Domed theaters in San Jose set for last picture show

Century 21
Century 21 Theatre at dusk (c) Therese Poletti

Three iconic domed movie theaters representative of the futuristic roadside, or Googie, architecture of the late 1950s and 1960s, are set to show their last films on March 31.

Last week, the current tenants of the Century 21 Theatre, Guggenheim Entertainment and the Retro Dome theater group, sent out an email alert that programming will cease at Century 21, 22, and 23 as of March 31st, because the lease for the theaters to Syufy Enterprises is up and it not being renewed. The theaters are known locally by their current name, the Winchester Theaters.

The property owners, including members of the family of the original architect, Vincent G. Raney, have filed a permit to demolish all three domes, and are fighting any attempt to save the theaters.

Many locals fear that the three theaters will be torn down for another shopping center, but no project or plans have yet been filed with the City of San Jose.

The trio of theaters, near the famous Winchester Mystery House, were originally dubbed the Century Theaters, as commissioned by Ray Syufy, a Bay Area movie theater entrepreneur, who hired Raney to design the domes. The Century 21, which opened in November, 1964, was the first dome in the Century Theaters chain and it was designed to showcase a new widescreen cinema technology called Cinerama. The Cinerama widescreen technology, one of the industry’s many efforts to combat growing competition from television, was originally developed using three synchronized cameras for filming and projecting. But when the first theater designed to show Cinerama opened in Hollywood in 1963, it showcased the improved single-screen Cinerama process using 70 mm film. One year later, Century 21 in San Jose, followed in that vein, showing the same opening film, “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World,” in single-lens 70 mm Cinerama.

After the first Cinerama theater opened in Hollywood on Sunset Boulevard, other domed theaters ensued. Cinerama Inc., the developer of the technology, promoted the dome design as economical and easy to build. Hollywood’s Cinerama, which has been preserved and is now a city landmark, has a geodesic dome design inspired by architect and engineer R. Buckminster Fuller.

Postcard of Cinerama Hollywood, circa 1960s
Postcard of Cinerama Hollywood, circa 1960s

Los Angeles has preserved important moments and venues in cinematic history, but in the Bay Area — home of Silicon Valley — these domed theaters, representative of a unique cinema technology, are threatened. Last May, the domed theater in Pleasant Hill, also designed by Raney for Syufy, was demolished to make way for a sporting good store. And in the last few months, two other domed theaters, the Century 24, across Highway 280 from the Winchester domes, and Century 25, in San Jose’s nearby Westgate Shopping Center, were also demolished.

Architect Vincent G. Raney, Docomomo Noca
Architect Vincent G. Raney, Docomomo Noca

Last year, the property owners hired Cassidy Turley real estate and advertised for new tenants to develop the acreage. Preservationists though, including the San Jose non-profit Preservation Action Council, fear the land, targeted by the city as another “urban village” will become another bland Santana Row, the cookie-cutter, faux Tuscan style shopping center and apartments across the street from the theaters. After writing an article in the Wall Street Journal about the plight of the domes and learning about their historic significance, I have since become a supporter of saving at least one theater from the wrecking ball.

Century 21 Theatre, side view, (c) Therese Poletti
Century 21 Theatre, side view, (c) Therese Poletti

A campaign to save at least one of the theaters has gathered community support and over 5,500 people have signed a petition in Change.org.

But there are also detractors, and in an odd twist, those detractors include the architect’s family. In a letter to the city of San Jose a family member wrote that Raney “believed buildings have a life span and that as a community evolves, so should its architecture.” “He would think the Century 21 is ready for retirement, making way for something new that would serve the City’s and community’s needs now,” wrote Michelle Bevis, on behalf of the Raney and Farriss families, who own the land.

An architectural and historical debate

Does San Jose really need more bland shopping plazas and malls? Wouldn’t it be feasible to incorporate at least the earliest dome in the chain, a whimsical icon seen from Highway 280, into a mid-century style shopping area or office building? Some have argued that the domes are not historic, nor are they architecturally significant.

