The El Rey Theatre to come back as a movie palace for a night

Ad for the El Rey Theater in November 1931 in the "San Francisco News"

The El Rey Theatre, the former movie palace that still towers over Ocean Avenue and parts of Ingleside Terraces, is turning 80 next month. To celebrate the anniversary, the Voice of Pentecost, which bought the building in 1977, is hosting a fund-raiser, and the organizers will be showing the same film that was featured during the Moderne theatre’s gala opening on November 14, 1931. This time, the movie, “The Smiling Lieutenant,” starring Maurice Chevalier and Claudette Colbert, will be shown in a digital format on a large screen on the stage.

It should be a fun night. The organizers include the Ingleside Light newspaper and the Geneva Car Barn and Powerhouse project. The proceeds from ticket sales, which cost $25 each, are going to benefit the Geneva Car Barn project. The evening begins at 7 pm, with a talk given by architect Joshua Aidlin, whose firm Aidlin Darling Design has prepared plans to restore the Geneva Car Barn and Powerhouse, a non-profit youth arts project. The goal is to turn the 1901 building that powered and housed electric street cars into an exhibition and events hall, with classrooms, an auditorium, kitchen and cafe by 2014.

A brief description of the architecture of the theatre, which was one of the last movie palaces designed by architect Timothy Pflueger, will be discussed by yours truly, with a few photos to compare and contrast the El Rey Theatre with other theatres designed by Pflueger at the same time: the Paramount Theatre in Oakland and the Alameda. One unusual feature of the El Rey is its massive stepped tower, which still stands today at 146-feet high. Once glowing with red and green neon tubing, the tower gave the theatre a skyscraper-like appearance that can still be seen from various spots in Ingleside Terraces. As you can see from this old 1931 ad promoting the opening, when the theatre was complete it had a beacon at the top, which was used to warn airplanes of the tower in the fog. The beacon also seems to have served as a built-in klieg light for the surrounding neighborhoods West of Twin Peaks.The El Rey’s big birthday party will be celebrated at the theatre at 1970 Ocean Avenue on Saturday, November 19 from 7 pm til 10 pm, with food, wine and live music. For more info, email info@elrey80th.com or call 415-215-4246.

Don’t miss this rare chance to see a film in the old movie palace again. “The Smiling Lieutenant” was also nominated for Best Production, the early Academy Awards equivalent of Best Film, in 1931.   In addition, authors and theatre experts Jack Tillmany and Gary Lee Parks will be joining me in selling our theatre-related books at special discounts to attendees (Tillmany has written Theatres of San Francisco and Theatres of Oakland, and Parks has written Theatres of San Jose).  A new book that they co-authored,  Theatres of the San Francisco Peninsula, recently published by Arcadia with many photos from Tillmany’s collection, will also be available.  All of these theatre books, and my Art Deco San Francisco: The Architecture of Timothy Pflueger, make excellent holiday gifts.

Sun dial in Ingleside Terraces, with the El Rey tower seen beyond the trees.

It’s de-lightful, it’s de-lovely, it’s Deco in New York

Ceiling mural in the lobby of the Chrysler Building

Cole Porter please forgive me for messing up your lyrics, but last month I had a kind of late 1920s, early 1930s week in New York. After seeing the Broadway revival of “Anything Goes,” I still can’t get Porter’s witty lyrics out of my head. And they meld so well with many of the city’s glorious Art Deco icons, the most glamorous of all, of course, is the Chrysler Building, designed by architect William Van Alen and completed in 1930. The race between the builders and the architects of the Chrysler Building, who were competing with the Empire State Building and the Bank of the Manhattan Co. at 40 Wall Street to build the world’s tallest skyscraper, is well-documented in the 2003 book “Higher” by Neal Bascomb, a great read.

Both the Chrysler and the Empire State still have their original stunning lobbies, that were part of the Roaring Twenties flamboyance, even though those happy, crazy times were nearing an end, unbeknownst to the architects and owners at the time.  The  Chrysler lobby has an immense ceiling mural by artist Edward Trumbull.  This shot is of only a small portion of the vast 97-by-110 foot ceiling mural, called “Energy, Result, Workmanship and Transportation.”  The mural was restored by EverGreene Painting Studios in New York in 1999, when the details of the ceiling were hidden by an aged polyurethane coating over the murals.

In July, 1930, The New York Times advised its readers in a story about an exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, to visit the “ordinary vestibules” of two newly completed buildings, the Daily News Building and the Chrysler, to see some excellent art work.  On my visit this summer, in addition to seeing the ceiling mural, Moroccan red marble walls in the lobby, the famous clock and other details, I was able to get close to the elevator doors while I was visiting someone in the building.

Gorgeous Chrysler Building Elevator Door
The elevator doors have a veneer of exotic woods, fashioned into a stylized floral pattern or a fan. Up close they are truly stunning and according to the book, New York, 1930, they are made of Japanese ash, English gray harewood and Asian walnut. Inside the elevators, the cabs include American walnut, dye-ebonized wood, satinwood, Cuban plum-pudding wood and curly maple. The interiors of all the elevator cabs are different.

The tale of the career of architect William Van Alen, who was called the “Ziegfield of his profession” in American Architect in September, 1930, is a sad one. His career didn’t go much farther after the completion of the Chrysler Building, thanks in part to the Great Depression.

Chrysler Building from the New York Public Library
His career was also hurt by the fact hat he had to sue Walter Chrysler for the bulk of his fee. He famously dressed for the Beaux Arts Ball in New York wearing an imitation of the crown of his best-known building. Its steel-covered dome was made of chromium nickel sheet steel panels. The material, called Norosta, was made according to German methods for the first time in th U.S., and the bulk of the work was done in metal working shops set up on the 67th and 75th floors of the Chrysler Building, while it was under construction, according to an article Van Alen authored for The Architectural Forum in October, 1930. Sadly, Van Alen died in 1954 leaving a widow, but no children and his office records have never been found.

The mystery of the Gilded Age architect and his artist brother

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.

Sherith Israel window close up
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

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

“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.