Archive for the ‘Frank Lloyd Wright’ Category

Domed theaters in San Jose set for last picture show

March 11, 2014
Century 21 Theatre at dusk (c) Therese Poletti

Century 21 Theatre at dusk (c) Therese Poletti

Three iconic domed movie theaters representative of the futuristic roadside, or Googie, architecture of the late 1950s and 1960s, are set to show their last films on March 31.

Last week, the current tenants of the Century 21 Theatre, Guggenheim Entertainment and the Retro Dome theater group, sent out an email alert that programming will cease at Century 21, 22, and 23 as of March 31st, because the lease for the theaters to Syufy Enterprises is up and it not being renewed. The theaters are known locally by their current name, the Winchester Theaters.

The property owners, including members of the family of the original architect, Vincent G. Raney, have filed a permit to demolish all three domes, and are fighting any attempt to save the theaters.

Many locals fear that the three theaters will be torn down for another shopping center, but no project or plans have yet been filed with the City of San Jose.

The trio of theaters, near the famous Winchester Mystery House, were originally dubbed the Century Theaters, as commissioned by Ray Syufy, a Bay Area movie theater entrepreneur, who hired Raney to design the domes. The Century 21, which opened in November, 1964, was the first dome in the Century Theaters chain and it was designed to showcase a new widescreen cinema technology called Cinerama. The Cinerama widescreen technology, one of the industry’s many efforts to combat growing competition from television, was originally developed using three synchronized cameras for filming and projecting. But when the first theater designed to show Cinerama opened in Hollywood in 1963, it showcased the improved single-screen Cinerama process using 70 mm film. One year later, Century 21 in San Jose, followed in that vein, showing the same opening film, “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World,” in single-lens 70 mm Cinerama.

After the first Cinerama theater opened in Hollywood on Sunset Boulevard, other domed theaters ensued. Cinerama Inc., the developer of the technology, promoted the dome design as economical and easy to build. Hollywood’s Cinerama, which has been preserved and is now a city landmark, has a geodesic dome design inspired by architect and engineer R. Buckminster Fuller.

Postcard of Cinerama Hollywood, circa 1960s

Postcard of Cinerama Hollywood, circa 1960s

Los Angeles has preserved important moments and venues in cinematic history, but in the Bay Area — home of Silicon Valley — these domed theaters, representative of a unique cinema technology, are threatened. Last May, the domed theater in Pleasant Hill, also designed by Raney for Syufy, was demolished to make way for a sporting good store. And in the last few months, two other domed theaters, the Century 24, across Highway 280 from the Winchester domes, and Century 25, in San Jose’s nearby Westgate Shopping Center, were also demolished.

Architect Vincent G. Raney, Docomomo Noca

Architect Vincent G. Raney, Docomomo Noca

Last year, the property owners hired Cassidy Turley real estate and advertised for new tenants to develop the acreage. Preservationists though, including the San Jose non-profit Preservation Action Council, fear the land, targeted by the city as another “urban village” will become another bland Santana Row, the cookie-cutter, faux Tuscan style shopping center and apartments across the street from the theaters. After writing an article in the Wall Street Journal about the plight of the domes and learning about their historic significance, I have since become a supporter of saving at least one theater from the wrecking ball.

Century 21 Theatre, side view, (c) Therese Poletti

Century 21 Theatre, side view, (c) Therese Poletti

A campaign to save at least one of the theaters has gathered community support and over 5,500 people have signed a petition in Change.org.

But there are also detractors, and in an odd twist, those detractors include the architect’s family. In a letter to the city of San Jose a family member wrote that Raney “believed buildings have a life span and that as a community evolves, so should its architecture.” “He would think the Century 21 is ready for retirement, making way for something new that would serve the City’s and community’s needs now,” wrote Michelle Bevis, on behalf of the Raney and Farriss families, who own the land.

An architectural and historical debate

Does San Jose really need more bland shopping plazas and malls? Wouldn’t it be feasible to incorporate at least the earliest dome in the chain, a whimsical icon seen from Highway 280, into a mid-century style shopping area or office building? Some have argued that the domes are not historic, nor are they architecturally significant.

