Searching for Louis Sullivan

Adler & Sullivan's Auditorium Building in Chicago

Attendees of the American Institute of Architects convention last week in Miami were lucky enough to have a chance to see a new documentary on architect Louis Sullivan. The film, in the works since 2007, is called “Louis Sullivan: the Struggle for American Architecture.” The film seeks to present Sullivan as “an artist who never felt completely comfortable in either the vanishing world of 19th-century romanticism or the unsentimental and mechanized one of the twentieth century.”

Auditorium Building, now Roosevelt University, Chicago

Watching the trailer makes one realize the power of film and sound versus pen and paper, camera and keyboard when documenting, reporting on or critiquing architecture. The sweeping camera angles lovingly caress both Sullivan’s remaining and demolished work. Set to a piece by Philip Glass from the movie, “The Hours,” the trailer alone may bring you to tears, even just watching on YouTube, as you realize how much of his work has been destroyed. It looks like an incredibly moving film and I hope it makes its way to San Francisco.

Director Mark Richard Smith became interested in Sullivan’s work when he moved to Chicago to pursue a graduate degree in history at Loyola University. The Chicago Tribune wrote that the film relies heavily on the photographs of Richard Nickel, the photographer and preservationist who died while getting ornament and artifacts from the Chicago Stock Exchange during its demolition. The building collapsed beneath Nickel, as he was trying to record it for posterity.  Ultimately, the final version didn’t use Nickel’s photos, but the filmmaker did film most of his extant buildings in the Midwest and the East Coast.

Auditorium, interior, Chicago

On a trip last year to Chicago, I had the privilege to speak about architect Timothy Pflueger to the Chicago Art Deco Society in the Auditorium Building, the work that propelled the firm of Adler & Sullivan to notoriety. While visiting, I realized the travesty of how little of Sullivan’s work survives in his adopted home. The Carson Pirie Scott Department Store, now restored and called Sullivan Center and the Auditorium, and the Charnley House were the more notable structures I found. There are several homes and other lesser-known buildings, a list of which can be found here at the Chicago Art Institute, the current home of the reconstructed trading room from the Chicago Stock Exchange. It’s about time that Sullivan — who ranks with Frank Lloyd Wright as one of America’s greatest architects — got more attention. As the Tribune wrote, “Louis Sullivan gets his due.”

Smith has submitted his film to the Mill Valley Film Festival, so hopefully the documentary will come here later this year.

Sullivan never worked in the Bay Area, but even so, it is possible to find both his influence, and that of the other architects of the vibrant Chicago School, all of whom were influenced early on by Henry Hobson Richardson and his interpretation of the Romanesque. The Auditorium Building in Chicago is an example of the heavy masonry and arches depicted in Richardson’s Romanesque style, also found in two San Francisco buildings of the era. The Auditorium also includes examples of organic ornament and craftsmanship espoused by Sullivan, a concept he also engrained into the firm’s chief draftsman, Frank Lloyd Wright. Its construction was also a tribute to the engineering ingenuity of Dankmar Adler, who designed a massive floating foundation to support the heavy structure in soft Chicago soil.

Mills Building, column detail

One local example of the Chicago School with flashes of Sullivan, is the Mills Building at 220 Montgomery. The original 10-story office building was one of two local projects designed by partners Daniel Burnham and John Wellborn Root. The other is the De Young Building, the first iron and steel-frame skyscraper in San Francisco, on Market and Kearny, its sandstone restored after being hidden for decades by ugly metal cladding. It is now the Ritz-Carlton Residences.

Mills Building, San Francisco, Library of Congress, Print and Photographs Collection
Mills Building, layered arches, detailed view

It’s easy to see the influence of both Richardson and Sullivan in the building designed for financier Darius Mills, which took two years to build and was completed in 1893. The multi-layered marble arch that dominates the entrance evokes the sweeping, layered arches in the interior of the 1889 Auditorium Theatre, which also predicted the “Golden Door” arch in Adler & Sullivan’s Transportation Building at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. But as Sullivan wrote, the stunning Beaux Arts beauty of that historic fair may have enthralled Americans, yet it also set back the progress of modern American architecture.

