Some good architecture reads for spring

Cover of John King's very portable book, "Cityscapes"

Let’s face it. You can’t really lug a serious book about architecture to the beach, or even on the bus. Typically they are either hefty, hardback tomes, made even heavier by glossy, full-color pages of photography of the work being discussed, or they can venture into dry, academic treatises that often aren’t really fun to read.

This spring, though, fans of architecture can find some good books on our city, including one that you can easily carry on local walking expeditions. San Francisco Chronicle architecture critic John King has just come out with a very readable and portable book, “Cityscapes” (Heydey, 111 pages, $14.95).

Chronicle readers will recognize the buildings here as having appeared in brief homage in King’s Sunday column, “Cityscape.” The book presents 50 San Francisco buildings in all-too-brief description, and excellent photos, all taken by King for his column, with input from his editors and photographers at the newspaper. King, a two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism, can write.  Readers who missed these columns will be engaged by his elegant prose; some may be flummoxed by a few of his unusual selections.

King knows that his choices may cause preservationists some pause. “This book makes no claim to be a definitive roster of San Francisco’s finest or most beloved works of architecture,” King writes in the introduction. “Instead, look on it as fifty facets of our urban scene: the charismatic stars and the background players; buildings defined by bold visual moves and buildings that offer tactile delight; the sort of structure you notice every time you pass by, and the sort that escapes notice until you catch it at a certain angle, in a certain light.”

That is probably my favorite aspect of this little book, which is also very affordable at $15. It captures buildings in a new light, and shares lovely aspects of some seemingly bland or unloved structures: the “pearly stucco” facade of the garage at 450 South Street, the “brooding grandeur of the rough concrete” of the brutalist Glen Park BART Station, the “clattering, metallic beast” that is the San Francisco Federal Building. Just last week I walked by the Flatiron Building in the morning sun and looked up at the  cornice and its “splashy parade of Gothic embroidery” which I hadn’t noticed in such detail before. One of my favorite city garages, George Applegarth’s circular Downtown Center Garage on Mason Street, is called an “unapologetic ode to automotive convenience” in a town where cars are scorned.


Architect Timothy Pflueger’s work appears twice, with both the Telephone Building and Roosevelt Middle School gracing its pages. So does the work of his contemporary George Kelham, and many other local architects, both revered and not so well known. (My quibble is that Kelham’s Shell Building gets treatment as an icon over Pflueger’s earlier Telephone Building). Author Jacquie Proctor will be pleased to see that the subject of her most recent book, architect Harold Stoner, appears twice, including a nice shot of his Lakeside mini-tower, which King calls a “streamlined explanation point.”

Cityscapes gives local architecture fans new looks at both stalwarts and underappreciated structures. King has been on the lecture circuit around the city, and has an upcoming talk and book signing at the Mechanics’ Institute Library, that gem of an institution at 57 Post Street, designed by Albert Pissis. King will be at the Mechanics’ Institute on Thursday, May 19, at 6 pm. On Tuesday, May 31, he will be at SPUR, 654 Mission Street, at 6 pm.

"Port City" by Michael Corbett

Preservationists will love Port City.

The anticipated history of San Francisco’s port is finally available. Published this year by San Francisco Architectural Heritage, Port City, written by Michael R. Corbett, is a comprehensive history of the city’s waterfront and its buildings.  (San Francisco Architectural Heritage, 248 pages, $65 non-members, $52 members).
It’s a timely book, coming as it does ahead of the America’s Cup in 2013, and it includes a catalog of the port’s historic resources. As Heritage Executive Director Mike Buhler notes in the preservation group’s spring newsletter, “the race organizers are receiving development rights to a large swath of Port property in exchange for investing up to $80 million to ready some of its historic piers for the regatta.” Debates over the plans are sure to ensue, but at least Port City now provides a frame of historical reference.  Buhler cautions though that, “significant questions remain including how to pass rigorous state environmental review, and the scrutiny of diverse stakeholders, within such a compressed timeframe.”
The book by architectural historian Corbett evolved from the 500-page nomination and subsequent listing of the Port of San Francisco to the National Register of Historic Places. A 3-mile section of the most in tact, early 20th century finger-pier waterfront in the U.S.  was named a historic district in 2006. Architectural historians Marjorie Dobkin and William Kostura  worked with Corbett on the nomination. The book received funding from firms like Plant Construction, the city’s preservation fund committee, San Francisco Waterfront Partners and individuals.
Telling the long history of the evolution of the Port of San Francisco is no easy feat, spanning from 1848 to 2010 as the book does in 248 pages. The sometimes dry text is offset by vivid vintage and contemporary photography and large, full-color maps. From the early creation of the seawall, the arrival of the transcontinental railroad, the infamous labor disputes of the 1930s, to its irreversible decline after World War II and the triumphant reinvention of the Ferry Building, the port’s history is integral to the city’s.
This gorgeous coffee-table sized book also makes me want a new, updated edition of my dog-eared paperback of Splendid Survivors, the prior publishing venture in 1979 by Heritage, also written by Corbett. Just as Splendid Survivors is a  must-read for every student of the city’s architectural history, the even better-produced Port City will likely end up as another must-have. 