I beg to differ. The domes, which evoke notions of a spaceship, were emblematic of an era that has vanished, of optimism in the future, looking ahead to the 21st century and the space age with joy and anticipation. The domes were based on the concepts of Fuller, who patented his geodesic dome, a precisely calculated, patterned mesh that provided maximum strength at a minimum of cost. By 1959, Fuller had licensed his dome design to more than 100 corporations and city governments. At two futuristic world’s fairs of the early 1960s, for example, the World’s Fair in Seattle in 1962, and at New York’s World’s Fair of 1964, Fuller-licensed domes or copycats were popular exhibition venues for forward-thinking companies, in that brief interlude of post-World War II optimism. It is also worth pointing out that Apple Inc.’s plans for a new corporate campus, as envisioned by the late co-founder Steve Jobs, also recall the idea of a spaceship.

Architect Frank Lloyd Wright was another major influence. Producer Mike Todd, one of the original founders of Cinerama, had formed his own company to work on a competing but improved single lens version of Cinerama, called the Todd-AO process. Todd hired Wright to design a domed theater with a geodesic roof using aluminum from Kaiser Aluminum, a theater with gently curved walls to showcase the widescreen movies his company was producing. Wright used Fuller’s concepts, according to the book, “Treasures of Taliesin, Seventy-Seven Unbuilt Designs,” but also modified the size of the dome and the scope of its overhead curve.

Frank Lloyd Wright and Mike Todd and theater model, and Henry Kaiser right. The American Widescreen Museum, collection of Robert C. Weisgerber
Frank Lloyd Wright and Mike Todd and theater model, and Henry Kaiser right. Widescreen Museum, collection of Robert C. Weisgerber

Wright’s design, according to a rendering in “Treasures of Taliesin,” also included pre-cast concrete shells as walls. But Todd was tragically killed in a plane crash in 1958 and his heirs did not pursue movie theaters. Wright died one year later. Still, the Todd-AO single lens process was used by Cinerama and Panavision as an improvement on the original three camera process.

When Raney was hired by Syufy to design the first of many theaters in the chain, Cinerama sent Raney drawings of the standard dome theaters and the scaffolding used to erect it, according to the book, “Suburban America.” In addition, Raney had a personal connection to the site of the first theaters and the nearby Winchester Mystery House: his wife Edna was the oldest daughter of John H. Brown, the man who turned the bizarre tale of Sarah Winchester’s compulsive building additions and expansions to her rambling Victorian mansion into a major tourist attraction. Raney’s heirs today are among the owners of the vast parcel of nearly 12 acres of land the three theaters sit upon, and part of the group of 40 family members who are protesting the landmark nomination.

Finial atop Century 21 Theatre
Finial and bird atop Century 21 Theatre

Next month, California’s Historic Preservation Commission will review a nomination submitted by Docomomo Noca, the local chapter of an international non-profit focused on preserving and documenting mid-century modernism. The nomination seeks to add the Century 21 Theatre to the state’s register of historic resources. The nomination will be reviewed by the State Historical Resources Commission on April 22, at the California Preservation Foundation Conference at Asilomar. (disclosure: I am now on Docomomo Noca’s board).

If the theater is deemed by the state’s historic preservation commission as a “historic resource,” its survival is not guaranteed. According to historic preservation consultant Christopher VerPlanck, who is also president of Docomomo Noca, such a designation would require that any developer complete a costly and lengthy environmental impact report. “Any project that could negatively affect the ‘resource’ must take those effects into account with an Environmental Impact Report (EIR),” VerPlanck said. “Most developers will do whatever they can to avoid having to prepare an EIR, even if it involves preserving whatever it is they want to tear down.”

But it seems like in San Jose, it’s out with the old, in with the new.

Let’s hope some compromise can be achieved and that an important piece of the Jetsons era in Silicon Valley can be saved.

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Former I. Magnin ladies room looking good again

Original light fixture in former I. Magnin ladies room
Original light fixture in former I. Magnin ladies room

Many San Franciscans remember the elegant department store that once graced the corner of Stockton and Geary streets, I. Magnin & Co. Like the City of Paris, once across Stockton Street, Ransohoff’s a few blocks away, and many other long-gone stores, these beautifully designed and lushly appointed stores evoke memories of a by-gone era when women wore hats and gloves to go downtown. Magnin’s was a favorite of the city’s socialites and other ladies who lunch with a taste for designer and haute-couture clothing. Its quiet marble facade on Union Square represented a graceful shopping experience.

