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 email@example.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 myArt Deco San Francisco: The Architecture of Timothy Pflueger, make excellent holiday gifts.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
“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.
“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.
Let’s face it. You can’t really lug a serious book about architecture to the beach, or even on the bus. Typically they are either hefty, hardback tomes, made even heavier by glossy, full-color pages of photography of the work being discussed, or they can venture into dry, academic treatises that often aren’t really fun to read.
This spring, though, fans of architecture can find some good books on our city, including one that you can easily carry on local walking expeditions. San Francisco Chronicle architecture critic John King has just come out with a very readable and portable book, “Cityscapes” (Heydey, 111 pages, $14.95).
Chronicle readers will recognize the buildings here as having appeared in brief homage in King’s Sunday column, “Cityscape.” The book presents 50 San Francisco buildings in all-too-brief description, and excellent photos, all taken by King for his column, with input from his editors and photographers at the newspaper. King, a two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism, can write. Readers who missed these columns will be engaged by his elegant prose; some may be flummoxed by a few of his unusual selections.
King knows that his choices may cause preservationists some pause. “This book makes no claim to be a definitive roster of San Francisco’s finest or most beloved works of architecture,” King writes in the introduction. “Instead, look on it as fifty facets of our urban scene: the charismatic stars and the background players; buildings defined by bold visual moves and buildings that offer tactile delight; the sort of structure you notice every time you pass by, and the sort that escapes notice until you catch it at a certain angle, in a certain light.”
That is probably my favorite aspect of this little book, which is also very affordable at $15. It captures buildings in a new light, and shares lovely aspects of some seemingly bland or unloved structures: the “pearly stucco” facade of the garage at 450 South Street, the “brooding grandeur of the rough concrete” of the brutalist Glen Park BART Station, the “clattering, metallic beast” that is the San Francisco Federal Building. Just last week I walked by the Flatiron Building in the morning sun and looked up at the cornice and its “splashy parade of Gothic embroidery” which I hadn’t noticed in such detail before. One of my favorite city garages, George Applegarth’s circular Downtown Center Garage on Mason Street, is called an “unapologetic ode to automotive convenience” in a town where cars are scorned.
Architect Timothy Pflueger’s work appears twice, with both the Telephone Building and Roosevelt Middle School gracing its pages. So does the work of his contemporary George Kelham, and many other local architects, both revered and not so well known. (My quibble is that Kelham’s Shell Building gets treatment as an icon over Pflueger’s earlier Telephone Building). Author Jacquie Proctor will be pleased to see that the subject of her most recent book, architect Harold Stoner, appears twice, including a nice shot of his Lakeside mini-tower, which King calls a “streamlined explanation point.”
Cityscapes gives local architecture fans new looks at both stalwarts and underappreciated structures. King has been on the lecture circuit around the city, and has an upcoming talk and book signing at the Mechanics’ Institute Library, that gem of an institution at 57 Post Street, designed by Albert Pissis. King will be at the Mechanics’ Institute on Thursday, May 19, at 6 pm. On Tuesday, May 31, he will be at SPUR, 654 Mission Street, at 6 pm.
Preservationists will love Port City.
The anticipated history of San Francisco’s port is finally available. Published this year by San Francisco Architectural Heritage, Port City, written by Michael R. Corbett, is a comprehensive history of the city’s waterfront and its buildings. (San Francisco Architectural Heritage, 248 pages, $65 non-members, $52 members).
It’s a timely book, coming as it does ahead of the America’s Cup in 2013, and it includes a catalog of the port’s historic resources. As Heritage Executive Director Mike Buhler notes in the preservation group’s spring newsletter, “the race organizers are receiving development rights to a large swath of Port property in exchange for investing up to $80 million to ready some of its historic piers for the regatta.” Debates over the plans are sure to ensue, but at least Port City now provides a frame of historical reference. Buhler cautions though that, “significant questions remain including how to pass rigorous state environmental review, and the scrutiny of diverse stakeholders, within such a compressed timeframe.”
