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 firstname.lastname@example.org or call 415-215-4246.
Don’t miss this rare chance to see a film in the old movie palace again. “The Smiling Lieutenant” was also nominated for Best Production, the early Academy Awards equivalent of Best Film, in 1931. In addition, authors and theatre experts Jack Tillmany and Gary Lee Parks will be joining me in selling our theatre-related books at special discounts to attendees (Tillmany has written Theatres of San Francisco and Theatres of Oakland, and Parks has written Theatres of San Jose). A new book that they co-authored, Theatres of the San Francisco Peninsula, recently published by Arcadia with many photos from Tillmany’s collection, will also be available. All of these theatre books, and myArt Deco San Francisco: The Architecture of Timothy Pflueger, make excellent holiday gifts.
The monumental Cathedral of Christ the Light has graced the shore of Lake Merritt in Oakland since September, 2008 but I only recently had a chance to visit. After hearing the name of the architect – Craig Hartman – two or three times in casual conversation in the last few months, it seemed like a good time to look at the work of a living architect for a change.
Hartman, design partner at the San Francisco office of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP, has used glass, steel and other materials typically associated with the skyscrapers his firm is known for, to create a luminous and grand cathedral. The aptly named Cathedral of Christ the Light sits like a shimmering cone and is the focal point of a large plaza with other diocese buildings and a green space. It is another architectural must-see in the East Bay, along with Bernard Maybeck’s First Church of Christ, Scientist, Julia Morgan’s Berkeley City Club and Timothy Pflueger’s stunning Paramount Theatre a few blocks away.
The commission of a cathedral is an especially rare one for most architects. The last cathedral built in the Bay Area was St. Mary’s, formally known as the Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption on Gough Street, completed in 1971. Its washing machine-like agitator steeple is a distinct presence in the San Francisco skyline but the interior has always seemed dark and uninviting to me.
The Cathedral of Christ the Light was commissioned by the Diocese of Oakland after its neo-Gothic Cathedral of St. Francis de Sales was irreparably damaged in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. The diocese held an architectural competition, and initially awarded the job to Spanish starchitect, Santiago Calatrava. But in 2003, Calatrava withdrew from the project, and the runner-up, the design by Hartman, was selected.
The influence of the light at Ronchamp
Hartman, who spoke with me for an article in the Wall Street Journal, said one inspiration was the way Le Corbusier used light in his famous chapel, Notre Dame du Haut in Ronchamp, France. After studying abroad in London while attending Ball State University’s then-nascent College of Architecture, Hartman made his own pilgrimage to see the iconic chapel. He hitchhiked to the village of Ronchamp to see Le Corbusier’s modest chapel of reinforced concrete, with its sloped roof and thick concrete walls, punctured with squares and rectangles to let in the natural light.
“I was stunned to see the way light was introduced to the space, and with very modest materials,” Hartman recalled.
Light and space play a big theme in all of Hartman’s work, from his office towers in San Francisco, the International Terminal at SFO, an urban plan for Treasure Island, and his much-lauded U.S. Embassy in Beijing. Light is a major component of his cathedral, as if it were another building material. The result melds the historical, traditional and contemporary, as architect and client sought to build a 21st century cathedral, with some vestiges of tradition.
Chartres and the Gothic love of geometry
The cathedral also evokes some images of the medieval Chartres Cathedral, an hour south of Paris, renowned for its long, tortured history, its mismatched spires and ornate stained glass windows, which were removed and spared from the bombings during World War II. Chartres crowns the top of a long winding hill above the small city of Chartres. Oakland’s cathedral is at the crest of a slight elevation, where a long, straight ramp, called the Pilgrim’s Path, leads from the sidewalk on Harrison Street to the formal entrance at the south end.
Stepping inside the grand doors, a huge, round baptismal font of dark granite also acts as a vessel for holy water, echoing the lake across the street. The cathedral is aligned with Lake Merritt and the moving sun, the interior capturing every angle of light.
“It’s almost like a kaleidoscope,” said Rev. Paul Minnihan, the Cathedral’s provost, as he gave me a tour.
The presence of light can be stunning, depending on the time of day. The interior of the sanctuary is framed by 26 ribs of curved Douglas fir, 110 feet high, and 768 fixed slanted louvers, which flood the interior with light. The northern wall, called the Omega Window, has a digitized version of a sculptural relief of Christ in the Chartres cathedral. The image comes through a series of aluminum panels that have 94,000 punctured holes of varying sizes letting in different degrees of light.