In 1988, R.H. Macy & Co. bought the exclusive I. Magnin chain of stores, including the flagship store, the white marble lady designed by architect Timothy Pflueger. That deal was just one of many that began in 1944, when Magnin’s merged with Bullocks Inc. Ultimately, after more mergers and a proxy fight, the local retailing icon became part of the conglomerate Federated Department Stores, after Federated bought Macy’s. Magnin’s, though, a high-end luxury retailer, did not last long in the Federated chain, which sadly closed the stores in 1994. Many in the retailing business suspected that Federated/Macy’s only wanted Magnin’s for its prime location facing Union Square and adjacent to Macy’s.

A major renovation was done in the late 1990s to create a modern glass facade and unify the disparate Macy’s buildings on the Geary Street side of its vast complex, including a major seismic upgrade. The interior of the once-gorgeous I. Magnin store  was completely gutted. Long gone are the glorious pink Tennessee marble floors, the bronze elevator doors, the glass hand-painted mural on the ground floor, the intimate salons with scalloped ceilings and marble, chrome and glass everywhere. Glass chandeliers in the style of Lalique and gorgeous display cases were all hand picked by Grover Magnin, who traveled to Paris with Pflueger to get ideas for the store. While I. Magnin Union Square was probably Pflueger’s piece de resistance of all his work for the Magnin chain, he died of a sudden heart attack in 1946, and was not alive to see the store’s grand opening in 1948, or how it became a beloved fixture in San Francisco.

But what is little known – except to savvy shoppers in Union Square  – is that one small vestige of the original I. Magnin store remains. On the sixth floor of Macy’s, just off the hallway near the elevators, is part of the original ladies restroom. Upon entering the bland powder room for putting on lipstick, unsuspecting patrons are sometimes surprised by the gorgeous interior in the next room. Black green marble covers the walls, contrasting with a gold-leaf ceiling. A glass chandelier hangs from an ornate bronze ceiling mount. Floor length antique mirror doors provide privacy in the stalls, and white-veined marble sinks sit nestled in bronze pedestals.

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Ladies Room in Macy’s on Union Square is a Pflueger

For a brief time, the bathroom seemed to be in need of constant repair. One of the pedestal sinks was covered with a sign that it was out of order and on one visit last year, at least three bathroom stalls were out of order.

But on a recent visit, the Timothy Pflueger Blog learned that Macy’s has found a sink, and repaired most of the restroom issues.

Maintaining and improving the historical bathrooms has been an important ongoing project here at Macy’s Union Square,”  said Megan Prado, a spokeswoman for Macy’s, in a recent email. “We searched for several months and had distributors look for a historical sink to replace one of the three that cracked as it wasn’t able to be repaired.” Prado said Macy’s found one that was a great match. “We relocated the two existing functioning sinks and moved them to the exterior,  and installed the new one in the middle. This gave the area a balanced look.”  The stall door mirrors have also been replaced with new mirrors with an antique look. “We continue to do regular audits of the restroom to address issues as they arise in a timely manner,” she added.

At least one small slice of Pflueger’s original design remains.

For those of you interested in the history of I. Magnin, and other specialty and department stores founded by some of the city’s great entrepreneurs, I will be doing a talk for the San Francisco History Association on March 25. The talk is based on my research for a new walking tour I am working on for San Francisco City Guides. Hope to see some of you there!

Happy Birthday Tim Pflueger, San Francisco still loves you!

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Telephone Building, now officially called 140 New Montgomery, lit by floodlights at night. Photo (c) Therese Poletti

After realizing late in the day on September 26 that it was architect Tim Pflueger’s birthday, I decided to walk within a short radius of my office downtown and photograph a few Pflueger buildings. The big reward while walking around on a lovely balmy evening was to see the newly renovated Telephone Building, now officially renamed 140 New Montgomery, all aglow with gorgeous flood lights shining on the tower, just as it did back in the day after the building opened in 1925.

The current owners, developers Wilson Meany, recently finished a huge renovation and seismic retrofitting job. Yelp Inc. moved into several floors of the tower earlier this month, being the first company to occupy the building since AT&T moved out in 2006. As you can see, from this 1929 photo, the building used to have many floodlights highlighting the tower, and at Easter, Pacific Telephone had lights in the windows lit to form the shape of a cross.