The book by architectural historian Corbett evolved from the 500-page nomination and subsequent listing of the Port of San Francisco to the National Register of Historic Places. A 3-mile section of the most in tact, early 20th century finger-pier waterfront in the U.S. was named a historic district in 2006. Architectural historians Marjorie Dobkin and William Kostura worked with Corbett on the nomination. The book received funding from firms like Plant Construction, the city’s preservation fund committee, San Francisco Waterfront Partners and individuals.
Telling the long history of the evolution of the Port of San Francisco is no easy feat, spanning from 1848 to 2010 as the book does in 248 pages. The sometimes dry text is offset by vivid vintage and contemporary photography and large, full-color maps. From the early creation of the seawall, the arrival of the transcontinental railroad, the infamous labor disputes of the 1930s, to its irreversible decline after World War II and the triumphant reinvention of the Ferry Building, the port’s history is integral to the city’s.
This gorgeous coffee-table sized book also makes me want a new, updated edition of my dog-eared paperback of Splendid Survivors, the prior publishing venture in 1979 by Heritage, also written by Corbett. Just as Splendid Survivors is a must-read for every student of the city’s architectural history, the even better-produced Port City will likely end up as another must-have.
The Roaring 1920s in America were happy-go-lucky days of wild times, illegal speakeasies and dances like the Jitterbug and the Charleston. But fueling all that crazy joy was a stock market bubble that ended, as we know now, in the Great Depression. But before the market crash of 1929, most U.S. cities were seeing a huge explosion in growth and building.
In San Francisco, major corporations started to build their first real high-rise skyscrapers, with Timothy Pflueger’s Pacific Telephone Building leading the way. Hollywood also got into the act, with exotic movies and palaces to match, in many big cities. Locally, theatres popped up everywhere, from the big Market Street houses like the Loews Warfield and the Golden Gate theatres, both designed by architect Albert Lansburgh and completed in 1922. There were even smaller neighborhood movie palaces, such as the Castro Theatre, one of Pflueger’s first big projects as a licensed architect.
It was also a time of further neighborhood development, such as the creation of Balboa Terrace from 1920-1927, adding to other neighborhoods in the western reaches of the city, like St. Francis Wood, begun in 1914. These developments offered families detached houses, often designed in the Spanish Colonial revival, Mediterranean, or English cottage styles. Fellow San Francisco City Guide and author Jacquie Proctor has written an excellent book about English architect Harold Stoner, who designed many homes in Balboa Terrace and other neighborhoods west of Twin Peaks, some in the storybook style, with lovely details, ironwork, woodwork, yards and more room than in the typically congested San Francisco neighborhood.
There were plenty of others, however, single people or couples without children, who wanted to live closer to their jobs, or to the city’s hubbub. So a few architects became the go-to designers of apartment buildings in the most glamorous styles, some with the set-back skyscraper form seen in the cities of New York, Chicago and San Francisco. Pflueger was not among this group, but one can see how some of his work and influenced this group of SF apartment builders. This post is the first in a series of mini-bios on some of the architects, whose work is familiar to many in the city, but not much is known about the architects themselves.
Herman C. Baumann
Herman Carl Baumann, also known as H.C. Baumann, or “Mike” is known as one of the most prolific architects in San Francisco. He designed over 400 apartment buildings in the Bay Area, some of the most elegant high-rise buildings in Pacific Heights, Russian Hill, the Marina and Oakland.
Baumann, like his contemporary Pflueger, was born of German immigrant parents, on April 13, 1890 in Oakland. His family moved to San Francisco one year later to the Potrero Hill district. His stepfather worked as a brick mason which may have inspired Baumann to pursue architecture. He also became a member of the San Francisco Architectural Club, where he studied in an atelier patterned after the methods used at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, and made important connections for the future. Since Pflueger was also a young draftsman who reinforced his office training with classes at the S.F.A.C., and they were two years apart, it seems likely that Baumann and Pflueger knew each other at an early age. Bauman received his California architectural license in 1921, one year after Pflueger received his license.
