The mystery of the majestic Pacific Edgewater Club that was never built

“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderly again….

There was Manderly, our Manderly, secretive and silent as it had always been, the grey stone shining in the moonlight of my dream…” From Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier

Pacific Edgewater Club by Hugh Ferriss from American Architect June 1927
Pacific Edgewater Club by Hugh Ferriss from American Architect, June, 1927

There are always unresolved mysteries to explore while researching history. In the world of architectural history, mysteries can include projects that were never built. In the life of San Francisco architect Timothy Pflueger, one of his more intriguing yet unexecuted projects was a monumental private club and resort called the Pacific Edgewater Club, planned during the roaring 1920s for the bluffs overlooking Point Lobos, part of the vast oceanfront property once owned by Adolph Sutro, and today part of Land’s End.

This unrealized project of Pflueger’s has always fascinated me and I had no room to include it in Art Deco San Francisco. Once you have seen the dark and brooding version as rendered by the famous architectural delineator, Hugh Ferriss (above), it’s easy to imagine how magnificent it would have been, perched high among the rocky, seemingly foreboding terrain above Point Lobos. 

The story of the magical club that exists only on paper is typical of the 1920s: it involved oceanfront real estate, a private club seeking out the well-to-do and nouveau riche, beauty queens, suspect business machinations, a grand jury investigation, and an ultimate lack of funds for the oversized ambitions of everyone involved.

The “highest knoll” in the Sutro Estate

The story begins in 1926, when a group of men, some based in Los Angeles, formed an exclusive club and purchased a section of the ocean-front property at Point Lobos from Adolf Sutro’s estate. In May, 1926, the San Francisco Examiner reported that a new membership organization, called the Club Farallon was to be built upon a scenic spot overlooking the Cliff House, occupying “the highest knoll in the Sutro estate.” The estimated $1 million club was to be financed through the sale of lifetime memberships. It would have a rooftop dining room for nightly musical reviews, and an observation lounge 300 feet long with unobstructed views of the Pacific Ocean, where one could see the Farallon Islands from the rows of proposed windows.

One month later, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that Miller & Pflueger architects had been selected for the new club and building was set to begin October 1, 1926. At the time, architects James R. Miller and his younger partner Tim Pflueger, were riding high on the success of the new corporate headquarters for the Pacific Telephone & Telegraph Co., which had been completed in 1925. The city’s first true high-rise skyscraper with setbacks also had unusual embellishments in the Moderne style that many decades later would be referred to as Art Deco. An ode to that skyscraper at 140 New Montgomery Street, known locally as the Telephone Building, even appeared on the same page of the Examiner, next to the story announcing the Club Farallon’s formation in May, 1926.

In addition to being popular in the moment, both Miller and Pflueger were club men, as were many architects and business men of the era. They both belonged to The Family, a private club formed by former Bohemian Club members, and the Olympic Club, where Pflueger would take his daily swim. These San Francisco private clubs were at the time (and some still are) for men only, while the city’s prominent women had their own social clubs such as the Metropolitan Club and the Francisca Club. A novel aspect of both the Club Farallon and its successor, the Pacific Edgewater Club, was that they were conceived as private social clubs for men, women and their families. 

A drawing in the San Francisco Chronicle in mid July was the first rendering published: a massive building faced in stucco, with two wings, organized around a colonnaded courtyard, designed in the Spanish Colonial revival style. A long walkway framed by low manicured box hedges led to a detailed entrance, with ornamental stucco in relief, possibly in a detailed Churrigueresque style. This rendering was signed by Francis Todhunter, a commercial artist who was then working for the H.K. McCann advertising company, one of the precursors to the McCann Erickson advertising agency. It is likely that this quick sketch  did not yet involve the newly hired architects. 

Pacific Edgewater Club Farallon first rendering in the SFChron July 15 1926
An early rendering of the proposed Club Farallon, San Francisco Chronicle, July 15, 1926

There is no indication of the sea or its stunning views in this first drawing, which served as an ad to draw in more members. Membership cost $400 before July 21, when the price jumped to $500. Membership was by invitation only, according to the ad. The public was invited to view the area to be built from an observation tower at the corner of Point Lobos Avenue and what was then called Harding Boulevard (now El Camino del Mar). Today, that area, just north of the old Sutro Baths, is all walking trails, a seemingly naturalistic setting, but one that has been interfered with by man over centuries, as described in this excellent cultural landscape report on Lands End by local historian John Martini. 