Telephone Building at Easter, 1929 courtesy San Francisco History Center, SF Public Library
Telephone Building at Easter, 1929 courtesy San Francisco History Center, SF Public Library

New Montgomery Street is lively with lots of activity going on, due to the heavy concentration of tech companies in the area. I talked with a French entrepreneur who just moved to San Francisco to try to get his curation start-up company going, and he graciously contributed an excellent photo (see below) of New Montgomery Street. Other tech companies in addition to Yelp are moving into 140 too, including one named Terracotta (140 is finished with a white and grey speckled terracotta made by Gladding McBean). The 26-story building is now over 85% leased.

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New Montgomery Street at night, photo by Eric Poindessault

Wilson Meany, the developers who bought the building from AT&T Inc. in 2007, are trying to be both energy efficient and good neighbors and currently are lighting up the tower from about dusk until 10 pm.

It’s great to see the tower aglow. In February, 1926 the magazine “Architecture” wrote, “In the new Telephone building, San Francisco has her Woolworth tower.” I was reminded of that comment when I saw how stately the Telephone Building looks at night now, where past, present and the future all collide.

Note: this post was not posted on Pflueger’s birthday because just as I was trying to proofread and post, Comcast started to do maintenance in my neighborhood and I lost my connection for the evening!

Telephone Building at night, 1929, courtesy San Francisco History Center, SF Public LIbrary
Telephone Building at night, 1929, courtesy San Francisco History Center, SF Public Library

Lots going on at the Telephone Building

Miller & Pflueger's Telephone Building, (c) Tom Paiva Photography
Miller & Pflueger’s Telephone Building, (c) Tom Paiva Photography

There has been a lot of speculation about potential tenants for the Telephone Building since construction began in March on a major renovation project, which I wrote about in the Wall Street Journal. The $50 million-plus restoration and seismic retrofit of Timothy Pflueger’s iconic Jazz Age skyscraper, which has been vacant for about six years, is underway. Owners Wilson Meany Sullivan have also redubbed the building “140” – a nod to the nickname given the building by Pacific Telephone & Telegraph Co.  An icon since it was completed in 1925, the skyscraper at 140 New Montgomery Street now even has its own very cool website, a promotion video and photo collage of architectural details.

The base is now covered in scaffolding so it’s hard to peek inside and a construction crane lords over the building (see photo below.) The Timothy Pflueger Blog apologizes for not keeping readers au courant with all the news. In addition, the San Francisco City Guides Downtown Deco tour will talk about the building from across the street, until the work is done.

Construction work on the Telephone Building
Construction work on the Telephone Building

Since construction began, some major tenants have signed up. The biggest is Yelp Inc., which announced plans in May to move into the 26-story building, and lease eight floors, or 100,000 square feet, when the work is finished next year. Tthe San Francisco Chronicle reported in November that the popular Web-based review site’s lease is through 2021. Approximately 800 Yelpers will move in.

Restaurants to move in 

Now, the two public spaces off the lobby have also been leased. In late October, the Chronicle reported that Mourad Lahlou, the owner and chef of Aziza, a well-regarded Moroccan restaurant in the Richmond District, has leased the larger space on the Minna side of the building. This restaurant will also feature the Michelin-rated chef’s take on Moroccan cuisine.  Bar Agricole’s Thad Vogler has leased the smaller space.

While both leases are exciting for local foodies, it is not clear what the news means in terms of architecture. A look at photos of the other locations operated by Lahlou and Vogler respectively has the Timothy Pflueger Blog worrying that both of these venues will go down the path of the trendy, industrial warehouse-chic look.

Telephone Building Lobby, (c) Tom Paiva Photography
Telephone Building Lobby, (c) Tom Paiva Photography

Lahlou has hired Olle Lundberg, a San Francisco architect to design the new space, where, the Chronicle gushed, “exposed brick and concrete abound.” That’s not exactly how it was designed by architect Timothy Pflueger and his draftsmen, as one can see by the dark marble walls, detailed metal work, and the multi-colored plaster ceiling with Chinese motif in the stunning lobby. Many of the building’s interior office spaces are being gutted down to the brick walls to suit the needs of tech trendoids. To be fair, the last time I was in the ground floor space Lahlou is leasing, it was a museum for Pacific Telephone and did not seem to have any remarkable interior details, except for the 12-foot high windows.  The architects had likely focused their attention on the public lobby space.