Sullivan’s style seems to loom large in the organic swirling terracotta swans above the column capitals in the Mills Building. The arches are both Richardsonian and could be inspired by the layered arches in the Auditorium’s interior (see above). The current owners were having the Mills Building cleaned, hence, the above view in black and white is from the American Historical Building Survey. (The closeups are my attempts to avoid the scaffolding.)

Mills Building wrought iron grille
Sullivanesque ornament, row of flats, 85-93 Sanchez St, 1908

Another Sullivan inspired work is a row of flats on Sanchez St. Architectural historian extraordinaire Gary Goss points out the arches and circular ornament on this row of flats, designed by Henry Geilfuss & Son.

Sullivan and the architects of the Chicago School were the first to embrace the steel frame. Even today, Sullivan’s writings on the soaring skyscraper are often quoted. Adler & Sullivan’s Wainwright Building of 1891 in St. Louis was the first skyscraper designed to emphasize its height, a concept that became muddled after the Beaux-Arts craze swept the country following the 1893 World’s Fair. In San Francisco, like the rest of the country, architects trained in the Beaux-Arts style became the leaders. As Hugh Morrison noted in his 1935 biography of Sullivan, “The Fair had aimed a death blow at the new style which had been evident in the work of the Chicago School before 1893; Richardson and John Root were dead, Sullivan as far as the public was concerned was moribund, and Wright had yet to make his mark.”

Wainwright Building, cornice detail, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Collection

Sullivan himself was vitriolic about the influence of Chicago’s White City, as the fair buildings were called. “The virus of the World’s Fair, after a period of incubation in the architectural profession and in the population at large, especially the influential, began to show unmistakable signs of the nature of the contagion,” he wrote, as quoted by Morrison. “There came a violent outbreak of the Classic and the Renaissance in the East, which slowly spread westward, contaminating all that it touched, both at its source and outward.”

In San Francisco’s case, the ordered Beaux-Arts buildings constructed after the 1906 earthquake and fire, and some ideas from Burnham’s “City Beautiful” plan incorporated into the new Civic Center, brought a semblance of dignity that had been missing in the overwrought Victorian and neo-Gothic chaos, some of which had been characterized by outspoken architect Willis Polk as “architectural monstrosities.” It would not be until after World War I that local architects like Timothy Pflueger would eventually seek to flee the historicism  Sullivan fought so hard to escape.

Happy Birthday Frank Lloyd Wright from SF

Former V.C. Morris Shop by FLW on Maiden Lane
Today was the birthday of that great, my-way-or-the-highway American architect, Frank Lloyd Wright. Born June 8, 1867, today marks the 143rd anniversary of his birth.

As a little homage to the master today, I wandered over to 140 Maiden Lane, where one can find one of Wright’s best-known works in the San Francisco Bay Area. Along with the Marin County Civic Center, another well-known design is a small gift shop off of Union Square, originally designed as the V.C. Morris Shop. Wright’s version of the Richardsonian Romanesque arch looks extremely modern in this brick setting, completed in 1948.

The shop, Wright’s only San Francisco work, is now the Xanadu Gallery, and the interior remains a showcase for one of his earlier attempts of the spiral ramp design that he also used in the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, which was completed a few months after his death in 1959.
V.C. Morris Gift Shop, spiral ramp interior, Library of Congress, Print and Photographs Collection

Wright was a bit obsessed with the spiral, according to Brendan Gill, in his amazing biography, Many Masks, A Life of Frank Lloyd Wright. The spiral appeared in many unrealized projects, as well as in the Hoffman Jaguar salesroom in New York. It is of course best known in the Guggenheim on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan.

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum interior, New York

When Wright was in San Francisco in 1945, possibly visiting the clients or the site for the V.C. Morris store, he met with architect Timothy Pflueger, who took him out to breakfast.

We won’t ever know what happened at that meeting, but it’s nice to know that Wright and Pflueger met. Sadly, Pflueger noted the appointment with Wright without any comments. Wright had been hearing about Pflueger’s work from the editor of the Architectural Forum, Howard Myers, who wrote a letter in 1939 to Wright praising Pflueger’s work.