“Guns and search lights”

Another possible connection to Miller & Pflueger was the law firm working with the club,  Heller, Ehrman, White and McAuliffe, a firm they worked with frequently. Pflueger first met with the leader of the club, Justice B. Detwiler on June 1, 1926, where he recorded in his date book that he looked over the sketches they had done. He suggested closing off some streets to nearby Fort Miley. In July, Pflueger recorded that he went to Fort Winfield Scott in the Presidio with J.R. and Detwiler, where they met with a Colonel Halsey to talk about “guns and search lights.” There is no further explanation, but Pflueger probably wanted to find out what was left of the prior fortifications of the site. Two and a half decades after the the site was first surveyed after the U.S. Civil War, the Army secured a large section of Lands End for development as a coastal defense site, according to Martini’s report, calling it the Point Lobos Military Reservation. 

Pflueger probably wanted to find out from Colonel Halsey if the batteries constructed during the Spanish American war contained any active artillery that could pose a danger in construction, since his post was also in charge of Fort Miley. The mention of search lights could have been a consideration in the design of the club, especially since the area of Point Lobos was known for ship wrecks and tragically, a location of frequent suicides in the 1920s. Martini discovered that there were so many suicides in the area that the city morgue maintained a journal called “The Death Lure of Land’s End.” 

In mid July, the executive committee and the membership committee of Club Farallon hosted a dinner at the St. Francis to celebrate the first 1,000 life memberships in the club.

The state Commissioner of Corporations investigates

Suddenly, nearly three months later, the Farallon project was in tatters. In early October, the Chronicle reported that California’s Commissioner of Corporations had conducted two investigations of the club, and that on the order of the commission, its checking accounts had been put in escrow. The title to the property it had reportedly acquired from the Sutro estate was also said to be “clouded.” Chickie

At the same time, another group calling themselves the Pacific Edgewater Club emerged with a deal to purchase a separate plot of land facing the Great Highway, near Vincente and 47th Avenue for $220,000, and sought out the Farallon members to join. The lot was adjacent to the popular Tait’s-on-the-Beach, a roadhouse restaurant with good food, music and dancing. It was so popular in the 1920s that it makes an appearance as one of the hot night spots for the Jazz Age smart set in the 1925 novel “Chickie,” which was set in San Francisco, by Examiner writer Elenore Meherin.

The Pacific Edgewater group proposed merging their fledgling club with members of Club Farallon into their enterprise, by transferring the Farallon memberships to the new club. The property along the Great Highway was sold to the Pacific Coast Holding Co., headed up by two Los Angelenos, Frank A. Simmons and Fred F. Jamison.  

Pacific Edgewater Club logo on thick paper brochure cropped
Pacific Edgewater Logo, from printed brochure, 1927

A brief flurry of stories appeared about the rift between the two groups, and a row that took place at the Down Town Association. Eventually, 80% of the Club Farallon members agreed to join the Pacific Edgewater Club, believing their membership fees would then fund the next oversized plans for this club’s quarters, now along the Great Highway. In early December, the new club announced they had hired Miller & Pflueger as the architects for a U-shaped building fronting the ocean esplanade of the Great Highway. The eight story building would have 250 rooms, a roof garden, ballroom, gymnasium, two swimming pools, card rooms, a library, locker rooms and showers for men and women and a children’s playground. A putting green, tennis courts and handball courts were also envisioned. 

But in Pflueger’s datebooks, he appeared to be increasingly skeptical of the whole project. He had many projects going on in 1926, including other entertainment palaces in the forms of movie theaters — the Tulare in the Central Valley and the Royal on Polk Street in the city. In late November, after a meeting with J.R. Miller and the Edgewater’s Jamison, the firm agreed to take the project on, on a regular business basis. “That is if [the] thing flops, we are to be paid for work done,” Pflueger wrote. By mid-December, a few former members of the Farallon Club had filed law suits to get their money back, according to filings cited in the Recorder, a San Francisco legal newspaper.

On Christmas Day, 1926, the Chronicle published the first rendering of the club by Miller & Pflueger, and an estimated cost of $2 million. It is possible that the architect did not want to spend too much time on the risky project at that point. Two dramatic centerpiece staircases in his drawing lead down to the highway itself. Patrons would have to cross the highway to get to the beach, if they were inclined to leave the luxurious surroundings.

Pacific Edgewater Club first drawing by Pflueger December 25 1926
Pacific Edgewater Club, by Miller & Pflueger, San Francisco Chronicle, December 25 1926

The Chronicle quoted Pflueger saying building would begin “as soon as possible” after the completion of interior plans. The style was described as both Spanish, with “exotic ornament of Oriental design, symbolizing San Francisco as the entrance to the Orient,” a theme he embraced for the lobby of the Telephone Building and the ceiling of the Castro Theatre.

Pacific Edgewater Pool SFC Jan 22 1927
Pacific Edgewater interior pool rendering, San Francisco Chronicle, January 22, 1927

Pflueger or one of his draftsmen in the office also did a set of interior sketches and drawings, which were photographed and are now in the archives of the California Historical Society. The dramatic pool that was shown in the Chronicle was surrounded by expansive floor to ceiling arched windows, with an unusual ceiling motif above the pool. 