Lundberg has a great opportunity to go beyond the tired industrial look and create a fabulous and exotic restaurant space evocative of the spirit of the 1920s. Fans of Pflueger and the building hope that he might seek to reference or incorporate Pflueger’s unique take on the Art Deco style, or even study some of his other works, such as the Moorish-inspired Alhambra Theatre on Polk Street, the high Art Deco Paramount in Oakland or his fabulous cocktail lounges from the 1930s, for inspiration. But Lahlou told the Chronicle’s blog, Inside Scoop:  “I don’t want the space to be a shrine,” Lahlou said. “I want a good vibe, good music.” And if Lundberg’s previous (and I should add well-regarded) work is an example, his is an ultra clean-lined, almost antiseptic approach to modernism, but he is also known for liking to work with his hands.

Perhaps there is more hope for the Whiteside Company, the proposed name for Vogler’s new location, which will be an all-day cafe, restaurant and bar. Vogler told “Inside Scoop” that he plans to serve up cocktails from the 19th and early 20th century, considered the Golden Age of the American cocktail, using recipes of one the city’s famous bartenders Bill Boothby. His bar book containing 400 recipes was reprinted by San Francisco’s Anchor Distilling Co. in 2009, with an excellent, well-researched foreward written by Fritz Maytag and David Burkhart of Anchor. Boothby was a bartender at the Palace Hotel, just down the block.

Boothby's American Bartender, published in 2009 by Anchor Distilling
Boothby’s American Bartender, published in 2009 by Anchor Distilling

There are even some examples, most in photographs only, of Pflueger’s stunning cocktail lounges that could serve as inspiration for Vogler’s new venue, should he or his architect decide to incorporate any references to Pflueger. My favorite is the former Patent Leather Lounge at the St. Francis Hotel. If you visit the registration area today you can see the stunning photos by Ansel Adams of the lounge which opened in 1939 with its unusual combination of black patent leather covered walls, carved Lucite ceiling fixtures and long serpentine-shaped bar. The interior of Pflueger’s Top of the Mark has been altered, but the Fairmont Hotel’s Cirque Room is the best extant example of a Pflueger cocktail lounge. While it is now slightly smaller in size, it retains its original circus-themed murals by local artist Esther Bruton, its original long curving bar, built-in banquettes and stunning mirrored columns. You can see Bruton’s circus murals below in a photo from a fabulous Art Deco Society of California party in 2008 for Art Deco San Francisco.

Le Cirque, 2008 book party for “Art Deco San Francisco,” (c) Judth Calson Photography

It’s unlikely either of these two proposed venues at 140 will adopt any kind of Art Deco motif. It would be a lovely surprise if they did, and a nice homage to the building’s architecture. While they are at it, a signature drink named for Pflueger, a cocktail with his favorite spirit, rye, would also be nice.

“Mid-Century By the Bay” book is a must-have

Cover for Mid-Century by the Bay by Heather David

If you grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, or are a fan of the design style and architecture of the mid-century, Heather David’s excellent book, Mid-Century by the Bay is a thoroughly enjoyable stroll down memory lane. David, a San Jose-based freelance writer and cultural historian, is also a Bay Area native, and her 152-page book features a combination of notable local architecture, culture and kitsch. It’s both an informative and nostalgic send-up of the 1950s to 1960s in the Bay Area.

I first stumbled upon this engaging book in the San Francisco Public Library History Center when it debuted in 2010, but after my requested files arrived and I was quickly immersed in my research project of the moment, and forgot about the gem I found.  Last month, I ran into the book again, at the Builders Booksource table at the California Preservation Foundation conference and was lucky enough to also meet the author.

Mid-Century by the Bay is divided into eight main topics, after an introduction of the post-World War II building boom, population and industrial expansion that led to a suburban building frenzy in the Bay Area. The first main section, Bay Area Burbs, covers home design (with some photos of local homes built by Joseph Eichler of course), and the lesser-known Alec Branden, who built over 10,000 homes in Northern California, specializing in traditional and ranch style homes.  Schools, churches and shopping centers are included, with old photos of the then newly built Valley Fair shopping center in Santa Clara and Stonestown in San Francisco, both built in the 1950s. A view of Valley Fair’s once-open courtyard, brick planter boxes and concrete cantilevered roofs creating shady breezeways for shoppers reminded me of my childhood shopping trips with my mom, a big fan of stores such as Joseph Magnin, I. Magnin and Somer & Kaufman.