Baumann began working as a draftsman in 1905 for Thomas Edwards at age 15, receiving much of his training in the office. He first appears in San Francisco City Directories after the earthquake, as a draftsman in 1907. From 1911 to 1912, he listed architect Norman W. Sexton as his employer. In 1915, Baumann describes himself as an architect, six years before he got his state license. He worked for contractor George Wagner Construction for at least a year in 1919. Wagner also had ties to the SF architectural club: he was one of its founding members in 1901. By 1920, Baumann was on his own, in the same building as Wagner, at 251 Kearny on the corner of Bush, a Renaissance Revival style building designed by Albert Pissis that also housed other architects, including Arthur Brown, Jr.
Baumann had an eclectic style, adding touches of everything from to Spanish Colonial Revival to the Churrigueresque to Zigzag Deco. One of his most famous apartment houses was the Bellaire, at 1101 Green Street, a building that he financed himself during the late 1920s, and would lead to his financial ruin in the 1930s. He invested almost everything he had into the Bellaire, a luxury apartment house, now condominiums, that recalls the Telephone Building with its setbacks and vertical emphasis.
Before the Bellaire, for a few years in the 1920s, Baumann was in a partnership with Edward Jose, a builder. The January, 1924 issue of The Architect and Engineer had a 16-page feature on the partners with photos of many of their earlier apartment houses and homes. “There is a refreshing absence of the stereotyped four walls and uninteresting entrances in the apartments here illustrated,” A&E wrote. The article also noted that in previous apartment buildings in the city, there was a tendency to crowd too many rooms. “The experience of Messrs. Baumann and Jose has been that fewer rooms on a floor, with plenty of ventilation, will command higher rental than narrow hallways and court apartments possessing limited ventilation and light.” Baumann embraced this philosophy throughout his career, as the floorplan for the Bellaire shows.
Another one of Baumann’s best-known Bay Area buildings, now a condominium tower, is the 15-story Bellevue-Staten on Lake Merritt in Oakland, listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1991. The Bellevue-Staten, completed in 1929 was “the last word in ultra-modern home apartment construction,” according to ads placed when it opened. Four photos of the exuberant Bellevue-Staten, a Deco-Baroque take on the Spanish Colonial Revival style, appeared in December, 1930 issue of the Architect and Engineer. A one-bedroom unit went on sale last year, and the photos in this Chronicle story show many of the interior features: original parquet floors, fireplace with original detailing, a turquoise-tiled bathroom, and a Moorish-like original lobby.
His vast portfolio is too large to recount, but realtor David Parry of McGuire Real Estate offers an account here listing many more of his buildings. Like Pflueger, near the end of his career (Baumann lived a lot longer, however, dying in 1960, just shy of his 70th birthday), he moved towards modernism. His last building is the high-rise at 1800 Pacific Avenue at Broadway, with lots of big glass windows, small balconies and dark rock surfacing, although his interpretation of the International Style is not as successful as his earlier work.
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.
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.
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.
San Francisco may be famous for its Victorian row houses and over-the-top Queen Annes, but it is also home to one of the most notable examples of a building in the Streamline Moderne style. The ship-like Bathhouse building, which sits in its berth at Aquatic Park is a great example of the style, which became more popular in the 1930s, and often features nautical references.
As the Great Depression went on, the concept of streamlining, creating clean, sleek lines seemed more in tune with the austere times. But it wasn’t just the economy, there were other influences too, such as Norman Bel Geddes and his industrial designs meant to evoke movement and speed. There was also a growing influence of the European architects who espoused a sparer form of modernism, dubbed the International Style, and many of them moved to the U.S. to teach or work.
The Aquatic Park bleachers and Bathhouse, now the Maritime Museum and operated by the National Park Service have been undergoing a major $13.8 million rehab project over the last year, the bulk of which is now finished. The bleachers, some of which had to be demolished and others rebuilt, were finished this summer and reopened to the public, and the restoration of the stunning murals in the Bathhouse lobby is now complete. The building is an architectural feast for the eyes for anyone enamoured with this period of design, and it contains a treasure trove of public art.
