Archive for February, 2010

El Rey Theatre blueprints show what’s missing

February 26, 2010

Drawing of plaster ornament on El Rey's auditorium sidewalls

Architectural historians are like detectives, sleuthing to figure out what happened at the scene of a crime. They use old photos, blueprints, layers of paint and other materials beneath the surface of remodeled historic buildings, looking for clues of the original architect’s intent.

They also try and determine what travesties occurred in the name of modernization.

So a recent discovery of some blueprints of the old El Rey Theatre, at 1970 Ocean Avenue, offers some clues of what elements might have been left out, or what may be missing from the former theatre, now the home of the Voice of Pentecost Church.

The theatre, by architect Timothy Pflueger, was one of three movie palaces designed by the firm in the early 1930s. Miller & Pflueger first worked on the Paramount Theatre for Paramount Publix, which opened in December, 1931, a month after the El Rey, designed for Samuel Levin and San Francisco Theatres Inc. The Alameda was designed for the Nasser Brothers in 1932. The three theatres were the most Moderne of Pflueger’s theatres designed from the ground up.

El Rey blueprints planned for more detailed sidewalls

The blueprints of the original El Rey show that Pflueger intended a series of masks in cast plaster to adorn the sidewalls of the auditorium, amid a series of plain neo-classic columns.

From the photos of the theatre’s interior today, it appears that Levin, the owner, might have decided on a less exotic look, sans masks, for the auditorium. But another possibility exists. Perhaps some of the missing ornament was removed when the theatre was closed or sold, a frequent occurrence. Stunning light fixtures were said to once grace the lobby. Murals, including one depicting  modes of transportation, adorned the mezzanine, now an office, and were painted over by new owners.

From news stories in November, 1931 when the theatre opened, the El Rey was described with “rich decorative details” a place where movie goers could escape their economic woes. A “gallery of mirrors” adorned the lobby.

This is what the auditorium sidewalls look like today. The shape of the original plaster face is the same, yet instead it has a floral pattern and fan instead of the above human visage:

El Rey auditorium sidewalls today (c) Tom Paiva Photography

While we many never know if any of the faces or masks made it onto the sidewalls of the El Rey, Pflueger returned to the idea a few years later, in his detailed Lucite ceiling for the Patent Leather Lounge in the St. Francis Hotel, completed in 1939 and ripped out in the 1950s. (the bar was located in what is now the spot for Michael Minna’s restaurant). Two of the masks saved from the original ceiling can today be seen, painted gold and framed in the bar of the Tia Margarita restaurant on 19th Avenue and Clement Street.

This bit of ornament can still be found in the remodeled El Rey interior, based on these pictures taken by Tom Paiva for our book, Art Deco San Francisco. This is a drawing from a blueprint, followed by a photo from 2007 of the auditorium’s interior.

Detailed drawing of plaster ornament of El Rey Theatre

El Rey Theatre mezzanine ornament (c) Tom Paiva Photography

Another interesting revelation from the blueprints is a set of drawings of the tower and chimney. The top of the tower, which still stands today, was originally highlighted by red and green neon. The glowing tower beckoned evening crowds to the theatre in the frequent fog of the neighborhood.

Blueprints for the El Rey’s tower indicate Pflueger intended a big swirling letter “R,” made of neon, at the structure’s bottom.

But from an exterior photo of the theatre in 1931, it appears that this extra neon remained on the drawing board of Miller & Pflueger’s offices. The cost for additional tubing required for the curving “R” was perhaps seen as unnecessary. Instead, a photo in the San Francisco Chronicle at the time of its opening, shows the tower with simple block letters spelling out EL REY, possibly outlined in neon.

El Rey theatre blueprint of neon and chimney

News stories at the time mostly focused on the “flaming beacon” at the top of the tower, also used as an airplane beacon for planes flying into the airport, known as Mills Field at the time. So it does not look as if the signature “R” made it into the finished tower.

Neutra’s son helps raise money for VDL compound

February 16, 2010

Got a spare $2,500 lying around? You can buy a very cool black and white photograph of architect Richard Neutra taken by legendary architectural photographer Julius Shulman, at Neutra’s then-radical home in Los Angeles in 1966. 

Richard Neutra at VDL House, 1966 by Julius Shulman, courtesy Raymond Neutra

The photo depicts Neutra, sitting on the terrace of his VDL Research Site, the home where Neutra and his family lived and where he worked for three decades. He moved to California in the late 1920s. The native of Vienna came to the U.S. via New York and then Chicago, where he worked briefly for Frank Lloyd Wright, before joining his friend Rudolf Schindler in Los Angeles. 

The main wing of VDL, sometimes referred to as VDL II, was re-built in 1966 after a fire destroyed much of the original home built in 1932. Neutra named the home the VDL Research Site after the Dutch industrialist, Cornelius H. Van der Leeuw, who gave the architect a a no-interest loan of $3,000 to build his own home. 

The VDL Research Site, located at 2300 Silver Lake Boulevard in Los Angeles, is regarded as a beacon for the mid century modernist movement in California for its affordable, spare design, innovative use of materials and its indoor-outdoor continuity, a concept not typically embraced by most architects of the International School in Europe.  The home was also a cultural and political salon, attracting other architects and thinkers. 

VDL was built in three waves and is now owned by Cal Poly Pomona College of Environmental Design per a bequest by Neutra’s wife. It is in need of repairs and restoration. For example, an estimated $120,000 is needed to repair the cooling water roof, added in the 1966 version of VDL, and depicted in the photo. 

The money raised by selling these 16″ x 20″ prints, all signed by Shulman and twice the size of the original 8″ x 10″ print, will go toward ongoing and urgently needed work to restore the building and provide maintenance. A total of 35 limited edition prints were made. Because of the value of the prints, the purchase is not a tax deductible donation. More information can be found on the Neutra VDL compound’s Web site. 

The story of VDL was told by Neutra’s youngest son Raymond, who grew up in the house. Neutra gave a talk last week at a duplex designed by his father, at 2056-2058 Jefferson Street.

Neutra duplex on Jefferson Street

This modern, sleek glass and steel box in the heart of San Francisco’s Marina District, stands as a stark iconoclast on a block of mostly Spanish Colonial revival homes of the 1920s. The lecture was sponsored by the San Francisco Chapter of the American Institute of Architects

“It’s a personal perspective of the place I grew up,” Neutra said of the VDL compound. 

Raymond Neutra went into the field of public health. In 2007, he retired as chief of the division of Environmental and Occupational Disease Control in the California Department of Public Health. Even though he did not become an architect, he was immersed in that world since childhood and has a great knowledge and appreciation of architecture and design.

His brother, Dion carried on the architectural torch and worked on VDL II with his father.

Interior staircase of Neutra-designed duplex on Jefferson Street

The evening’s co-host was San Francisco architect Chad Overway of Overway + Partners, the current owner of the duplex. Overway gave a brief description of some of his work on the building, designed by Neutra in 1938. 

Overway bought the building from original owner Ilse Schiff in 1993 and has been slowly restoring it, eliminating things added over the years, such as wall-to-wall carpeting and paint that covered the original steel window frames, now painstakingly restored.

Earlier this year, Overway and his wife put the two-unit home up for sale, with an asking price of $3.95 million but the timing was poor for a high-end property with three levels, a garden, four-car garage and rooftop terrace with a view of the Golden Gate Bridge.


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