According to a 1984 book compiling letters to and from Wright, called Letters to Architects, Frank Lloyd Wright, Myers wrote, “San Francisco can boast a really inventive architect in the person of Timothy Pflueger,” upon his return to New York from a visit to California. He described Los Angeles as “incredibly dull” and San Francisco “very exciting.”  It does not appear that Wright replied to Myers’s comments about Pflueger (are we surprised?).

But one can be sure that Wright’s 1945 breakfast with Pflueger involved a spirited discussion about architecture!

Red tile with FLW insignia on the Guggenheim Museum

A 21st century cathedral infused with light and history

Glass panels act as a veil for the Cathedral of Christ the Light

The monumental Cathedral of Christ the Light has graced the shore of Lake Merritt in Oakland since September, 2008 but I only recently had a chance to visit. After hearing the name of the architect – Craig Hartman – two or three times in casual conversation in the last few months, it seemed like a good time to look at the work of a living architect for a change. 

Hartman, design partner at the San Francisco office of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP, has used glass, steel and other materials typically associated with the skyscrapers his firm is known for, to create a luminous and grand cathedral. The aptly named Cathedral of Christ the Light sits like a shimmering cone and is the focal point of a large plaza with other diocese buildings and a green space. It is another architectural must-see in the East Bay, along with Bernard Maybeck’s First Church of Christ, Scientist, Julia Morgan’s Berkeley City Club and Timothy Pflueger’s stunning Paramount Theatre a few blocks away.

Sun drenched plaza and fountain near the cathedral

The commission of a cathedral is an especially rare one for most architects. The last cathedral built in the Bay Area was St. Mary’s, formally known as the Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption on Gough Street, completed in 1971. Its washing machine-like agitator steeple is a distinct presence in the San Francisco skyline but the interior has always seemed dark and uninviting to me. 

The Cathedral of Christ the Light was commissioned by the Diocese of Oakland after its neo-Gothic Cathedral of St. Francis de Sales was irreparably damaged in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. The diocese held an architectural competition, and initially awarded the job to Spanish starchitect, Santiago Calatrava. But in 2003, Calatrava withdrew from the project, and the runner-up, the design by Hartman, was selected. 

The influence of the light at Ronchamp

Hartman, who spoke with me for an article in the Wall Street Journal, said one inspiration was the way Le Corbusier used light in his famous chapel, Notre Dame du Haut in Ronchamp, France.  After studying abroad in London while attending Ball State University’s then-nascent College of Architecture, Hartman made his own pilgrimage to see the iconic chapel.  He hitchhiked to the village of Ronchamp to see Le Corbusier’s modest chapel of reinforced concrete, with its sloped roof and thick concrete walls, punctured with squares and rectangles to let in the natural light.  

“I was stunned to see the way light was introduced to the space, and with very modest materials,” Hartman recalled.  

Light and space play a big theme in all of Hartman’s work, from his office towers in San Francisco, the International Terminal at SFO, an urban plan for Treasure Island, and his much-lauded U.S. Embassy in Beijing. Light is a major component of his cathedral, as if it were another building material. The result melds the historical, traditional and contemporary, as architect and client sought to build a 21st century cathedral, with some vestiges of tradition.  

Chartres and the Gothic love of geometry

The cathedral also evokes some images of the medieval Chartres Cathedral, an hour south of Paris, renowned for its long, tortured history, its mismatched spires and ornate stained glass windows, which were removed and spared from the bombings during World War II. Chartres crowns the top of a long winding hill above the small city of Chartres.  Oakland’s cathedral is at the crest of a slight elevation, where a long, straight ramp, called the Pilgrim’s Path, leads from the sidewalk on Harrison Street to the formal entrance at the south end.

Omega Window and digitized version of a sculpture at Chartres

Stepping inside the grand doors, a huge, round baptismal font of dark granite also acts as a vessel for holy water, echoing the lake across the street. The cathedral is aligned with Lake Merritt and the moving sun, the interior capturing every angle of light.  