Surprise news of a new venue

At another big luncheon at the St. Francis Hotel at the end of February, 1927, Simmons, the president of the Pacific Edgewater Club, announced that the group had purchased six acres from Dr. Emma Merritt, the daughter of Adolf Sutro. Both the Chronicle and the Examiner ignored the fact that this was the same land that had been purchased just a year previously for the Farallon Club, a deal described as having a “cloudy title.” Dudley Westler, the Chronicle Real Estate editor, gushed about the latest plans for a “magnificent club building,” and swallowed the following anecdote, hook, line and sinker. 

“The decision to change the site for the proposed club was reach by Simmons almost by accident,” Westler wrote. “He had formerly purchased a site near Tait’s-at-the-Beach, but when it became apparent that a larger site was necessary to really do the club justice, he happened to get off the main boulevard long enough to grasp the magnificence of the view at Point Lobos.” The six acres, he noted, was virtually “all the rugged ocean view water front property available in San Francisco,” outside of the homes long sold out at Sea Cliff.

Pacific Edgewater Club Pflueger and Carroll Downtown Assn Feb 1927 SFC
Pflueger and Carroll of the Down Town Assn with Pacific Edgewater rendering, February 23, 1927

Buried further in his story, Westler wrote that an $850,000 bond issue “has already been offered by a substantial financial house.” It does not appear, though, that the bond issue, which would have put the group even further in debt, was ever ultimately offered. The story was accompanied by a photo from the luncheon with Pflueger and Frank Carroll of the Down Town Association, standing in front of a massive rendering of the club and the site. Pflueger looks a tad out of character, with a slight morose look as he tries to smile.

One month later, Pflueger appeared to be taking the project more seriously. Hugh Ferriss was in the office in March, and Pflueger hired the New York-based architectural delineator for a rendering. The result was the dark, moody image of the proposed club, evocative of Point Lobos on a stormy night, in his signature style. Ferriss had drawn the Telephone Building for Pflueger after its completion, a stunning work that is today in the collection of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The design was very similar to the club on the Great Highway, minus the oddly positioned staircase, with an enormous foundation that gives the proposed building with rows and rows of arches an almost institutional feeling.

Pflueger also had a meeting with Simmons and the builders Lindgren & Swinerton to discuss the foundation. At one meeting at the site, Pflueger noted they were joined by Sutro’s then 70-year-old daughter, Dr. Emma Merritt, who walked with them, “despite the dampness.” The Chronicle reported that a “stout fence” had been built around the property and pathways and stairways for pedestrian descent. An office was to be built on Merrie Way, at the ruins of an old signal house, once the home of a watchman who sent flag signals to Telegraph Hill on the approach of incoming ships.

A “Breakfast Club” amid the cypress trees

Nothing more appears in Pflueger’s datebooks for a few months, but the club organizers continued to promote the club, seeking to raise the membership. At some point the organizers printed a four-page brochure on thick paper stock that opened up to the big rendering of the club and its site, done by Pflueger and his draftsmen. Color cartoons also portray elegant couples dining, dancing and ready for outdoor activities. The brochure also noted that some members, “the married and unmarried alike, propose to make the club their permanent home, while many others will take apartments for the week-end.”

Pacific Edgewater Club couples dining cropped from brochure
Couples dancing and dining as depicted in the Pacific Edgewater Club brochure, 1927

A June article on the progress of the club said that the club had a “large membership,” but that it needed two-thirds of the roster to be completed before construction could begin. No further details were provided.

Another promotion was unveiled, where the club organizers hoped they could seduce potential members if they came to the magical venue for a bracing breakfast. 

In mid-July, a chilly and foggy time of year in San Francisco, especially in the western part of the city, the club hosted a “Breakfast Club.” Over 250 guests were invited to partake in a regal morning feast, amid “a magnificent growth of age-old cypress trees” that formed a “natural amphitheater and affords shelter from fog and winds.” The group constructed a large horseshoe table and an enormous outdoor grill, covering a brick oven, where they served fruit, hot cereal, muffins, crisping “ham and” and coffee. Sounding like real estate hucksters selling time-shares, they laid on the hyperbole. “The aroma of full rich coffee will drift about in the air mingling with the pungent suggestion of burning woodland fires and the tang of the restless sea,” club president Simmons was quoted in the Chronicle

Pacific Edgewater beauty queens visit August 1 1927 (2)
Visiting beauty pageant contestants, SF Chronicle, August 1, 1927

A few weeks later, the Breakfast Club hosted a group of beauty queens, in San Francisco for “California Beauty Week,” the week leading up to the Miss California amateur beauty pageant. On a Sunday morning, Grayline buses and Hertz “Driv-Ur-Self” sedans picked up the 60 lovely young contestants at the Mark Hopkins for the drive trip out to Point Lobos. Bedecked in cloches, silk stockings and fur-trimmed coats befitting the chilly July air, the beauties dined at the giant horseshoe table on their “ham and,” chatting with club members, accompanied by peppy music. Breakfast was followed by brief entertainment: vocal solos, a monologue by KPO radio host and vaudevillian Dan Casey, and some burlesque stunts. Then they were treated to an air show by a trio of Pacific Air Transport planes, their “air escorts.”