I beg to differ. The domes, which evoke notions of a spaceship, were emblematic of an era that has vanished, of optimism in the future, looking ahead to the 21st century and the space age with joy and anticipation. The domes were based on the concepts of Fuller, who patented his geodesic dome, a precisely calculated, patterned mesh that provided maximum strength at a minimum of cost. By 1959, Fuller had licensed his dome design to more than 100 corporations and city governments. At two futuristic world’s fairs of the early 1960s, for example, the World’s Fair in Seattle in 1962, and at New York’s World’s Fair of 1964, Fuller-licensed domes or copycats were popular exhibition venues for forward-thinking companies, in that brief interlude of post-World War II optimism. It is also worth pointing out that Apple Inc.’s plans for a new corporate campus, as envisioned by the late co-founder Steve Jobs, also recall the idea of a spaceship.

Architect Frank Lloyd Wright was another major influence. Producer Mike Todd, one of the original founders of Cinerama, had formed his own company to work on a competing but improved single lens version of Cinerama, called the Todd-AO process. Todd hired Wright to design a domed theater with a geodesic roof using aluminum from Kaiser Aluminum, a theater with gently curved walls to showcase the widescreen movies his company was producing. Wright used Fuller’s concepts, according to the book, “Treasures of Taliesin, Seventy-Seven Unbuilt Designs,” but also modified the size of the dome and the scope of its overhead curve.

Frank Lloyd Wright and Mike Todd and theater model, and Henry Kaiser right. The American Widescreen Museum, collection of Robert C. Weisgerber

Frank Lloyd Wright and Mike Todd and theater model, and Henry Kaiser right. Widescreen Museum, collection of Robert C. Weisgerber

Wright’s design, according to a rendering in “Treasures of Taliesin,” also included pre-cast concrete shells as walls. But Todd was tragically killed in a plane crash in 1958 and his heirs did not pursue movie theaters. Wright died one year later. Still, the Todd-AO single lens process was used by Cinerama and Panavision as an improvement on the original three camera process.

When Raney was hired by Syufy to design the first of many theaters in the chain, Cinerama sent Raney drawings of the standard dome theaters and the scaffolding used to erect it, according to the book, “Suburban America.” In addition, Raney had a personal connection to the site of the first theaters and the nearby Winchester Mystery House: his wife Edna was the oldest daughter of John H. Brown, the man who turned the bizarre tale of Sarah Winchester’s compulsive building additions and expansions to her rambling Victorian mansion into a major tourist attraction. Raney’s heirs today are among the owners of the vast parcel of nearly 12 acres of land the three theaters sit upon, and part of the group of 40 family members who are protesting the landmark nomination.

Finial atop Century 21 Theatre

Finial and bird atop Century 21 Theatre

Next month, California’s Historic Preservation Commission will review a nomination submitted by Docomomo Noca, the local chapter of an international non-profit focused on preserving and documenting mid-century modernism. The nomination seeks to add the Century 21 Theatre to the state’s register of historic resources. The nomination will be reviewed by the State Historical Resources Commission on April 22, at the California Preservation Foundation Conference at Asilomar. (disclosure: I am now on Docomomo Noca’s board).

If the theater is deemed by the state’s historic preservation commission as a “historic resource,” its survival is not guaranteed. According to historic preservation consultant Christopher VerPlanck, who is also president of Docomomo Noca, such a designation would require that any developer complete a costly and lengthy environmental impact report. “Any project that could negatively affect the ‘resource’ must take those effects into account with an Environmental Impact Report (EIR),” VerPlanck said. “Most developers will do whatever they can to avoid having to prepare an EIR, even if it involves preserving whatever it is they want to tear down.”

But it seems like in San Jose, it’s out with the old, in with the new.

Let’s hope some compromise can be achieved and that an important piece of the Jetsons era in Silicon Valley can be saved.

The Transbay Terminal Will be Missed

July 30, 2010

Transbay Terminal, with Pflueger's Telephone building, (c) Tom Paiva

With the looming demolition of the Transbay Terminal approaching next month, one might expect to see the inevitable stories about the building’s better days in the local press. Sadly, the Sunday piece by Carl Nolte in the San Francisco Chronicle does not do the building justice. Too many have judged the 1939 building’s architectural merits by its current grimy appearance: its central hall cut up to accommodate bus station escalators, the built-up filth on its once-sparkling white granite after years of neglect, and the hordes of homeless people who have been allowed to call it home. Originally designed as the terminus for the Key System trains that traveled on the lower deck of the Bay Bridge, the building, designed by a triumvirate of architects led by Timothy Pflueger, deserves a proper homage.

Nolte wrote that “no historian is going to miss this building.” I beg to differ. Some architects, architectural historians and preservationists who spoke with or emailed me agree that the demolition of the former train station will be a major loss for the city. The Chronicle’s own rabble-rouser, its Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic, the late Allan Temko, gave the building high praise in an article on September 11, 1978, calling the building “one of the best examples of 1930s Moderne in San Francisco.” He also noted that the building fits historically with the Bay Bridge, even though it was completed three years after the bridge opened.