“It’s almost like a kaleidoscope,” said Rev. Paul Minnihan, the Cathedral’s provost, as he gave me a tour.   

The presence of light can be stunning, depending on the time of day. The interior of the sanctuary is framed by 26 ribs of curved Douglas fir, 110 feet high, and 768 fixed slanted louvers, which flood the interior with light. The northern wall, called the Omega Window, has a digitized version of a sculptural relief of Christ in the Chartres cathedral. The image comes through a series of aluminum panels that have 94,000 punctured holes of varying sizes letting in different degrees of light.  

The image of Christ looms 58-feet high like an apparition and appears darker or lighter, depending on the time of day. It can even been seen in the evening, as the cathedral, lit from inside, glows. The hologram-like image of Christ is both a 21st century interpretation of a medieval work of art and another homage to the Gothic cathedral.  

However the floor plan of the sanctuary, which seats 1,350, is not the standard cruciform pattern. Hartman wanted a modern approach versus the traditional hierarchical form used by Gothic church builders, where the congregation faces the altar.  “The idea here is to have the altar in the center and have the congregation around that,” he said.

Cathedral of Christ the Light, annotated plan, courtesy SOM

Coming full circle

After Hartman was chosen for the cathedral, he consulted with Walter Netsch, one of his mentors from his early years working at SOM’s Chicago headquarters. Netsch had a big influence on Hartman’s career. As a young student in the late 1960s during a visit to the U.S. Air Force Academy, it was seeing one of Netsch’s most famous works, the radical Cadet Chapel  and its soaring row of triangular spires in Colorado Springs, Colo., that inspired Hartman to consider studying architecture.  “The amazing circle of life, I suppose,” he said.

The geometry of circles, spheres and squares plays a role in his design. The sanctuary design refers to the intersection of two overlapping spheres, known as vesica piscis, an ancient symbol for Catholics and other faiths, representing Christ, the congregation, procreation and the basic symbol of Christianity, the fish.

“I felt that the building, in addition to light, should have a very strong geometrical base,” Hartman said, noting that geometry was the basis of all the great Gothic cathedrals. Netsch also advised Hartman to read “The Church Incarnate” written by a German architect known for his churches, Rudolf Schwartz.  Bill Marquand, an architect in Lafayette, called Schwartz a “major theoretician” and said his writings were “very deep.” 

The new cathedral is also home to many artifacts of the now-destroyed St. Francis de Sales, reminders of the heritage of the Oakland Diocese. One is the cornerstone of the original cathedral, inserted into the new cathedral.  Another is a mosaic from St. Francis de Sales, now the centerpiece in the Hall of Honor where the new cathedral’s benefactors are recognized. In the mausoleum below the cathedral, the altar from St. Francis has been repurposed into a catafalque, where a casket or urn is placed during final prayers before entombment. A soothing waterfall trickles as visitors enter. Several stained glass windows, including one depicting St. Francis de Sales, the patron saint of the diocese, were also saved and now adorn the crypt areas.

Healing garden for victims of sexual abuse by priests

Some visitors might miss another garden area behind the cathedral, which was designed by and dedicated to victims of sexual abuse by priests. While the garden is small, the New York Times noted in 2008 that it is “the largest and most prominent recognition of the scandal ever built at an American cathedral.”

The centerpiece of the simple garden is a sculpture by artist Masatoshi Izumi in basalt stone, broken in three pieces. The benches and surrounding hedges mirror the vesica piscis shape of the cathedral. A plaque at the site says, “We remember, and we affirm: Never again.”

You don’t have to be religious to appreciate Hartman’s Cathedral of Christ the Light. While there are many references to the theological, the mystical and the ethereal, it is also a celebration of the here and now, of life. 

Hibernia Bank dome graffiti-free again!

Hibernia Bank on a rainy afternoon

The owners of the once-stately Hibernia Bank building in the heart of the Tenderloin were dismayed to see the granite base of the dome defaced with a massive graffiti tag just a few months ago. See a photo of the big tag here.