For the rest of 1927, all was quiet. In January, 1928 Pflueger had a meeting with some executives on the topic of the club, and the next day, Frank Simmons came to his office. Pflueger wrote that he told Simmons the results of the meeting, but he left no further explanation. No notes of any further progress in the building itself were in his datebooks. In mid-March, Simmons, Al Swinerton of the building firm, and two others met in Pflueger’s office, and discussed a “public club” proposition. The club executives must have been contemplating opening the club up to the general public, to increase membership rolls to meet their grandiose plans. 

A former beauty queen’s ire, the bunco squad and a grand jury investigation

In June, according to the Recorder, a lawsuit was filed against the Pacific Edgewater Club by a vendor, the Trans Credit Traders, for $950. And at the end of August, the wheels came off.  Members Iantha Henderson and Marie Pappas went to the police and filed a complaint against the club, seeking a return of their $400 in individual membership fees, which according to an inflation calculator would be worth around $6,000 today.  

Pacific Edgewater dining shot from brochure cropped
Magical ocean view dining was depicted in the brochure of the Pacific Edgewater Club

The ladies complained about high-powered salesmanship, and a club membership that started out resembling the social Blue Book of San Francisco, with bankers, doctors, brokers and other social leaders, only to see the list becoming less select. After paying $200 in 1926 to join the Club Farallon, when that club went defunct and its members were offered memberships with the Pacific Edgewater Club, the two went to Simmons’s office on Montgomery Street to talk to him.

“He is the man that has seven telephones on his desk,” Henderson told the Examiner. “He is always so rushed, talking on all the lines at once. He coaxed, begged to me pay the balance, which I finally agreed to do.” Henderson was also a former beauty queen, when in 1915, she was chosen to portray Eureka at the Portola Festival, an irony considering the club’s use of beauty queens as part of its promotion. She wrote Simmons a letter in July, asking for her money back. “I paid $400,” she wrote. “So far, there is no club, and no visible prospects of one, after waiting about two years.” When she visited the club offices again, Simmons was not in and she was told to write to a club official in Los Angeles. That letter was returned, and then she decided to go to the police.

The San Francisco Police Department and the District Attorney’s office agreed the events seemed suspicious, and the city’s bunco squad was assigned to look into the potential fraud. “Promises were made in 1926 that the club would be built within a year,” Deputy District Attorney Milton Choynski told the Examiner. “So far, not a shovelful of earth has been turned on the site.” When reporters went to the club offices, they were told the Pacific Edgewater Club had moved two months previously and had left no forwarding address.

The Chronicle reported then that the organization had deeded the six acres of land back to the Sutro Estate, and the detectives who investigated the matter concluded that “the promoters started something they could not finish.” The State Corporation Commission said hundreds of complaints had come into its office, but it had no jurisdiction to investigate. When the Club Farallon was initially formed in 1926, the Corporation Commission was about to charge the individuals with selling stock without a permit, but the Attorney General ruled it had no jurisdiction over the club’s plan to sell memberships. The Assistant DA said he didn’t have enough evidence to bring the Club Edgewater case to the grand jury.

One month later, in early September, the disgruntled club members again met with the city’s chief of detectives and made a formal demand to Simmons to produce the club’s complete records, which they said had not been made available to them.  A few days later, Assistant DA Choynski said that he was presenting the case to the grand jury.

In the middle of November, the grand jury concluded there was no evidence of fraud in the management of the club, and its cessation of building operations was due primarily to the failure of its membership drive. The club had spent too much money for advertising and acquiring the Point Lobos property. In an odd coincidence, florist Angelo Rossi, who later would become the mayor of San Francisco, as well as a client and friend of Pflueger, was the foreman. “It appears that the club undertook too many expenditures at one time and ran out of cash. But there was no evidence of fraud,” Rossi said, according to the Chronicle.

Since the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley, the home of the Pflueger archives, is currently closed because of the pandemic, it’s not possible right now to find out if anything more substantial will turn up in the office correspondence, or Pflueger’s further thoughts on the pipedream. But it seems clear even from his quick notes that no matter how interested he was in the project, he was leery about the grand plans from the get-go, and was always conscientious that the firm be paid for the work that it did.

