Shell Building, 1930 postcard
The King Tut exhibit at the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park is not the only place in San Francisco you will find a penchant for all things Egyptian.
The influence of that discovery in 1922 of the Egyptian boy pharaoh’s tomb lives on today in many Art Deco buildings that have survived since the 1920s. Some fine examples can be found in San Francisco, including the Financial District.
After Tutankhamun’s tomb was discovered in late 1922 by archeologist Howard Carter, the world became fascinated with ancient Egypt. What Deco-philes now refer to as “Tut-mania” was a sudden popularity of Egyptian imagery in the design of clothing, jewelry, furniture, and architecture.
Shell Building facade with lotus flowers
According to Christopher Frayling, in the catalog for the stunning “Art Deco 1910-1939,” an exhibit that came to San Francisco’s Legion of Honor in 2004, the mania was widespread around the world.
“The craze touched every aspect of design, from the ‘Tutankamen Rag’ played by the jazz orchestra in the ballroom of the Winter Palace Hotel, Luxor, to the latest lines in Egyptian-inspired garments, furniture, interior designs, bookbindings and fashion accessories in London, Paris, Berlin and New York,” Frayling wrote.
The Tut-mania craze, which Evelyn Waugh later wrote “so vulgarized” the discovery of King Tut’s tomb, manifested itself in architecture through the use of symbols and imagery evocative of ancient Egypt, typically as the decorative ornament of buildings, particularly skyscrapers with any semblance to a ziggurat or stepped towers.
The Shell Building, designed by architect George Kelham and completed in 1930, is an excellent example of the obsession with Egypt. A lovely brass screen above the front entrance of the building has a lotus flower pattern, as do the elevator doors inside the lobby (see above photo for exterior view). The lotus flower, a symbol of rebirth in ancient Egypt, was used frequently as ornament and in the capitals of columns.
130 Montgomery's tomb-like entrance
A brief stroll just in the Financial District alone can uncover several Egyto-mania references hidden or blatant in some of the city’s oldest and most elegant office buildings. Another symbol of rebirth or reincarnation is the scarab beetle. Who knew one could find a scarab on Montgomery Street, Wall Street West. But a close look at the ornament on each side of the tomb-like entrance of 130 Montgomery Street, completed in 1930 and designed by the O’Brien Brothers and Wilbur Peugh, reveals two scarabs in bas relief, accentuated by flat column-like speed lines.
Scarabs were beetles that were sacred to the Egyptians who were often buried with them. The scarabs, or dung beetles, meant transformation, resurrection and are connected with death and rebirth. In King Tut’s tomb, for example, one of the glorious golden necklaces found among the treasures had a piece of glass depicting a scarab, leading scientists to try
to determine how did a piece of yellowish glass end up in a piece of jewelry in Ancient Egypt. But that’s another story.
Architect Kelham, who started out his career as a Beaux-Arts trained classicist, seemed fascinated with Egyptian motifs. Kelham, a rival of Timothy Pflueger in the design of the city’s earliest high-rise skyscrapers, mimicked the stepped form of Miller & Pflueger’s Telephone Building, and found his own exotic references for the Shell Building. As Pflueger embraced China as a theme for 140 New Montgomery, Kelham chose Egypt for the Shell.
The building, designed for the Royal Dutch Shell Oil Co., also has shell motifs, and other typical Moderne images of the period, such as zig-zag patterns, chevrons and fern fronds. But it was a significant departure from Kelham’s neoclassic buildings, many of which still stand, sturdy and strong on Montgomery Street.
Ornament on 300 Montgomery looks Egyptian
One of those structures is at 300 Montgomery, a very proper Greek revival design by Kelham for a bank in 1922, later remodeled in 1941. The building, originally the home of the American National Bank, also has exotic detailing, including this Egyptian-looking warrior. The columns on each side of the warrior look like they are adorned with lotus flowers. A snake (perhaps an asp?), encircles the spear of the muscular figure.
These are not the only Egyptian designs in San Francisco but just a small taste for inquiring minds. One example that has sadly disappeared, is a building for the Egyptian Lacquer Manufacturing Co
. (yes there is still such a firm. Lacquer was a popular material in the 1920s ), designed by Miller & Pflueger at 1050 Howard Street. It appears the building has been destroyed or totally altered.
An ad in Pacific Coast Architect, December 1925
Egyptian Lacquer played a role in the development of the Telephone Building, according to Pacific Coast Architect. Lacquer was used to finish the metal windows, door casings and base and on the hundreds of walnut and oak hardwood doors with ebony inlay.
The former West Coast offices of Egyptian Lacquer are pictured here. Moderne-styled ornament with Egyto references and a wall of entire glass panes contrast with a traditional cornice. It’s an exotic design with a trace of Bauhaus for this small industrial building.