King Tut-mania lives on in San Francisco

Shell Building 2 Postcard004
Shell Building, 1930 postcard

The King Tut exhibit at the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park is not the only place in San Francisco you will find a penchant for all things Egyptian.

The influence of that discovery in 1922 of the Egyptian boy pharaoh’s tomb lives on today in many Art Deco buildings that have survived since the 1920s. Some fine examples can be found in San Francisco, including the Financial District.

After Tutankhamun’s tomb was discovered in late 1922 by archeologist Howard Carter, the world became fascinated with ancient Egypt. What Deco-philes now refer to as “Tut-mania” was a sudden popularity of Egyptian imagery in the design of clothing, jewelry, furniture, and architecture.
Shell Facade by Paul
Shell Building facade with lotus flowers

According to Christopher Frayling, in the catalog for the stunning “Art Deco 1910-1939,” an exhibit that came to San Francisco’s Legion of Honor in 2004, the mania was widespread around the world.

“The craze touched every aspect of design, from the ‘Tutankamen Rag’ played by the jazz orchestra in the ballroom of the Winter Palace Hotel, Luxor, to the latest lines in Egyptian-inspired garments, furniture, interior designs, bookbindings and fashion accessories in London, Paris, Berlin and New York,” Frayling wrote.

The Tut-mania craze, which Evelyn Waugh later wrote “so vulgarized” the discovery of King Tut’s tomb, manifested itself in architecture through the use of symbols and imagery evocative of ancient Egypt, typically as the decorative ornament of buildings, particularly skyscrapers with any semblance to a ziggurat or stepped towers.

The Shell Building, designed by architect George Kelham and completed in 1930, is an excellent example of the obsession with Egypt. A lovely brass screen above the front entrance of the building has a lotus flower pattern, as do the elevator doors inside the lobby (see above photo for exterior view). The lotus flower, a symbol of rebirth in   ancient Egypt, was used frequently as ornament and in the capitals of columns.

130 Montgomery Street
130 Montgomery's tomb-like entrance
A brief stroll just in the Financial District alone can uncover several Egyto-mania references hidden or blatant in some of the city’s oldest and most elegant office buildings.  Another symbol of rebirth or reincarnation is the scarab beetle. Who knew one could find a scarab on Montgomery Street, Wall Street West. But a close look at the ornament on each side of the tomb-like entrance of 130 Montgomery Street, completed in 1930 and designed by the O’Brien Brothers and Wilbur Peugh, reveals two scarabs in bas relief, accentuated by flat column-like speed lines.

Scarabs were beetles that were sacred to the Egyptians who were often buried with them. The scarabs, or dung beetles, meant transformation, resurrection and are connected with death and rebirth. In King Tut’s tomb, for example, one of the glorious golden necklaces found among the treasures had a piece of glass depicting a scarab, leading scientists to try to determine how did a piece of yellowish glass end up in a piece of jewelry in Ancient Egypt. But that’s another story.

Architect Kelham, who started out his career as a Beaux-Arts trained classicist,  seemed fascinated with Egyptian motifs. Kelham, a rival of Timothy Pflueger in the design of the city’s earliest high-rise skyscrapers, mimicked the stepped form of Miller & Pflueger’s Telephone Building, and found his own exotic references for the Shell Building. As Pflueger embraced China as a theme for 140 New Montgomery, Kelham chose Egypt for the Shell.

The building, designed for the Royal Dutch Shell Oil Co., also has shell motifs, and other typical Moderne images of the period, such as zig-zag patterns, chevrons and fern fronds. But it was a significant departure from Kelham’s neoclassic buildings, many of which still stand, sturdy and strong on Montgomery Street.
Egyptian ornament 300 Montgomery cropped
Ornament on 300 Montgomery looks Egyptian

One of those structures is at 300 Montgomery, a very proper Greek revival design by Kelham for a bank in 1922, later remodeled in 1941.  The building, originally the home of the American National Bank, also has exotic detailing, including this Egyptian-looking warrior. The columns on each side of the warrior look like they are adorned with lotus flowers. A snake (perhaps an asp?), encircles the spear of the muscular figure.

These are not the only Egyptian designs in San Francisco but just a small taste for inquiring minds. One example that has sadly disappeared, is  a building for the Egyptian Lacquer Manufacturing Co. (yes there is still such a firm. Lacquer was a popular material in the 1920s ), designed by Miller & Pflueger at 1050 Howard Street. It appears the building has been destroyed or totally altered.
Egyptian Lacquer cropped
An ad in Pacific Coast Architect, December 1925

Egyptian Lacquer played a role in the development of the Telephone Building, according to Pacific Coast Architect. Lacquer was used to finish the metal windows, door casings and base and on the hundreds of walnut and oak hardwood doors with ebony inlay.

The former West Coast offices of Egyptian Lacquer are pictured here. Moderne-styled ornament with Egyto references and a wall of entire glass panes contrast with a traditional cornice.  It’s an exotic design with a trace of Bauhaus for this small industrial building.