Perhaps, in the end, San Francisco and its visitors are better off without the imposing  edifice, which might have blocked access to the trails, nature and gorgeous views at LandsEnd, had this exclusive club actually been built. Even so, the lure of this stunning, magical site can lead one, like the narrator of the popular late 1930s novel, Rebecca, to dream of a magnificent property by the sea. Instead of being damaged by fire like the fictional Manderly, the dream of the Pacific Edgewater Club was ruined by hucksters and hubris, for it may have been just too grand, even for the roaring 1920s.   

Former I. Magnin ladies room looking good again

Original light fixture in former I. Magnin ladies room
Original light fixture in former I. Magnin ladies room

Many San Franciscans remember the elegant department store that once graced the corner of Stockton and Geary streets, I. Magnin & Co. Like the City of Paris, once across Stockton Street, Ransohoff’s a few blocks away, and many other long-gone stores, these beautifully designed and lushly appointed stores evoke memories of a by-gone era when women wore hats and gloves to go downtown. Magnin’s was a favorite of the city’s socialites and other ladies who lunch with a taste for designer and haute-couture clothing. Its quiet marble facade on Union Square represented a graceful shopping experience.

In 1988, R.H. Macy & Co. bought the exclusive I. Magnin chain of stores, including the flagship store, the white marble lady designed by architect Timothy Pflueger. That deal was just one of many that began in 1944, when Magnin’s merged with Bullocks Inc. Ultimately, after more mergers and a proxy fight, the local retailing icon became part of the conglomerate Federated Department Stores, after Federated bought Macy’s. Magnin’s, though, a high-end luxury retailer, did not last long in the Federated chain, which sadly closed the stores in 1994. Many in the retailing business suspected that Federated/Macy’s only wanted Magnin’s for its prime location facing Union Square and adjacent to Macy’s.

A major renovation was done in the late 1990s to create a modern glass facade and unify the disparate Macy’s buildings on the Geary Street side of its vast complex, including a major seismic upgrade. The interior of the once-gorgeous I. Magnin store  was completely gutted. Long gone are the glorious pink Tennessee marble floors, the bronze elevator doors, the glass hand-painted mural on the ground floor, the intimate salons with scalloped ceilings and marble, chrome and glass everywhere. Glass chandeliers in the style of Lalique and gorgeous display cases were all hand picked by Grover Magnin, who traveled to Paris with Pflueger to get ideas for the store. While I. Magnin Union Square was probably Pflueger’s piece de resistance of all his work for the Magnin chain, he died of a sudden heart attack in 1946, and was not alive to see the store’s grand opening in 1948, or how it became a beloved fixture in San Francisco.

But what is little known – except to savvy shoppers in Union Square  – is that one small vestige of the original I. Magnin store remains. On the sixth floor of Macy’s, just off the hallway near the elevators, is part of the original ladies restroom. Upon entering the bland powder room for putting on lipstick, unsuspecting patrons are sometimes surprised by the gorgeous interior in the next room. Black green marble covers the walls, contrasting with a gold-leaf ceiling. A glass chandelier hangs from an ornate bronze ceiling mount. Floor length antique mirror doors provide privacy in the stalls, and white-veined marble sinks sit nestled in bronze pedestals.

Ladies Room in Macy’s on Union Square is a Pflueger

For a brief time, the bathroom seemed to be in need of constant repair. One of the pedestal sinks was covered with a sign that it was out of order and on one visit last year, at least three bathroom stalls were out of order.

But on a recent visit, the Timothy Pflueger Blog learned that Macy’s has found a sink, and repaired most of the restroom issues.

Maintaining and improving the historical bathrooms has been an important ongoing project here at Macy’s Union Square,”  said Megan Prado, a spokeswoman for Macy’s, in a recent email. “We searched for several months and had distributors look for a historical sink to replace one of the three that cracked as it wasn’t able to be repaired.” Prado said Macy’s found one that was a great match. “We relocated the two existing functioning sinks and moved them to the exterior,  and installed the new one in the middle. This gave the area a balanced look.”  The stall door mirrors have also been replaced with new mirrors with an antique look. “We continue to do regular audits of the restroom to address issues as they arise in a timely manner,” she added.

At least one small slice of Pflueger’s original design remains.

For those of you interested in the history of I. Magnin, and other specialty and department stores founded by some of the city’s great entrepreneurs, I will be doing a talk for the San Francisco History Association on March 25. The talk is based on my research for a new walking tour I am working on for San Francisco City Guides. Hope to see some of you there!

Golden Gate Bridge exhibit shows surprising influences

Golden Gate Bridge Postcard 1937 001
Postcard of the just completed Golden Gate Bridge in 1937

San Francisco’s iconic Golden Gate Bridge will celebrate its 75th year in service next month. Big festivities are planned all over the city, including a “spectacular event” organized by the bridge authority for May 27 at Crissy Field. A special website has all the details for the upcoming Golden Gate Festival. This year, there will be no bridge walk and the landmark will remain open to auto traffic, as officials seek to avoid a replay of the last big anniversary party. 