Originally designed as a public bathhouse, beach and playground at the sea, Aquatic Park also includes an 1800 foot curving pier. It survives as an example of both a triumph and a travail of the city and the Works Progress Administration. In 1917, the city bought the land at the bottom of Van Ness from the Southern Pacific Railroad, but legal technicalities held up the work. Construction first began in 1931 on the combination breakwater and pier, by a private construction firm, working for the city’s Parks Commission. The project, however, languished. After the election of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, much of the work moved to the WPA, which began work on the seawall in December, 1935. Architect William Mooser III of the city’s Mooser architectural dynasty, designed the bathhouse as assistant district director of the WPA.
The project, which cost $1.2 million, finally opened in January, 1939, after much public grumbling. The San Francisco Chronicle tried to calm the city in an editorial on July 24, 1936. “It is quite natural for the public to become impatient with the progress of public works…The difficulty is accentuated when construction projects are undertaken by such governmental organizations as WPA.” Five months after the opening, the WPA was called back in, and built a sewage pumping plant, a playground, convenience stations and added stainless steel around the plate glass windows and doors.
The building’s flat roofs and terraces were the root cause of its water damage and need for the lengthy repairs, but it was worth the wait. The murals have also been cleaned and restored. On the first floor, the colorful walls depict an underwater world like Atlantis painted by artist Hilaire Hiler, who created 5,000 square feet of submerged continents and mythical sea creatures. Just outside on the terrace, beyond the plate glass doors that mirror the bay, there is more art. San Francisco sculptor Beniamino Bufano carved a seal and a frog in his round, inviting forms.
Artist Sargent Johnson, who also worked with architect Timothy Pflueger on the athletic frieze at George Washington High School – where he replaced Bufano who was fired – did some unusual tile mosaics in the same manner as mosaics in Islamic mosques. Johnson also sculpted the slate that surrounds the entrance to the Bathhouse building. Johnson said in an oral history with the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Art that he wasn’t quite sure what the subject matter of the facade was. “It has something to do with the waterfront somewhere, boats – I don’t really know. I just carved the thing,” he said. At the time of the interview, which took place in 1964, Johnson, who was 76, and Mary McChesney, who conducted the interview, discussed how the murals in the Bathhouse were peeling, water was coming down the walls and they were rotting. They would be pleased to see the restoration today.
Today, September 26, is the birthday of architect Timothy Pflueger. Since he was born in 1892, he clearly would not be alive today (it would be his 118th birthday), but I always wonder what else he would have accomplished if he had lived beyond his 54 years. It is amazing to consider how much work he did, and how much of it is extant in San Francisco and the Bay Area, even for his rather short life, but remember he did begin his career as an office boy, around age 13 and quickly become a draftsman.
Pflueger is getting a bit of attention this autumn, thanks to the interest of many local architectural groups in his work. San Francisco Architectural Heritage included me in their 2010 lecture series and we had a great crowd last Thursday night at their new lecture venue at Pier 1 to learn more about Pflueger’s work and times. I also got to meet their new executive director, Mike Buhler, who was most recently director of advocacy for the Los Angeles Conservancy and before that, at the western office of the National Trust of Historic Preservation. Indeed, Buhler has come out swinging in his first month on the job, as co-author (along with Anthea Hartig of the National Trust) writing a letter to the editor in the San Francisco Chronicle, a thoughtful response to yet another anti-preservationist column by C.W. Nevius, this time over the brouhaha on whether or not to save the North Beach Library.
Next month, I am giving a broader talk, “The Evolution of Art Deco in San Francisco” and will include some of Pflueger’s well-known, and not so well-known contemporaries, at the San Francisco Chapter of the American Institute of Architects, as part of the “Rediscover the City” series. Architecture buffs may want to catch some or all of them. If you are a member of the AIA, the lectures are $20 each ($25 for non-members), and $100 for the whole series of six ($125 non-members).
Also coming up is a talk in November at the Neutra House in Los Altos, as part of their 2010-2011 lecture series on Bay Area Masters that also help pay for the restoration of the house. And Pflueger is showcased in the autumn issue of Modernism Magazine in an article by yours truly called “Shaking up San Francisco’s Skyline.”