But the new owners, who, like the bank’s original founders, hale from the old sod of Ireland, moved quickly to get rid of the defacement. A police officer in the SFPD’s Graffiti Abatement Program said acting fast is key to prevent subsequent tagging.

Here is the cleaned up bank now, still boarded up while some construction and clearing is slowly being done. The oxidized copper dome still  dominates the corner, the gore where Jones, McAllister and Market streets meet.

The bank, designed by Albert Pissis and completed in 1892, is one of the most architecturally important buildings in our fair city. It was one of the earliest designs to bring the order of the Beaux-Arts style to an architecturally confused San Francisco. Its debut was also a year before the well-planned buildings of the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893 stunned American visitors with their neoclassic beauty. While the “White City” at the Chicago World’s Fair took the country by storm, it also — as architect Louis Sullivan accurately predicted — set the modern movement in architecture back a few decades.

The most “artistic building in San Francisco”

The Hibernia Bank, though, was so well-regarded in San Francisco that even the often cantankerous architect Willis Polk described it as “the most artistic building in San Francisco,” in an article for a society and literary journal, The Wave in October, 1892.

Here’s a hand-tinted postcard of the bank, mailed in 1912.

Hand-tinted postcard of Hibernia Bank, circa 1912

Just three months after praising the Hibernia Bank, Polk would pen another article in The Wave, describing the western section of the city as “an architectural nightmare conceived in a reign of terror and produced by the artistic anarchists who are continually seeking to do something great, without any previous experience or preparation for their work.”  His vitriol was accompanied by a photos of some of the most over-the-top, multi-turreted Queen Anne homes, and other sprawling manses, including a shot of the Cliff House, which he called a  “wooden birdcage.”  The caption reads, “San Francisco’s architectural monstrosities.”

Polk and Pissis might be rolling in their graves if they could see the Hibernia Bank today.  The once-elegant bank, built for the then-growing Irish savings bank, has been sitting shuttered for years. Its new owners, while they aren’t saying much about their plans, have a real appreciation for the building’s craftsmanship. The interior is said to be in pretty decent condition. But the project, in the current economy,  is clearly going to take awhile. The owners, Dolmen Property Group, snatched the building up in October 2008 for a bargain sum of about $3.9 million,according to the San Francisco Business Times.

Seamus Naughten, managing director of Dolmen Property Group, said the firm spent $20,000 to get rid of the horrendous tag, and the roof is now equipped with an alarm system. Beneath that cuppola is a stunning Tiffany-style art glass dome that was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake, but quickly rebuilt (the building survived). The dome was painstakingly restored again in 1983 by Reflection Studios of Emeryville.

Officer Christopher Putz of the SFPD said shuttered buildings are frequent targets for graffiti, and a tag on a historic building can represent huge problems for its owners, because it’s a difficult job to remove properly from certain older materials. “It’s just so expensive,” he said, adding that the offense for tagging historic buildings is almost always a felony, because of the high cost estimated to remove the graffiti.

Dolmen Property Group looks like they did an excellent job of getting rid of the blight from their building. We wait with baited breath to see what else is in store.

Housekeeping note

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Castro Theatre gets a fab exterior makeover

The Castro Theatre, architect Timothy Pflueger’s first movie palace from 1922, is showing off a fabulous new exterior coat of paint.

Castro Theatre neon glows at night

Now highlighted are the Spanish Baroque details of the exterior. A repaired hidden spotlight, when lit, illuminates the shell motif above the centerpiece mullioned window.

Combined with the repairs in the late autumn of 2007 of the signature neon vertical, which was architect A.A. Cantin’s 1930s contribution,  the theatre is looking quite de-lovely. The vertical sign and the marquee were repaired and painted for Gus Van Sant’s Academy Award winning movie, “Milk,” in which Sean Penn won the Oscar for best actor his portrayal of one of America’s first openly gay politicians, Harvey Milk. Many scenes were filmed in the neighborhood. During the filming, there was a security guard stationed at night outside Milk’s former camera store, Castro Camera at 575 Castro, which was restored to 1970s retro perfection for the movie. You can read more about the filming in early 2008 here in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Freshly painted Castro Theatre by day

Here is a daytime look at the freshly painted theatre. Events producer and manager Bill Longen said the goal of the project was to stay as close to the theatre’s original colors as possible.