Locals will undoubtedly remember when the bridge turned 50 in 1987, 800,000 people turned out, when only 50,000 had been expected. The bridge became so overloaded with an estimated 300,000 celebrants that it flattened out in the center. Officials told reporters at the time that ”the bridge had the greatest load factor in its 50-year life” and a paper later written on the event said the suspension cables were “stretched as tight as harp strings.”

Fabulous exhibit at California Historial Society

Before the festivities in late May, there are plenty of ways to start celebrating now, including seeing some local exhibits around town on building the great bridge. One exhibit that will be of interest to architecture fans is a fabulous show on the history and the evolution of the bridge at the California Historical Society. The exhibition, the first under new executive director, Anthea Hartig, is called “A Wild Flight of the Imagination.” The title was borrowed from a promotional pamphlet written in 1922 by chief engineer of the bridge, Joseph Strauss, and city top engineer, Michael O’Shaughnessy. In that brochure, the two, who would later spar when O’Shaughnessy opposed the bridge, wrote that the bridge, once “considered a wild flight of the imagination, has…become a practical proposition.”

The CHS exhibition, which runs until October 14 , is a must-see for anyone interested in the bridge’s fascinating history. Especially intriguing are the fantastic renderings of concepts that were never realized, such as a dramatic Beaux Arts/City Beautiful promenade that would have lead to the bridge, and its not-so-well-known influences.

Influence of the theatre architect John Eberson

One of the most interesting elements of the exhibit is the obvious influence that theatre architect John Eberson had on the bridge from his brief work as a consultant to Strauss.  Eberson is not exactly a household name  but he is well-known to theatre historians as the father of the so-called “atmospheric theatre” and the designer of over 500 theatres around the U.S.

John Eberson’s rendering of the bridge’s suspension tower, circa 1930. Courtesy California Historical Society. Pencil on vellum, on loan from the Architectural Archives, University of Pennsylvania.

One of his more famous theatres in the U.S. is the Loew’s Paradise in the Bronx, New York, which opened in 1929 on the then-thriving Grand Concourse, which was recently restored in 2006. The Paradise was one of his three atmospherics in New York City, in which the architect sought to bring the outside indoors, typically with mechanics and lighting. These theatres often gave audiences the impression of seeing movies under an evening sky, with the moon and clouds moving overhead. Eberson, a native of Austria, worked in St. Louis, Chicago and other cities before moving his office to New York in 1926, according to his obituary in March, 1954 in the New York Times.

Strauss hired Eberson to work on the towers and some of the approaches on the San Francisco side of the bridge. As Kevin Starr described in his 2010 book, Golden Gate:The Life and Times of America’s Greatest Bridge, “the very fact that Strauss initially chose Eberson to stylize the towers and other aspects of the bridge underscores Strauss’s sense of the Golden Gate Bridge as, in part, a theatrical production orchestrating site, structure and atmospheric into a unified aesthetic statement.”

Eberson GG Bridge Approach CHS
Elevation study of the northern approach to the Golden Gate Bridge, circa 1930, by John Eberson, pencil on vellum. The Architectural Archives, University of Pennsylvania, courtesy of California Historical Society

If all of Eberson’s drawings, or those of his successor, had been realized, there might be a far more dramatic entrance to the bridge, with a grand colonnade or walled portals, which as John King opined in the Chronicle last month, would have been unnecessary “theatrical trappings,” distractions from the site’s natural beauty. Even so, the dramatic influence of the father of the atmospheric theatre remains today in the bridge’s suspension towers, where the Moderne setbacks in Eberson’s 1930 rendering made it to the completed bridge. According to Starr, Eberson asked for more money to complete the project, but Strauss decided, based partly on a recommendation of local artist Maynard Dixon, and the need to comply with planning changes, to work with Bay Area architect Irving Morrow.

It appears that by August, Morrow & Morrow were fully ensconced in the project, which was still trying to win public approval. An August 1930 article in the San Francisco Chronicle on plans for the bridge getting approved by the bridge district was accompanied by a large photograph of a painting by Dixon that was used to show what the 4,200 foot span would look like in its surroundings. Maynard’s painting was aimed at disproving the increasing opposition that the bridge would mar the natural beauty of the Golden Gate. Irving Morrow noted the controversy at the time. One of his notes, on display in the CHS exhibit, reads: “Sentimentalists tell you it would be a desecration of natural beauty to bridge the Golden Gate,” Morrow wrote. “The point is not whether bridging the Golden Gate will destroy its beauty but whether the particular bridge proposed will destroy it.”

Maynard Dixon courtesy GG Bridge
Maynard Dixon painting of the concept of the bridge, 1930, courtesy Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District.