Photo of IBM Hydro Gyro sculpture at IBM campus in San Jose taken by Arnold Del Carlo, photographer, courtesy Heather David

The “Architecture of the Future” section features some stunning mid-century design in the Bay Area, much of which has been destroyed, or modified as unrecognizable today. As David writes in her epilogue, the Bay Area has suffered from both demolition and “the ’blandification’ of many of its mid-century structures.”  The buildings at IBM Corp.’s Cottle Road campus, designed by architect John Savage Bolles, were accented with brick and multi-colored tiles, the tile pattern mimicking an IBM punch card. Some art that graced the campus is now gone or in disarray, such as the stunning Hyrdo-Gyro sculpture by local artist Robert Boardman Howard, which is now in pieces on the ground. Howard, the son of architect John Galen Howard, also worked with Tim Pflueger on the Paramount Theatre and the San Francisco Stock Exchange.

“Refreshments” captures excellent views of some long-lost iconic local restaurants and popular chains such as Doggie Diner, Zim’s, Lyon’s and the still extant Mel’s (it’s original drive-in restaurant on South Van Ness, though, is long gone. A brochure image has a rarely seen full-color drawing of Pflueger’s Top of the Mark during the 1950s, the original bar still in the center of the room, its rose-toned leather knee cushion still intact, with a band is playing next to the famous bar, and an early version of the dance floor

Another one of my favorite sections is the one called “Bay Area Road Trip,” with photos of some of my long-lost childhood haunts, such as Santa’s Village in Scotts Valley and the Nut Tree in Vacaville. David’s superb collection of ephemera and photos includes a 1960s interior view of the fabulous Nut Tree restaurant (alas the bird aviary isn’t in the scene) and workers in the company kitchen, making sugar sticks and suckers by hand.

SF Modernism show poster, courtesy Penelope Productions

David’s book, like Pierluigi Serraino’s superb NorCalMod, showcases both the simple beauty and the eccentricities of the mid-century and the Bay Area’s rich development during the era. It also calls out the need for more preservation of our most recent past, before we lose even more of it.

David will be signing and selling her book today, June 9, at the San Francisco Modernism show at the Concourse Exhibition Center at 8th and Brannan streets, along with yours truly selling and signing Art Deco San Francisco at a discounted price. If you haven’t yet got a copy of Mid-Century by the Bay, it’s a great deal at $40 and a lovely Father’s Day gift. Come on down.

Castro Theatre saved from fire by SFFD

Fire trucks and ladder in front of the Castro Theatre Monday night.

It’s not a sight you want to see. As I came out of the Muni underground at Castro Street earlier this week, police cars were blocking traffic at the corner of Market and Castro, and three fire trucks and their crews were busy in front of Timothy Pflueger’s famous Castro Theatre. Two long ladders were stretched all the way up to the roof of the 1922 building.

A big crowd of concerned neighbors stood anxiously watching the drama from across the street, even though smoke was no longer visible. Rafael Noz, who lives in the Castro, called the theatre “the cathedral of the neighborhood” and he was thankful that the San Francisco Department had the fire under control.

SFFD putting fire out behind the Castro Theatre

A fire department spokeswoman later said that Monday’s fire was a single alarm fire and the SFFD arrived at 7:38 pm, after getting a call from someone in the neighborhood. The theatre, as of late, has been closed on Monday nights. The fire was limited to a small area behind the theatre, and was put out in 20 minutes. “There was trash involved in this fire,” said Mindy Talmadge, public information officer for SFFD. “However, the actual cause of the fire is under investigation.” She added that because the theatre was closed when the fire started, “investigators are looking at this more closely.”

Neighbors in the Castro and worldwide fans of the theatre, which is still owned by the Nassers, the original family who commissioned it, are thankful to the SFFD, and to the vigilant neighbor who called in the emergency, helping avert a major tragedy.