Transbay Terminal, side window and awning details, (c) Tom Paiva Photography

The Bauhaus-inspired building is unusually spare in its use of ornament. It was especially spare for Pflueger, even though he was beginning to embrace a more streamlined style during this austere period. It was also one of the more modern buildings designed by fellow architect Arthur Brown, Jr., whose luscious Baroque sensibility remains with us today in San Francisco City Hall. John Donovan was the third local architect in the group.

The utilitarian Transbay’s spare detailing is its aluminum frames around the large, industrial windows, which, when clean, filled the grand hall with light as train commuters scurried through. Pflueger had also used a similar pattern in the window frames of his San Francisco Stock Exchange Tower at 155 Sansome Street, ten years earlier.  In the case of the Transbay, the lack of ornament or any art work — often added to public buildings during the 1930s thanks to President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal projects — was probably due to budgetary constraints.  As is noted in my book Art Deco San Francisco, the architects, especially Pflueger, fought frequently with the engineers over efforts to try and add art, ornament or style to the Bay Bridge project. There were also many windows and doors in the terminal, to speed commuters in and out, so there was little wall space for the kind of murals inside the main Transbay building that helped saved the Rincon Post Office Annex from destruction.

The Transbay Terminal has been allowed to deteriorate by its owners. Today, Caltrans and the Transbay Joint Powers Authority, in a seemingly hypocritically move, are celebrating the building through a series of tours for the public. We will be able to visit places that some of us have never seen, such as the Cuddles Bar, the Terminal Jail, the shoeshine stand and the smoke shop. But for long-time commuters through the station, the tours will surely be bittersweet.

Transbay Terminal (c) Tom Paiva Photography

 “I think the Transbay Terminal has gotten a bum rap over the years, for a number of reasons,” said Christopher VerPlanck, a principal with Knapp & VerPlanck Preservation Architects in San Francisco. “First, Caltrans does not maintain it – it is filthy, badly lit, and perceived rightly or wrongly as being dangerous. Second, I don’t think most Americans appreciate the modernistic aesthetic of the main building or industrial/utilitarian aesthetic of the remainder of the structure.”

VerPlanck loves the Streamline Moderne waiting room and facade and the riveted steel structure of the bus shed and viaduct. “I can’t help but wonder if it would have been perceived more favorably if it had been cleaned regularly and maintained,” he said.

H. Lynn Harrison, an architect who is also the preservation director for the Art Deco Society of California, said he recently went to just look at the elegance of the large windows from indoors, and to try and imagine it in its grander days.  “The Transbay Terminal was and still is a beautiful building, modern and classic at the same time,” Harrison said. “It’s sleekness, its strength, its elegance of proportions, all make this an architectural master work.”

Yes, many complain about the low ceilings in the waiting areas and passages, and Nolte described the space as cold and windswept in summer and winter fogs. But Joyce Roy, a semi-retired architect who is also a transit advocate, said she believed that the low ceilings, while designed to make people move faster, were also possibly a page from Frank Lloyd Wright, who often had visitors enter a compressed space with a low ceiling, before going into a dramatic, spacious open area. Wright used this trick in much of his work, especially his homes and churches. It was at Roy’s suggestion that Caltrans decided to open the building to the public for a last tour on Friday. We will report back with photos and other observations.

A spokeswoman for the Transbay Joint Powers Authority said the old terminal is not suited to modern transportation needs. It is ironic that as California tries to re-embrace train travel, San Francisco’s old terminal was deemed as unsuitable for reuse as its original purpose. And even though Caltrans had determined the building was eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, it never pursued that status. Incorporating the old building in the design of the new terminal seems to have been rejected early on, although Roy said it was considered.

“The current terminal is outdated, not up to current seismic safety codes and does not meet the current or future transportation needs of the city or region, which is why it must be replaced,” a spokeswoman for the TJPA said in an email.

Meanwhile, Los Angeles managed to renovate and restore its lovely Union Station, also completed in 1939 and designed by father and son architects Parkinson & Parkinson. It’s a bit mind-boggling that car-centric Los Angeles cares more for its historic train station than allegedly green San Francisco, which is also spending a minimum of $10 million on the demolition of the Transbay Terminal alone, a project that will create some serious debris for landfills. 

Transbay construction site in 1938, courtesy the late Rich Higgins of Caltrans

Searching for Louis Sullivan

June 19, 2010

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

June 9, 2010

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


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