in 1905 described it as “a permanent home of a most picturesque and beautiful character.”

The House Gallery, Mark Hopkins Institute of Art, The Argonaut, Jan. 9, 1905

Emile Pissis did not agree.  In an article in the San Francisco Call on February 15, 1895, he complained about the poor lighting in the dark hallway of the mansion, the exhibition space for the artists who were students at the Art Association’s California School of Design. Pissis said he had shown a large number of paintings in a previous exhibit but that they were “killed” by the shadows and he would not exhibit again.

An obituary in the San Francisco Examiner in 1934 stated that Emile Pissis did not sell a single painting and exhibited rarely. But his involvement in the early days of the art association shows that he was quite passionate about his profession and active in helping local artists get recognition, and make sales. He was also credited with coming up with ways to help foster sales of works of fellow students at exhibitions.  Another article in The Morning Call on an artists’ meeting at the institute, in which he grilled the director on whether any paintings sold at the last exhibit, labeled him “Pertinent Pissis.”

Despite Emile’s protests about the dark gallery space, he did show his work again. In 1896, he placed third behind local legends, Arthur Mathews and William Keith, first and second prize winners, respectively, in a contest commissioned by James Phelan for scenes from California’s history.

A Room of His Own

In what appears to be the last collaborative effort with his brother Albert, in 1895 Emile commissioned Pissis & Moore to design an apartment building on the corner of Pleasant and Taylor streets on Nob Hill. Their father Joseph had dabbled in real estate, and his sons inherited his aptitude. Emile’s art studio formed the penthouse of a building consisting of three flats, with its own separate entrance on Pleasant Street. The entire building cost $8669, according to California Architect & Building News in 1895.

Pissis must have been the envy of the San Francisco artist community. The Call  ran a piece on September 3, 1895 about his plans. “The real workroom will consist of a large apartment 18 feet high, with light from all four sides, the northern windows being the largest, however. All the light will be adjustable, and will come from windows situated near the ceiling,” the Call wrote. “The decorations have not yet been decided upon, but to artists, these are a minor detail. It is the excellent facilities which the studio will offer for working in all weathers that is making the owners of extemporized studios talk with just a tinge of envy when they chance to mention Emile Pissis’ name.”

Nob Hill building once owned by Emile Pissis, by Bakewell & Brown

Sadly, no drawings of the building Albert Pissis designed for his brother have been found. The building burned in 1906, along with most of Emile’s paintings at the time. During the city’s rebuilding, Emile enlisted the young firm of Bakewell & Brown, now known for their neo-Baroque splendor that is San Francisco City Hall. Their 1909 building stands today at the corner of Pleasant and Taylor. Emile lived the rest of his life at No. 18 Pleasant Street, with rentals providing him with a mostly steady income. This building also nearly burned down: in 1933 a fireman had to smash down two doors to rescue the elderly Pissis in his penthouse from a raging fire.

Why didn’t Albert design the second iteration of Emile’s apartment building and art studio? Perhaps he was too busy during the post-1906 building boom, where he played a major role designing many downtown business buildings and new stores for the city’s retailers like the White House. He perhaps recommended the young architect Arthur Brown, Jr.  if he had no time to help his brother.

18 Pleasant Street, where Emile Pissis lived

Le Mysterieux
 
But an interesting fact has emerged about Emile. He wrote many “Letters to the Editor” of The Argonaut, the weekly literary paper, under a pseudonym, Lemice Terrieux II, a play on le mysterieux, which means the mysterious one in French. The Argonaut wrote a brief obituary of Emile Pissis, in which the editors unveiled his true identity, and said he had been writing for the weekly for 40 years. But the first letters that could be found signed Lemice Terrieux II are from the late 1920s, in which he opined about everything from politics to Prohibition to the economy to the local art scene.
 
The most intriguing of his writings, however, is a series of articles he wrote on life in “Old California,” a charming series that also mentions many French pioneers, with the notable exception of anyone in the Pissis family, perhaps to keep his identity secret. In one amusing piece, he talks about how the alleys of Belden Street and Morton Street (now Maiden Lane) were also “dedicated to the cult of Venus.” 

“These were the educational grounds of the youths of those days, where they became sophisticated sexually,” wrote Lemice Terrieux II, on August, 3, 1929.

Another article on August 24, 1929 is even more interesting for what it says about Emile’s view of his brother’s contribution to San Francisco’s architecture. Looking back fondly on the old days, he cast a rather disparaging eye on some of his brother’s most important buildings, including the 1892 Hibernia Bank that propelled Albert’s career. Written near the end of the city’s Jazz Age skyscraper building boom, Emile blamed some of his brother’s works for ushering in a “Stone Age” of  granite buildings and ending the city’s quirky architectural mayhem in wood and iron.