It’s quite a contrast to a few years ago. Churrigueresque details now stand out amid a darker and more pervasive beige.  A deep red brings out the neon vertical, marquee and shops.

The photo below shows the theatre in the summer of 2007 when Tom Paiva and I (I was the assistant!) were shooting photos for our book Art Deco San Francisco.

What a difference a paint job makes!

Castro Theatre, 2007, (c) Tom Paiva Photography

El Rey Theatre blueprints show what’s missing

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

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.

450 Sutter named to National Register of Historic Places

Miller & Pflueger’s innovative skyscraper 450 Sutter was named to the National Register of Historic Places, as of last month. The stunning Mayan themed 26-story high rise building,  completed in 1929, was described in the application as a “masterwork” of noted San Francisco architect, Timothy Pflueger.

The listing is on the National Parks Service Web site here.

Congrats to Harsch Investment Properties, the owners of the 450 Sutter Medical/Dental building. The company just completed a major restoration project, and the scaffolding that had been in front of the building for over two years has now come down.

450 Sutter Spotted in Coit Tower Murals

I recently went on the Coit Tower murals tour with San Francisco City Guides, where the tour has access to the second floor closed to the public. On the wall of the staircase leading to the second floor of the tower is a massive fresco mural depicting a walk up Powell Street. One sees a very large and familiar building.

450 Sutter in a mural at Coit Tower by artist Lucien Labaudt

Labaudt, who was also known as a dressmaker, was born in Paris and moved to San Francisco right after the 1906 earthquake. He had a dressmaking shop and was an artist in his spare time.  He eventually became known for his painting and theatre set designs and was chosen to join the 26 artists sponsored by the Works Progress Administration to paint the Coit Tower murals. The tower, designed by architect Arthur Brown, Jr., was completed in 1933.

Ralph Stackpole, who sculpted the large figures outside the San Francisco Stock Exchange for Pflueger, also worked on the Coit Tower murals.

Labaudt is probably best known in San Francisco for his murals at the Beach Chalet on the Great Highway. But he was also one of the artists hired by Pflueger to work on murals at George Washington High School. Along with the murals that adorn the staircase in the main entry hall by Victor Arnautoff, telling the story of George Washington, Labaudt painted another fresco mural in the upstairs library. You can read more about him in this oral history with his second wife, Marcelle Labaudt, in the Archives of American Art of the Smithsonian Institution.

Lucien Labaudt

 

It’s a two-fer: Modernism lectures and a Neutra

I recently stumbled upon a great lecture series on modernism in architecture, called “The Legacy of Modern” at the Los Altos Community Foundation. Not only are the lectures educational for anyone interested in archtecture and design, but the cost goes toward restoring a rare Richard Neutra house in the South Bay.

Neutra House in Los Altos at twilight
I missed last month’s lecture by Alan Hess, architect, author and architectural critic of my alma mater, the San Jose Mercury News.

But I managed to get there Thursday night to hear journalist Dave Weinstein and author of Signature Architects of the San Francisco Bay Area.  Weinstein spoke about the architects of some of the much-loved mid-century Eichler built homes in the Bay Area. The audience was loaded with Eichler home owners. Weinstein shared funny anecdotes about local architectural legends who designed many Eichlers, such as Bob Anshen of Anshen + Allen, and showed some excellent photos.

If you arrive early enough, you can go through the restored Neutra House, which was once one of a small cluster of three affordable modern homes designed by the legendary Neutra. Though Neutra was born in Austria in 1892 (the same year as Timothy Pflueger), he became a leader of California mid-century modernism after he moved to the Los Angeles area in the 1920s.

A community-led  effort helped preserve the last remaining of those three small Neutra houses. The cluster of simple, flat-roofed redwood clad homes, completed in 1939, was a writers commune on Marvin Avenue near a prune orchard. Two poets, Clayton Stafford and Jacqueline Johnson, had hired Neutra to design their respectives homes and a third smaller guest house on a half acre lot at 180-184 Martin Avenue.