Golden Gate Bridge exhibit shows surprising influences

Golden Gate Bridge Postcard 1937 001
Postcard of the just completed Golden Gate Bridge in 1937

San Francisco’s iconic Golden Gate Bridge will celebrate its 75th year in service next month. Big festivities are planned all over the city, including a “spectacular event” organized by the bridge authority for May 27 at Crissy Field. A special website has all the details for the upcoming Golden Gate Festival. This year, there will be no bridge walk and the landmark will remain open to auto traffic, as officials seek to avoid a replay of the last big anniversary party. 

Locals will undoubtedly remember when the bridge turned 50 in 1987, 800,000 people turned out, when only 50,000 had been expected. The bridge became so overloaded with an estimated 300,000 celebrants that it flattened out in the center. Officials told reporters at the time that ”the bridge had the greatest load factor in its 50-year life” and a paper later written on the event said the suspension cables were “stretched as tight as harp strings.”

Fabulous exhibit at California Historial Society

Before the festivities in late May, there are plenty of ways to start celebrating now, including seeing some local exhibits around town on building the great bridge. One exhibit that will be of interest to architecture fans is a fabulous show on the history and the evolution of the bridge at the California Historical Society. The exhibition, the first under new executive director, Anthea Hartig, is called “A Wild Flight of the Imagination.” The title was borrowed from a promotional pamphlet written in 1922 by chief engineer of the bridge, Joseph Strauss, and city top engineer, Michael O’Shaughnessy. In that brochure, the two, who would later spar when O’Shaughnessy opposed the bridge, wrote that the bridge, once “considered a wild flight of the imagination, has…become a practical proposition.”

The CHS exhibition, which runs until October 14 , is a must-see for anyone interested in the bridge’s fascinating history. Especially intriguing are the fantastic renderings of concepts that were never realized, such as a dramatic Beaux Arts/City Beautiful promenade that would have lead to the bridge, and its not-so-well-known influences.

Influence of the theatre architect John Eberson

One of the most interesting elements of the exhibit is the obvious influence that theatre architect John Eberson had on the bridge from his brief work as a consultant to Strauss.  Eberson is not exactly a household name  but he is well-known to theatre historians as the father of the so-called “atmospheric theatre” and the designer of over 500 theatres around the U.S.

John Eberson’s rendering of the bridge’s suspension tower, circa 1930. Courtesy California Historical Society. Pencil on vellum, on loan from the Architectural Archives, University of Pennsylvania.

One of his more famous theatres in the U.S. is the Loew’s Paradise in the Bronx, New York, which opened in 1929 on the then-thriving Grand Concourse, which was recently restored in 2006. The Paradise was one of his three atmospherics in New York City, in which the architect sought to bring the outside indoors, typically with mechanics and lighting. These theatres often gave audiences the impression of seeing movies under an evening sky, with the moon and clouds moving overhead. Eberson, a native of Austria, worked in St. Louis, Chicago and other cities before moving his office to New York in 1926, according to his obituary in March, 1954 in the New York Times.

Strauss hired Eberson to work on the towers and some of the approaches on the San Francisco side of the bridge. As Kevin Starr described in his 2010 book, Golden Gate:The Life and Times of America’s Greatest Bridge, “the very fact that Strauss initially chose Eberson to stylize the towers and other aspects of the bridge underscores Strauss’s sense of the Golden Gate Bridge as, in part, a theatrical production orchestrating site, structure and atmospheric into a unified aesthetic statement.”

Eberson GG Bridge Approach CHS
Elevation study of the northern approach to the Golden Gate Bridge, circa 1930, by John Eberson, pencil on vellum. The Architectural Archives, University of Pennsylvania, courtesy of California Historical Society

If all of Eberson’s drawings, or those of his successor, had been realized, there might be a far more dramatic entrance to the bridge, with a grand colonnade or walled portals, which as John King opined in the Chronicle last month, would have been unnecessary “theatrical trappings,” distractions from the site’s natural beauty. Even so, the dramatic influence of the father of the atmospheric theatre remains today in the bridge’s suspension towers, where the Moderne setbacks in Eberson’s 1930 rendering made it to the completed bridge. According to Starr, Eberson asked for more money to complete the project, but Strauss decided, based partly on a recommendation of local artist Maynard Dixon, and the need to comply with planning changes, to work with Bay Area architect Irving Morrow.