Emile Pissis, from his obituary, San Francisco Examiner, June 11, 1934

“The erection of the Emporium, the Flood building, and the Hibernia bank, marked the end of the cast-iron architecture which had prevailed in San Francisco,” he wrote. “It was the beginning of the Stone Age in the city’s construction, of the skyscraper and the brick facades – it was the beginning of new San Francisco and the end of the old city, of its originality, of its charm.”  He went on, “The city of today is a diminutive New York, a dwarf Chicago – its redeeming features: its seven hills, its bay and its ocean cliffs and shore.”

Were these just the idealized reminiscences of an old man, or did Emile express them to his brother while he was alive? It is perhaps worth noting that when Albert Pissis died, he left his entire estate to his wife, Georgia Pissis, whom he married in 1905. His estate, estimated at around $500,000 in 1914, was large especially for an architect, and the Architect & Engineer said he was the city’s wealthiest architect.  Pissis, like his father, had also amassed local real estate holdings, stocks and bonds, and even had a chauffeur.

But neither of Albert Pissis’ three living siblings at the time of his death, Emile, his other brother Eugene, and Margaret Gallois, nor his sister’s children, were mentioned in his brief wills, one dated 1908 another dated 1911. Of course, it’s standard to leave an entire estate to one’s spouse. But the will’s complete omission of Albert’s younger artist brother and other family members, is still an interesting, if puzzling, fact. 

Wrecking ball starts demo of Transbay Terminal

December 3, 2010

The demolition of the front of the Transbay Terminal began today, with the repetitive swinging of the wrecking ball, which the contractors call “Big Red.” 

Big Red pummels ramp of Pflueger's Transbay Terminal

The Transbay Joint Powers Authority, in one of the oddest press releases I have ever seen, heralded the news,  saying that the wreckers Evans Brothers, Inc. “dropped the historic first wrecking ball on the front facade of the old Transbay Terminal building, marking the project’s progress.”

For those of us in the minority who like the building, which was designed by Timothy Pflueger, Arthur Brown Jr. and John Donovan, and completed in 1939, it was not a pretty sight. I tried to be stoic, thinking about Richard Nickel, the architectural photographer and preservationist who witnessed more demolitions of Louis Sullivan buildings than salvations. In addition to his photographs of the buildings, he also salvaged ornament from their wreckage, until he died inside the Chicago Stock Exchange, when a wall collapsed on him, in part because the buliding was so weakened by the water sprayed during the demolition.

Wrecking crew spraying water on the dust

It was fascinating and disturbing at the same time to see the guts of the building spewing forth and many spectators had the same ghoulish fascination with watching something being wrecked. But it was still hard to see, especially knowing that the building was one of the more modern works of two of the city’s well-known architects of their eras, Pflueger and Brown. Fortunately, much of their work is extant in San Francisco, but this also made the demolition of the Bauhaus-inspired building harder to watch.

Demolition of the facade begins with the ramp

The act of tearing down a building brings a lot of pollution into the air and it was shocking that none of the wreckers seemed to be wearing masks. They have, as all demolition sites do, someone spraying water after the wrecking ball makes contact with its target, to control the dust and building particles flying through the air.  The one interesting thing is that it’s not gone in one full swoop of the ball: it’s a long, tedious, rather monotonous swinging of the ball, until it breaks the concrete or granite.

The windows have been torn out, and hopefully some of them have been preserved somewhere, along with the wooden benches inside and some other fixtures. (Please see older post with some photos). The 1930s lettering is gone and hopefully preserved. A wrecker told me that the facade won’t get hit with the wrecking ball until next week sometime.

I was not the only one who was sad to see the building go. I talked to a few people gathered around, some taking photographs. Many others were also sad, and talked about family memories associated with the terminal. One 62-year-old photographer even remembered taking the train, the Key System, across the Bay Bridge. Some, though, did talk about its usefulness as a modern train station and its current unkempt state. But it seems to me that no one really gave the building a chance to play a role in the new design.

The Transbay Terminal Will be Missed

July 30, 2010

Transbay Terminal, with Pflueger's Telephone building, (c) Tom Paiva

With the looming demolition of the Transbay Terminal approaching next month, one might expect to see the inevitable stories about the building’s better days in the local press. Sadly, the Sunday piece by Carl Nolte in the San Francisco Chronicle does not do the building justice. Too many have judged the 1939 building’s architectural merits by its current grimy appearance: its central hall cut up to accommodate bus station escalators, the built-up filth on its once-sparkling white granite after years of neglect, and the hordes of homeless people who have been allowed to call it home. Originally designed as the terminus for the Key System trains that traveled on the lower deck of the Bay Bridge, the building, designed by a triumvirate of architects led by Timothy Pflueger, deserves a proper homage.

