Archive for the ‘Mid-century modernism’ 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.

“Mid-Century By the Bay” book is a must-have

June 9, 2012

Cover for Mid-Century by the Bay by Heather David

If you grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, or are a fan of the design style and architecture of the mid-century, Heather David’s excellent book, Mid-Century by the Bay is a thoroughly enjoyable stroll down memory lane. David, a San Jose-based freelance writer and cultural historian, is also a Bay Area native, and her 152-page book features a combination of notable local architecture, culture and kitsch. It’s both an informative and nostalgic send-up of the 1950s to 1960s in the Bay Area.

I first stumbled upon this engaging book in the San Francisco Public Library History Center when it debuted in 2010, but after my requested files arrived and I was quickly immersed in my research project of the moment, and forgot about the gem I found.  Last month, I ran into the book again, at the Builders Booksource table at the California Preservation Foundation conference and was lucky enough to also meet the author.

Mid-Century by the Bay is divided into eight main topics, after an introduction of the post-World War II building boom, population and industrial expansion that led to a suburban building frenzy in the Bay Area. The first main section, Bay Area Burbs, covers home design (with some photos of local homes built by Joseph Eichler of course), and the lesser-known Alec Branden, who built over 10,000 homes in Northern California, specializing in traditional and ranch style homes.  Schools, churches and shopping centers are included, with old photos of the then newly built Valley Fair shopping center in Santa Clara and Stonestown in San Francisco, both built in the 1950s. A view of Valley Fair’s once-open courtyard, brick planter boxes and concrete cantilevered roofs creating shady breezeways for shoppers reminded me of my childhood shopping trips with my mom, a big fan of stores such as Joseph Magnin, I. Magnin and Somer & Kaufman.

Photo of IBM Hydro Gyro sculpture at IBM campus in San Jose taken by Arnold Del Carlo, photographer, courtesy Heather David

The “Architecture of the Future” section features some stunning mid-century design in the Bay Area, much of which has been destroyed, or modified as unrecognizable today. As David writes in her epilogue, the Bay Area has suffered from both demolition and “the ’blandification’ of many of its mid-century structures.”  The buildings at IBM Corp.’s Cottle Road campus, designed by architect John Savage Bolles, were accented with brick and multi-colored tiles, the tile pattern mimicking an IBM punch card. Some art that graced the campus is now gone or in disarray, such as the stunning Hyrdo-Gyro sculpture by local artist Robert Boardman Howard, which is now in pieces on the ground. Howard, the son of architect John Galen Howard, also worked with Tim Pflueger on the Paramount Theatre and the San Francisco Stock Exchange.

“Refreshments” captures excellent views of some long-lost iconic local restaurants and popular chains such as Doggie Diner, Zim’s, Lyon’s and the still extant Mel’s (it’s original drive-in restaurant on South Van Ness, though, is long gone. A brochure image has a rarely seen full-color drawing of Pflueger’s Top of the Mark during the 1950s, the original bar still in the center of the room, its rose-toned leather knee cushion still intact, with a band is playing next to the famous bar, and an early version of the dance floor

Another one of my favorite sections is the one called “Bay Area Road Trip,” with photos of some of my long-lost childhood haunts, such as Santa’s Village in Scotts Valley and the Nut Tree in Vacaville. David’s superb collection of ephemera and photos includes a 1960s interior view of the fabulous Nut Tree restaurant (alas the bird aviary isn’t in the scene) and workers in the company kitchen, making sugar sticks and suckers by hand.

SF Modernism show poster, courtesy Penelope Productions

David’s book, like Pierluigi Serraino’s superb NorCalMod, showcases both the simple beauty and the eccentricities of the mid-century and the Bay Area’s rich development during the era. It also calls out the need for more preservation of our most recent past, before we lose even more of it.

David will be signing and selling her book today, June 9, at the San Francisco Modernism show at the Concourse Exhibition Center at 8th and Brannan streets, along with yours truly selling and signing Art Deco San Francisco at a discounted price. If you haven’t yet got a copy of Mid-Century by the Bay, it’s a great deal at $40 and a lovely Father’s Day gift. Come on down.

Happy Birthday Timothy Pflueger!

September 26, 2010

Tim Pflueger, probably 1930s, courtesy John M. Pflueger

Today, September 26, is the birthday of architect Timothy Pflueger. Since he was born in 1892, he clearly would not be alive today (it would be his 118th birthday), but I always wonder what else he would have accomplished if he had lived beyond his 54 years.  It is amazing to consider how much work he did, and how much of it is extant in San Francisco and the Bay Area, even for his rather short life, but remember he did begin his career as an office boy, around age 13 and quickly become a draftsman.

Pflueger is getting a bit of attention this autumn, thanks to the interest of many local architectural groups in his work.  San Francisco Architectural Heritage included me in their 2010 lecture series and we had a great crowd last Thursday night at their new lecture venue at Pier 1  to learn more about Pflueger’s work and times. I also got to meet their new executive director, Mike Buhler, who was most recently director of advocacy for the Los Angeles Conservancy and before that, at the western office of the National Trust of Historic Preservation. Indeed, Buhler has come out swinging in his first month on the job, as co-author (along with Anthea Hartig of the National Trust) writing a letter to the editor in the San Francisco Chronicle, a thoughtful response to yet another anti-preservationist column by C.W. Nevius, this time over the brouhaha on whether or not to save the North Beach Library.

Next month, I am giving a broader talk, “The Evolution of Art Deco in San Francisco” and will include some of Pflueger’s well-known, and not so well-known contemporaries, at the San Francisco Chapter of the American Institute of Architects, as part of the “Rediscover the City” series. Architecture buffs may want to catch some or all of them. If you are a member of the AIA, the lectures are $20 each ($25 for non-members), and $100 for the whole series of six ($125 non-members).