The project to save Johnson’s house started in 2005.  The city of Los Altos was given the house and moved it to its current site on Hillview Avenue. King Lear (yes that really is his name), who was on the Los Altos City Council,  helped spearhead the project.

The project included cutting the house in half to move it three blocks from its original location to the City Community Center on Hillview. The house was seated on a new foundation. Structural components damaged by dry rot or infestation were replaced. Green paint was stripped from the redwood and original siding was sanded and treated. A new covered entry was built to shelter the front door, replacing the original carport.

All the work on the house, including modifying the interior to be used as a small conference center, was completed in 2008. Large airy windows, which once faced the prune orchard, now face a patio (see above photo) which can be used for outdoor functions. You can read more about the project here and if you visit for another one of the upcoming lectures, you can watch videos about Neutra and his work.

The next upcoming lecture will be by San Francisco architect Jonathan Pearlman who will talk about the evolution of the modern house from mid-19th century England to 20th century America, on February 11. Save the date!

UPDATE: Another Neutra house will be on view February 9, with a lecture by his youngest son, Dr. Raymond Richard Neutra, sponsored by the San Francisco chapter of the American Institute of Architects.  Attendees will see Neutra’s house in the Marina district, at 2058 Jefferson Street, near Baker.  That house was put on the market in early January, for nearly $4 million. A series of photos and more about the house itself can be found here at CurbedSF.

Deco the halls: SF skyscrapers jazz it up

Every December, when people are looking for ways to evoke that holiday spirit, many families pile up in cars and drive to their favorite Bay Area neighborhood, famous for over-the-top displays. 

Or they traipse to Union Square together, to check out the huge windows at Macy’s, Saks 5th Avenue, and Neiman Marcus, where some, like Carl Nolte of the San Francisco Chronicle, fondly remember the store when it was the City of Paris. 

So here is a novel idea if you are searching for some holiday glam, away from the crowds. Come to the Financial District, where many skyscrapers are decked out in their red and gold finest, and glimpse the city’s smorgasbord of architectural styles. 

Of course, here at the Timothy Pflueger blog, I am partial to the skyscrapers of the Jazz Age. But there is holiday spirit everywhere you turn.  Try and catch some of these decorations before they are put away in storage at the dawn of the new decade. 

Giant ornaments at plaza at 101 California

101 California Street 

A fun place to start, where many come to take photos, is the plaza in front of the tower simply known as 101 California

The plaza is currently dominated by giant red steel Christmas tree ornaments. You will feel like a Lilliputian next to these giants, which are nicely accented by an array of potted red Cyclamen. There are two big block of concrete steps in the plaza (like a ziggurat!) to relax or watch seagulls bathe in the nearby fountain. 

Giant ornaments hang from the ceiling of 101 California

Inside, the lobby of the cylindrical 48-story tower, completed in 1982 and designed by architects Philip Johnson and John Burgee, has more grandiose decor. Enormous ornaments hang from the ceiling. 

One Bush Plaza 

Continue down California, then turn left onto Battery Street, until you reach the corner of Battery and Bush, and cross the street to SOM’s Crown Zellerbach Building, the city’s first International style building. Completed in 1959, it is one of the finest examples of mid-century modern design in the city, inspired by Mies van der Rohe. 

SOM's Crown Zellerbach and its glass-enclosed Miesian lobby

One Sansome Street 

Walk down Bush Street one block. Turn left onto Sansome and cross the street. If you are walking during regular business hours, you can enter the courtyard that serves as the conservatory adjacent to the bland skyscraper at One Sansome Street. The conservatory is the former site of a bank designed by my favorite Beaux-Arts architect, Albert Pissis. 

Conservatory at One Sansome with Poinsettia tree
The lovely marble-enclosed conservatory was originally the Anglo and London Paris National Bank, which occupied the site from 1910-1981. 