One of the funnest parts of the beautifully shot Lautner film was how the filmmakers managed to find a group of Lautner-obsessed architecture students in Holland who were planning a trip to Los Angeles, and doing searches using Google Earth for Lautner homes, some of which can be spotted by their unusual roofs. The students and their obsession reminded me of some of the things my passionate architectural historian friends and I do in our detecting work. Another element that enhanced the film was audio of Lautner, who gave a lecture at the AIA late in his career, and they were able to frequently use snippets as voice overs, talking about his philosophy.
One memorable line from the Lautner film was something that I think applies to some of the world’s best architects. Lautner said in his talk, “That’s the essence of it. My whole life is devoted to architecture and that’s what I live on.” Many people wonder why Pflueger never designed his own home and lived the bulk of his life in the plain family home at 1015 Guerrero Street. I think Lautner’s comment says it all.
Friday afternoon, just under two thousand people showed up at the Transbay Terminal for several tours and a sad farewell before it closes for good next week. The Transbay Joint Powers Authority and Caltrans did some last-minute sprucing up and managed to get most of the homeless people out of the terminal for a round of one hour tours through the building and some of its rarely seen nooks and crannies.
In a bizarre outpouring of sudden affection for the building that has been neglected for years, garbage cans were seen being spray painted, the small terminal jail got a coat of white paint, and the terrazzo floors were being polished, according to one eye-witness on Thursday.
The series of tours began at noon and lasted until the end of the day, with the crowds getting bigger at the end of the day when they had to split the final 4 pm tour into four groups. One of the highlights of the tour was the Cuddles Bar, which has been closed since the 1990s. You can see in this photo the low ceilings from the ground floor that everyone griped about, but still, this bar has some touches of architect Timothy Pflueger, working with a very low budget.
The bar had been cleaned up and martini glasses put along the bar, which like some of his other bars, such as the bar in the Cirque Room at the Fairmont Hotel, had a long, serpentine shape. The little set of steps used to get into the bar added a touch of elegance and the brass aluminum staircase railing almost evokes a cobra. A guide said the Cuddles Bar was the first state facility to serve alcohol (probably after Prohibition).
Right next to the bar, with its own passthrough, was a Harvey’s Diner, part of the Harvey House chain of railroad station restaurants, which boomed in the heyday of rail travel. There was also a shoeshine station, operated by just two people in its entire existence, Roy’s Barber Shop and other concessions that have been long-shuttered. Many people brought cameras to record the Terminal’s final days, but as you can see the photos show how dreary the interiors look now, and its main grand space, the main hall is vastly changed, chopped up by the added escalators and bus ticketing areas.
Among a few interesting factoids learned on the tour was that a scene from the movie, “The Bachelor,” based on a Buster Keaton film, was filmed using the main staircase of the terminal, where a group of wanna-be brides chased the main character, played by actor Chris O’Donnell. On our San Francisco City Guides Downtown Deco Tour, we mention another movie, “The Pursuit of Happyness,” [sic] where the homeless protagonist, played by Will Smith slept with his son in a supposed BART station, which was really the Transbay Terminal waiting room. Here is a shot of the grand staircase, that now leads up to the bus platforms.
We could see (perhaps not that clear from the photo) Pflueger’s penchant for elegant staircase railings.
Wooden benches in the main waiting room
A Caltrans employee told us that some of the items of interest, such as the comfortable wooden benches, the shoeshine boxes, the staircase balusters, at least one of the massive windows, and other artifacts, will be saved for a transportation museum.
After completing the tour, architectural historian and researcher extraordinaire Gary Goss told me he now sees that the city is in need of a new terminal. “We need a new terminal for the 21st century that is pedestrian friendly and not a homeless shelter.” Even though Caltrans does not allow homeless people to live in the terminal, at least 60 people have called the terminal home. There is also a homeless outreach station inside. The city has spent the last week getting them out of the building, with Mayor Gavin Newsom making a visit, talking to some of the homeless to try and get them into a shelter, as the Chronicle reported.
As the Curbed SF Blog has noted, the Transbay was “not always usless, ugly, old and smelly.” I hope the transit museum effort happens, and that it can save some fonder memories of the much-maligned building.
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.
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.
“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.