The image of Christ looms 58-feet high like an apparition and appears darker or lighter, depending on the time of day. It can even been seen in the evening, as the cathedral, lit from inside, glows. The hologram-like image of Christ is both a 21st century interpretation of a medieval work of art and another homage to the Gothic cathedral.
However the floor plan of the sanctuary, which seats 1,350, is not the standard cruciform pattern. Hartman wanted a modern approach versus the traditional hierarchical form used by Gothic church builders, where the congregation faces the altar. “The idea here is to have the altar in the center and have the congregation around that,” he said.
Coming full circle
After Hartman was chosen for the cathedral, he consulted with Walter Netsch, one of his mentors from his early years working at SOM’s Chicago headquarters. Netsch had a big influence on Hartman’s career. As a young student in the late 1960s during a visit to the U.S. Air Force Academy, it was seeing one of Netsch’s most famous works, the radical Cadet Chapel and its soaring row of triangular spires in Colorado Springs, Colo., that inspired Hartman to consider studying architecture. “The amazing circle of life, I suppose,” he said.
The geometry of circles, spheres and squares plays a role in his design. The sanctuary design refers to the intersection of two overlapping spheres, known as vesica piscis, an ancient symbol for Catholics and other faiths, representing Christ, the congregation, procreation and the basic symbol of Christianity, the fish.
“I felt that the building, in addition to light, should have a very strong geometrical base,” Hartman said, noting that geometry was the basis of all the great Gothic cathedrals. Netsch also advised Hartman to read “The Church Incarnate” written by a German architect known for his churches, Rudolf Schwartz. Bill Marquand, an architect in Lafayette, called Schwartz a “major theoretician” and said his writings were “very deep.”
The new cathedral is also home to many artifacts of the now-destroyed St. Francis de Sales, reminders of the heritage of the Oakland Diocese. One is the cornerstone of the original cathedral, inserted into the new cathedral. Another is a mosaic from St. Francis de Sales, now the centerpiece in the Hall of Honor where the new cathedral’s benefactors are recognized. In the mausoleum below the cathedral, the altar from St. Francis has been repurposed into a catafalque, where a casket or urn is placed during final prayers before entombment. A soothing waterfall trickles as visitors enter. Several stained glass windows, including one depicting St. Francis de Sales, the patron saint of the diocese, were also saved and now adorn the crypt areas.
Some visitors might miss another garden area behind the cathedral, which was designed by and dedicated to victims of sexual abuse by priests. While the garden is small, the New York Times noted in 2008 that it is “the largest and most prominent recognition of the scandal ever built at an American cathedral.”
The centerpiece of the simple garden is a sculpture by artist Masatoshi Izumi in basalt stone, broken in three pieces. The benches and surrounding hedges mirror the vesica piscis shape of the cathedral. A plaque at the site says, “We remember, and we affirm: Never again.”
You don’t have to be religious to appreciate Hartman’s Cathedral of Christ the Light. While there are many references to the theological, the mystical and the ethereal, it is also a celebration of the here and now, of life.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
This is a tad early for a save-the-date notice, but a special lecture is coming up next year.
In January, I will be doing a talk on architect Timothy Pflueger for the Alameda Architectural Preservation Society. As a special treat, the lecture will take place inside the Pflueger-designed Alameda Theatre, resplendent since its $15.2 million restoration in the heart of downtown Alameda.
The lecture will cover Pflueger’s humble beginnings as a son of working class German immigrants to his rise as one of the city’s most prominent architects of the 1920s to the late 1940s. Many of Tom Paiva’s gorgeous photos from our book Art Deco San Franciscowill illustrate the evolution of Pflueger’s work — from his early training in the Beaux-Arts style to the exotic movie palaces such as the Paramount and Alameda, to more streamlined work of the Great Depression, to the first inkling of modernism in buildings like the Transbay Terminal.
Because of the special venue at the Alameda, which was dark as a movie theatre for nearly 30 years before its grand 2008 reopening, the slideshow presentation will include some discussion of the restoration project. The nearly $40 million project included building a new cineplex connected to the historic theatre, constructing a parking garage and the restoration of the 1932 theatre.
Alameda Architectural Preservation Society members are free. Non-members are welcome for $5.00, and books will be available at a discount.
Please come to the talk on Sunday, January 24 at 6:00 pm, especially if you have not yet been inside this incredible theatre, which can again be called a movie palace.
If you can’t wait until then, there are plenty of first-run movies playing now. In addition, the Alameda Theatre is offering a classic film series in the historic theatre, starting off this week with “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Other films in the series include “The Bishop’s Wife” and the holiday favorite, “It’s a Wonderful Life.”