By October, 1930,  a series of drawings in the Chronicle’s Sunday photogravure section on October 5 included proposed renderings of the “world’s greatest span,” by Morrow & Morrow Architects. Some echo drawings by Eberson, with a dramatic, neo-classical approach to the bridge on both the San Francisco and the Marin County side. In the drawing of the Marin approach, below,  architect Irving Morrow was influenced by both Eberson’s ideas, and Bernini’s colonnade at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, according to architect Donald MacDonald in his 2008 book, “The Golden Gate Bridge: History and Design of an Icon.” Morrow’s design for the San Francisco portal also called for high walls around a large plaza, acting as a wind barrier, and a grand plan for an exhibition hall.

Drawings by Morrow & Morrow published in the San Francisco Chronicle, Oct. 5, 1930

The exhibit at CHS has several drawings by Eberson, including another approach reminiscent of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. But a realignment of the roadway forced a redesign of the San Francisco plaza and money was also an issue. Still it is Eberson’s designs for the 746 feet high suspension towers, that set the tone for the bridge. “Eberson’s design of the towers was very influential I believe,” said Jessica Hough, lead curator of the exhibit. “His tower design was changed very little after Morrow took over as consulting architect.”

The father of the atmospheric theatre may have not worked on any theatres in the Bay Area, but his influence here is profound.  MacDonald, who was the first architect to work on the Golden Gate Bridge after Eberson and Morrow, also notes in his excellent book that Eberson initiated the Art Deco style in the bridge.  The style in the corners of the suspension tower’s bracing also echoes a theatre proscenium, MacDonald notes, as can be seen in this 1930s construction photo from the San Francisco History Center.

North Tower under construction, circa 1930s, courtesy of San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Historical Photo Collection.

The gradual narrowing of the suspension towers as they rise was an improvement to Eberson’s towers by Morrow, according to MacDonald. Eberson’s stepped pattern in the towers also mirrored the gradual stepping of many skyscrapers built in the 1920s, which echo the pyramid shapes of the temples of the Maya and also allowed more light onto city sidewalks. Timothy Pflueger’s Telephone Building at 140 New Montgomery was the first skyscraper in San Francisco to deploy that technique. Chicago architect Louis Sullivan had suggested setbacks as early as 1891, MacDonald points out. But it was Eliel Saarinen’s second place design of a skyscraper with setbacks for the 1922 Chicago Tribune Tower contest that really brought attention to the concept. While Saarinen’s design was not executed, it was the winner in the architecture community, including unflinching praise from the ever-critical Sullivan, and was far more influential than the actual winner.

With the influence of both movie palace design and skyscrapers of the Jazz Age, no wonder the Golden Gate Bridge wins all the beauty contests, in contrast to her sister bridge, the Bay Bridge, whose 75th anniversary has not received nearly as much hoopla or attention.

Many other local exhibitions on the Golden Gate Bridge

In addition to the CHS exhibit, the San Francisco History Center on the sixth floor of the main library has a new exhibit called “Bridging Minds: San Francisco Reads, 1933-1937,” featuring books, photographs and ephemera of the period and the works of California authors. San Francisco librarian and author Jim Van Buskirk will be giving talks about movies that have featured the Golden Gate Bridge, which has starred in more movies than any other American architectural icon. Not to be outdone, the Marin History Museum in San Rafael has an exhibition on how the bridge changed life in Marin County featuring construction photos from the renowned Moulin Studios, and photos from local photographer Jeffrey Floyd.

Streamline Moderne gem a quiet star in “Dark Passage” at Noir City Film Festival

Malloch Building
Malloch Building on Montgomery St, where Lauren Bacall lives in “Dark Passage”, photo by Therese Poletti

Rain has finally descended upon a parched San Francisco, casting a perfect gloomy backdrop just in time for this year’s Noir City Film Festival. Aficionados of the dark film genre are looking forward to this year’s program, where San Francisco plays a role in some of the films, starting tonight at the Castro Theatre. Both familiar and long-gone buildings and structures can be spotted in several films, where our fog-drizzled streets, covert alleys and stairways, and lust-inducing vistas make the city an excellent backdrop for murder, double-crosses, and ill-fated romance.

The festivities kick off with an old favorite, the 1947 film “Dark Passage,” starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Bogart plays an ex-con on the run after escaping from San Quentin, where he was wrongly jailed for the murder of his wife. Enter Bacall, as Irene Jensen, who lets him hide for awhile at her chic San Francisco apartment on Telegraph Hill. The building her character lives in is one of the best examples of the Streamline Moderne style in the city, the Malloch Building. Streamline Moderne was the sleeker outgrowth of Art Deco that evolved in the 1930s, influenced by a variety of forces.