It appears that by August, Morrow & Morrow were fully ensconced in the project, which was still trying to win public approval. An August 1930 article in the San Francisco Chronicle on plans for the bridge getting approved by the bridge district was accompanied by a large photograph of a painting by Dixon that was used to show what the 4,200 foot span would look like in its surroundings. Maynard’s painting was aimed at disproving the increasing opposition that the bridge would mar the natural beauty of the Golden Gate. Irving Morrow noted the controversy at the time. One of his notes, on display in the CHS exhibit, reads: “Sentimentalists tell you it would be a desecration of natural beauty to bridge the Golden Gate,” Morrow wrote. “The point is not whether bridging the Golden Gate will destroy its beauty but whether the particular bridge proposed will destroy it.”

Maynard Dixon courtesy GG Bridge
Maynard Dixon painting of the concept of the bridge, 1930, courtesy Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District.

By October, 1930,  a series of drawings in the Chronicle’s Sunday photogravure section on October 5 included proposed renderings of the “world’s greatest span,” by Morrow & Morrow Architects. Some echo drawings by Eberson, with a dramatic, neo-classical approach to the bridge on both the San Francisco and the Marin County side. In the drawing of the Marin approach, below,  architect Irving Morrow was influenced by both Eberson’s ideas, and Bernini’s colonnade at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, according to architect Donald MacDonald in his 2008 book, “The Golden Gate Bridge: History and Design of an Icon.” Morrow’s design for the San Francisco portal also called for high walls around a large plaza, acting as a wind barrier, and a grand plan for an exhibition hall.

Drawings by Morrow & Morrow published in the San Francisco Chronicle, Oct. 5, 1930

The exhibit at CHS has several drawings by Eberson, including another approach reminiscent of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. But a realignment of the roadway forced a redesign of the San Francisco plaza and money was also an issue. Still it is Eberson’s designs for the 746 feet high suspension towers, that set the tone for the bridge. “Eberson’s design of the towers was very influential I believe,” said Jessica Hough, lead curator of the exhibit. “His tower design was changed very little after Morrow took over as consulting architect.”

The father of the atmospheric theatre may have not worked on any theatres in the Bay Area, but his influence here is profound.  MacDonald, who was the first architect to work on the Golden Gate Bridge after Eberson and Morrow, also notes in his excellent book that Eberson initiated the Art Deco style in the bridge.  The style in the corners of the suspension tower’s bracing also echoes a theatre proscenium, MacDonald notes, as can be seen in this 1930s construction photo from the San Francisco History Center.

North Tower under construction, circa 1930s, courtesy of San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Historical Photo Collection.

The gradual narrowing of the suspension towers as they rise was an improvement to Eberson’s towers by Morrow, according to MacDonald. Eberson’s stepped pattern in the towers also mirrored the gradual stepping of many skyscrapers built in the 1920s, which echo the pyramid shapes of the temples of the Maya and also allowed more light onto city sidewalks. Timothy Pflueger’s Telephone Building at 140 New Montgomery was the first skyscraper in San Francisco to deploy that technique. Chicago architect Louis Sullivan had suggested setbacks as early as 1891, MacDonald points out. But it was Eliel Saarinen’s second place design of a skyscraper with setbacks for the 1922 Chicago Tribune Tower contest that really brought attention to the concept. While Saarinen’s design was not executed, it was the winner in the architecture community, including unflinching praise from the ever-critical Sullivan, and was far more influential than the actual winner.

With the influence of both movie palace design and skyscrapers of the Jazz Age, no wonder the Golden Gate Bridge wins all the beauty contests, in contrast to her sister bridge, the Bay Bridge, whose 75th anniversary has not received nearly as much hoopla or attention.

Many other local exhibitions on the Golden Gate Bridge

In addition to the CHS exhibit, the San Francisco History Center on the sixth floor of the main library has a new exhibit called “Bridging Minds: San Francisco Reads, 1933-1937,” featuring books, photographs and ephemera of the period and the works of California authors. San Francisco librarian and author Jim Van Buskirk will be giving talks about movies that have featured the Golden Gate Bridge, which has starred in more movies than any other American architectural icon. Not to be outdone, the Marin History Museum in San Rafael has an exhibition on how the bridge changed life in Marin County featuring construction photos from the renowned Moulin Studios, and photos from local photographer Jeffrey Floyd.