Pissis, a San Francisco architect who was born in Mexico to a French father and a Mexican mother, grew up mostly in San Francisco, with an interlude at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris in the 1870s.
 
Pissis is known for his early embrace of the Neoclassic, as one can see from the preserved marble arches and ornate cornice. Some of his best-known buildings are the Hibernia Bank on Jones Street, the Flood Building on Market and Powell, and the former Emporium, now San Francisco Centre, just across Market Street from the Flood Building.

155 Sansome Street 

Turn around and continue on Sansome Street and head to the former Pacific Stock Exchange building at the corner of Sansome and Pine (an amusing footnote, in the financial pages of the Chronicle for years, a byline on the daily markets wrap-up story was Sansome Pine). 

155 Sansome Lobby (do not use without permission of Empire Group)
There is usually a friendly guard sitting at the information desk (except on Sundays) in the lobby of 155 Sansome Street, who won’t mind if you peak at the tree and the gorgeous lobby.

If you cannot get inside, you can also gaze at the streamlined design of Miller & Pflueger’s tower, completed in 1929 just after the great stock market crash. The massive sculptures that adorn both the facade of 155 Sansome and the Stock Exchange trading building on Pine were done by local artist Ralph Stackpole and you can see the influence of his friend, muralist Diego Rivera, who painted a stunning mural inside at the City Club, the former luncheon club for traders and brokers.

Inside, gold tones in the lobby compliment the brightly lit tree and shimmer in the reflection of the dark marble walls. The star-patterned ceiling was inspired by a Berlin nightclub. 

465 California Street 

Continue down Sansome until you hit California Street again, turn left, and look for the brightly colored columns of the Merchants Exchange Building, designed in 1904 by famed Chicago architect Daniel Burnham, with Willis Polk, one of the city’s more eccentric architects, best known for his daring design of the Hallidie Building at 130 Sutter and its innovative glass curtain wall. 

Merchants Exchange Building and its tarted up Ionic columns

Russ Building 

Continue along California Street and turn left onto Montgomery, you will see the heavy massing of the Russ Building at 235 Montgomery Street, which was for many years the tallest skyscraper in San Francisco, after its completion in 1927. 

Russ Building's Neogothic details with red holiday cheer

It stole the crown in height from Miller & Pflueger and Cantin’s Telephone Building. Its Neogothic detailing makes one think of a cathedral and the lobby is especially church-like, a veritable temple to finance. It was commissioned by two investment banking firms during the roaring 1920s stock market boom. 

After admiring how the terracotta facing and detailing is highlighted by the red holiday swags and greenery, continue down Montgomery Street, also known as Wall Street West (even though the Stock Exchange was located on Pine Street). 

Continue until you hit Sutter Street, and at Sutter and Montgomery, you will find the office building where Dashiell Hammett’s best known detective, Sam Spade, had his office. 

Sam Spade went through these doors

111 Sutter  

It has been calculated by Hammett fans, including Don Herron, the creator of the Dashiell Hammett walking tour, that Sam Spade, the detective in The Maltese Falcon, had his office in the Hunter-Dulin, completed in 1926 by New York architects Schultze & Weaver, known for their beloved Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.

While not Deco or Moderne in style, the Hunter-Dulin Building is reminiscent of a French chateau. Its unusual copper mansard roof can be seen as you hike up Sutter Street. Notice the ornament course at eye level and you will see a bird. A falcon perhaps? Well not likely, since the building was complete before the black bird’s infamous moments in literature.  But it’s fun to pretend. 

450 Sutter

Turn left at the Hunter-Dulin Building, and head up Sutter Street, just as Spade turned toward Kearny on the prowl for some tobacco. There is a slight incline and as you walk west, you can see the tower of 450 Sutter, its terracotta ornament recently cleaned and new windows installed.

The interior is like stepping into a temple of the Maya, with its stepped ceiling in the shape of a ziggurat. The gold and green holiday decorations contrast with the dark Levanto marble and echo the gold, bronze and silver tones of the extensive metal work, which evoke Mayan figures, in the stunning lobby.

450 Sutter's Maya lobby decorated with holiday greenery

Happy holidays to everyone.