Nolte wrote that “no historian is going to miss this building.” I beg to differ. Some architects, architectural historians and preservationists who spoke with or emailed me agree that the demolition of the former train station will be a major loss for the city. The Chronicle’s own rabble-rouser, its Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic, the late Allan Temko, gave the building high praise in an article on September 11, 1978, calling the building “one of the best examples of 1930s Moderne in San Francisco.” He also noted that the building fits historically with the Bay Bridge, even though it was completed three years after the bridge opened.

Transbay Terminal, side window and awning details, (c) Tom Paiva Photography

The Bauhaus-inspired building is unusually spare in its use of ornament. It was especially spare for Pflueger, even though he was beginning to embrace a more streamlined style during this austere period. It was also one of the more modern buildings designed by fellow architect Arthur Brown, Jr., whose luscious Baroque sensibility remains with us today in San Francisco City Hall. John Donovan was the third local architect in the group.

The utilitarian Transbay’s spare detailing is its aluminum frames around the large, industrial windows, which, when clean, filled the grand hall with light as train commuters scurried through. Pflueger had also used a similar pattern in the window frames of his San Francisco Stock Exchange Tower at 155 Sansome Street, ten years earlier.  In the case of the Transbay, the lack of ornament or any art work — often added to public buildings during the 1930s thanks to President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal projects — was probably due to budgetary constraints.  As is noted in my book Art Deco San Francisco, the architects, especially Pflueger, fought frequently with the engineers over efforts to try and add art, ornament or style to the Bay Bridge project. There were also many windows and doors in the terminal, to speed commuters in and out, so there was little wall space for the kind of murals inside the main Transbay building that helped saved the Rincon Post Office Annex from destruction.

The Transbay Terminal has been allowed to deteriorate by its owners. Today, Caltrans and the Transbay Joint Powers Authority, in a seemingly hypocritically move, are celebrating the building through a series of tours for the public. We will be able to visit places that some of us have never seen, such as the Cuddles Bar, the Terminal Jail, the shoeshine stand and the smoke shop. But for long-time commuters through the station, the tours will surely be bittersweet.

Transbay Terminal (c) Tom Paiva Photography

 “I think the Transbay Terminal has gotten a bum rap over the years, for a number of reasons,” said Christopher VerPlanck, a principal with Knapp & VerPlanck Preservation Architects in San Francisco. “First, Caltrans does not maintain it – it is filthy, badly lit, and perceived rightly or wrongly as being dangerous. Second, I don’t think most Americans appreciate the modernistic aesthetic of the main building or industrial/utilitarian aesthetic of the remainder of the structure.”

VerPlanck loves the Streamline Moderne waiting room and facade and the riveted steel structure of the bus shed and viaduct. “I can’t help but wonder if it would have been perceived more favorably if it had been cleaned regularly and maintained,” he said.

H. Lynn Harrison, an architect who is also the preservation director for the Art Deco Society of California, said he recently went to just look at the elegance of the large windows from indoors, and to try and imagine it in its grander days.  “The Transbay Terminal was and still is a beautiful building, modern and classic at the same time,” Harrison said. “It’s sleekness, its strength, its elegance of proportions, all make this an architectural master work.”

Yes, many complain about the low ceilings in the waiting areas and passages, and Nolte described the space as cold and windswept in summer and winter fogs. But Joyce Roy, a semi-retired architect who is also a transit advocate, said she believed that the low ceilings, while designed to make people move faster, were also possibly a page from Frank Lloyd Wright, who often had visitors enter a compressed space with a low ceiling, before going into a dramatic, spacious open area. Wright used this trick in much of his work, especially his homes and churches. It was at Roy’s suggestion that Caltrans decided to open the building to the public for a last tour on Friday. We will report back with photos and other observations.

A spokeswoman for the Transbay Joint Powers Authority said the old terminal is not suited to modern transportation needs. It is ironic that as California tries to re-embrace train travel, San Francisco’s old terminal was deemed as unsuitable for reuse as its original purpose. And even though Caltrans had determined the building was eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, it never pursued that status. Incorporating the old building in the design of the new terminal seems to have been rejected early on, although Roy said it was considered.

“The current terminal is outdated, not up to current seismic safety codes and does not meet the current or future transportation needs of the city or region, which is why it must be replaced,” a spokeswoman for the TJPA said in an email.

Meanwhile, Los Angeles managed to renovate and restore its lovely Union Station, also completed in 1939 and designed by father and son architects Parkinson & Parkinson. It’s a bit mind-boggling that car-centric Los Angeles cares more for its historic train station than allegedly green San Francisco, which is also spending a minimum of $10 million on the demolition of the Transbay Terminal alone, a project that will create some serious debris for landfills. 

Transbay construction site in 1938, courtesy the late Rich Higgins of Caltrans


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