Also coming up is a talk in November at the Neutra House in Los Altos, as part of their 2010-2011 lecture series on Bay Area Masters that also help pay for the restoration of the house. And Pflueger is showcased in the autumn issue of Modernism Magazine in an article by yours truly called “Shaking up San Francisco’s Skyline.”

The past month has also been a feast of activity for local architecture aficionados, including a great series of films at the San Francisco Public Library, as part of the SF AIA’s “Architecture and the City Festival.” My two favorites were the documentary on Daniel Burnham, called “Make No Little Plans, Daniel Burnham and the American City” and the amazing 2009 film about John Lautner, called “Infinite Space, The Architecture of John Lautner.” Check out the trailer here. This film, plus “Visual Acoustics: The Modernism of Julius Shulman,” which I also saw at another AIA event, are both worth owning.

One of the funnest parts of the beautifully shot Lautner film was how the filmmakers managed to find a group of Lautner-obsessed architecture students in Holland who were planning a trip to Los Angeles, and doing searches using Google Earth for Lautner homes, some of which can be spotted by their unusual roofs. The students and their obsession reminded me of some of the things my passionate architectural historian friends and I do in our detecting work.  Another element that enhanced the film was audio of  Lautner, who gave a lecture at the AIA late in his career, and they were able to frequently use snippets as voice overs, talking about his philosophy.

Guerrero Street, circa 1920s (Pflueger home partially blocked), Patrick Ruane, plasterer, on the right, courtesy Bernadette Hooper

One memorable line from the Lautner film  was something that I think applies to some of the world’s best architects. Lautner said in his talk, “That’s the essence of it. My whole life is devoted to architecture and that’s what I live on.” Many people wonder why Pflueger never designed his own home and lived the bulk of his life in the plain family home at 1015 Guerrero Street. I think Lautner’s comment says it all.

Neutra’s son helps raise money for VDL compound

February 16, 2010

Got a spare $2,500 lying around? You can buy a very cool black and white photograph of architect Richard Neutra taken by legendary architectural photographer Julius Shulman, at Neutra’s then-radical home in Los Angeles in 1966. 

Richard Neutra at VDL House, 1966 by Julius Shulman, courtesy Raymond Neutra

The photo depicts Neutra, sitting on the terrace of his VDL Research Site, the home where Neutra and his family lived and where he worked for three decades. He moved to California in the late 1920s. The native of Vienna came to the U.S. via New York and then Chicago, where he worked briefly for Frank Lloyd Wright, before joining his friend Rudolf Schindler in Los Angeles. 

The main wing of VDL, sometimes referred to as VDL II, was re-built in 1966 after a fire destroyed much of the original home built in 1932. Neutra named the home the VDL Research Site after the Dutch industrialist, Cornelius H. Van der Leeuw, who gave the architect a a no-interest loan of $3,000 to build his own home. 

The VDL Research Site, located at 2300 Silver Lake Boulevard in Los Angeles, is regarded as a beacon for the mid century modernist movement in California for its affordable, spare design, innovative use of materials and its indoor-outdoor continuity, a concept not typically embraced by most architects of the International School in Europe.  The home was also a cultural and political salon, attracting other architects and thinkers. 

VDL was built in three waves and is now owned by Cal Poly Pomona College of Environmental Design per a bequest by Neutra’s wife. It is in need of repairs and restoration. For example, an estimated $120,000 is needed to repair the cooling water roof, added in the 1966 version of VDL, and depicted in the photo. 

The money raised by selling these 16″ x 20″ prints, all signed by Shulman and twice the size of the original 8″ x 10″ print, will go toward ongoing and urgently needed work to restore the building and provide maintenance. A total of 35 limited edition prints were made. Because of the value of the prints, the purchase is not a tax deductible donation. More information can be found on the Neutra VDL compound’s Web site. 

The story of VDL was told by Neutra’s youngest son Raymond, who grew up in the house. Neutra gave a talk last week at a duplex designed by his father, at 2056-2058 Jefferson Street.

Neutra duplex on Jefferson Street

This modern, sleek glass and steel box in the heart of San Francisco’s Marina District, stands as a stark iconoclast on a block of mostly Spanish Colonial revival homes of the 1920s. The lecture was sponsored by the San Francisco Chapter of the American Institute of Architects

“It’s a personal perspective of the place I grew up,” Neutra said of the VDL compound. 

Raymond Neutra went into the field of public health. In 2007, he retired as chief of the division of Environmental and Occupational Disease Control in the California Department of Public Health. Even though he did not become an architect, he was immersed in that world since childhood and has a great knowledge and appreciation of architecture and design.

His brother, Dion carried on the architectural torch and worked on VDL II with his father.

Interior staircase of Neutra-designed duplex on Jefferson Street

The evening’s co-host was San Francisco architect Chad Overway of Overway + Partners, the current owner of the duplex. Overway gave a brief description of some of his work on the building, designed by Neutra in 1938. 

Overway bought the building from original owner Ilse Schiff in 1993 and has been slowly restoring it, eliminating things added over the years, such as wall-to-wall carpeting and paint that covered the original steel window frames, now painstakingly restored.

Earlier this year, Overway and his wife put the two-unit home up for sale, with an asking price of $3.95 million but the timing was poor for a high-end property with three levels, a garden, four-car garage and rooftop terrace with a view of the Golden Gate Bridge.

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

January 11, 2010

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

Neutra House in Los Altos at twilight

I missed last month’s lecture by Alan Hess, architect, author and architectural critic of my alma mater, the San Jose Mercury News.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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