Look for glimpses of this still-stunning building if you see “Dark Passage” at Noir City X, or anytime you see the film. Completed in 1937, the Malloch Building has a bit of mystery of its own. It was featured in a six-page article in the December 1937 issue of Architect & Engineer, which oddly excluded the name of its architect, and only mentioned the owners/builders, father and son, John and J. Rolph Malloch, and consulting structural engineer, W.H. Ellison. But in the early 1980s, local author and historian extraordinaire Gray Brechin solved the mystery. Brechin discovered the building was designed by little-known local architect named Irvin Goldstine, whom he interviewed for an article in a New York magazine called Metro.

Brechin said that Goldstine did not have his architect’s license at the time he worked on the building, thus that explains why he is not listed as the architect of record. But while Goldstine eventually got his license in 1940, his work is not well known in the Bay Area, even though he designed many homes, apartment buildings and commercial structures in the Bay Area, according to architectural researcher Gary Goss. Brechin noted that while he was studying at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, Goldstine was influenced by modernists like Le Corbusier and Erich Mendlesohn. The Malloch Building is a gorgeous example of Beaux-Arts planning infused with modern design and an embrace of art.

The wood-frame building is technically six stories from top to bottom, and Brechin noted that its owners were sued for violating a city ordinance that prohibits wooden-frame structures of over three floors above a garage. But because each floor is stepped and set back, there are no more than three floors at a time above the garage, and the Mallochs won their case.

Scraffito by artist Alfred du Pont

The building, like many Streamline Moderne designs, is slightly evocative of a ship, as it sits perched at the top of the Filbert Steps, which Bogie trudges up in one scene in the movie. Other noteworthy features are its glass blocks, curvilinear lines, sand-blasted glass panels and three 40-foot high scraffito murals on the outside of the building. The then just-completed Bay Bridge is also featured in the mural shown here at the right. The murals, by artist Alfred du Pont, a friend of Goldstine’s, were made by applying colored concrete and carving it into shapes, a technique used in ancient Pompeii. Scraffito, derived from the Italian word for scratch, was also used on the murals that grace the sidewalls of architect Tim Pflueger’s Castro Theatre.

Originally built as an apartment house, all nine units and two penthouses were rented before the Malloch Building was completed, according to Architect & Engineer. “Telegraph Hill offers a certain Bohemian atmosphere that the public has found alluring and success of this particular venture has been an incentive for other investors to plan similar projects in this locality,” the journal wrote. In addition to the gorgeous views of the San Francisco Bay and the gleaming new bridge, tenants could also watch the building of Treasure Island and the Golden Gate International Exposition.

Garden vestibule entrance, courtesy Gregg Lynn, Sotheby’s Int’l Realty

Residents enter via a street-level open garden vestibule, where the sand-blasted glass portrays leaping deer or gazelles and exotic foliage, stunningly backlit at night. Interiors were described as including circular dressing rooms, built-in bookcases, and glass brick partitions. Moldings, baseboards and other non-essentials were eliminated. The dining rooms were circular with open, built-in shelving and every apartment was painted boldly in a different color scheme. Photos of the early interiors show planter boxes built into the glass brick windows, with diffused light shining through, a much sleeker, modern interior than was portrayed in “Dark Passage” when it was filmed 10 years later.

Other venues to watch for in some of the Noir City films include a harrowing drive around Telegraph and Russian Hills and the grounds of the now-shuttered Julius Castle in Friday’s “The House on Telegraph Hill,” a 1951 film. The 1949 “Thieves’ Highway,” was shot in and around the former produce district, which was demolished for Embarcadero Center, and contains some of the best footage of that old market.  Alcatraz and Fort Point both make an appearance in “Point Blank” a 1967 film about a man seeking revenge, starring Lee Marvin and Angie Dickinson. In a special treat, Dickinson will appear Saturday night for an interview on stage with the “Czar of Noir,” festival host, film preservationist and author Eddie Muller. The festival concludes with Bogart, playing the private eye, Sam Spade, in the 1941 version of “The Maltese Falcon.” A key scene in Dashiell Hammett’s 1930 novel takes place on Burritt, the dead-end alley off Bush St., down the block from the alley now known as Timothy Pflueger Place.

The modern elegance of 1360 Montgomery will likely outshine some of the other grittier locations seen in this festival. But there’s a lot to see over the next 10 days, including some long-lost vintage views of San Francisco.

And don’t forget to watch your back!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ceiling mural in the lobby of the Chrysler Building

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

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

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

Gorgeous Chrysler Building Elevator Door

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

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

Chrysler Building from the New York Public Library

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

Magnificent Deco apartment houses live on in SF

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.

Telephone Building aerial view
Miller & Pflueger’s Telephone Building, (c) Tom Paiva Photography

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.

The Bellaire, 1101 Green Street

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.

The Bellaire’s florid facade

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.

Bellaire Floorplan010
Bellaire floorplan, The Architect and Engineer, Dec. 1930

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.

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.

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