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.   

Happy Birthday Tim Pflueger, San Francisco still loves you!

IMAG4099
Telephone Building, now officially called 140 New Montgomery, lit by floodlights at night. Photo (c) Therese Poletti

After realizing late in the day on September 26 that it was architect Tim Pflueger’s birthday, I decided to walk within a short radius of my office downtown and photograph a few Pflueger buildings. The big reward while walking around on a lovely balmy evening was to see the newly renovated Telephone Building, now officially renamed 140 New Montgomery, all aglow with gorgeous flood lights shining on the tower, just as it did back in the day after the building opened in 1925.

The current owners, developers Wilson Meany, recently finished a huge renovation and seismic retrofitting job. Yelp Inc. moved into several floors of the tower earlier this month, being the first company to occupy the building since AT&T moved out in 2006. As you can see, from this 1929 photo, the building used to have many floodlights highlighting the tower, and at Easter, Pacific Telephone had lights in the windows lit to form the shape of a cross.

Telephone Building at Easter, 1929 courtesy San Francisco History Center, SF Public Library
Telephone Building at Easter, 1929 courtesy San Francisco History Center, SF Public Library

New Montgomery Street is lively with lots of activity going on, due to the heavy concentration of tech companies in the area. I talked with a French entrepreneur who just moved to San Francisco to try to get his curation start-up company going, and he graciously contributed an excellent photo (see below) of New Montgomery Street. Other tech companies in addition to Yelp are moving into 140 too, including one named Terracotta (140 is finished with a white and grey speckled terracotta made by Gladding McBean). The 26-story building is now over 85% leased.

20130926_194223_LLS
New Montgomery Street at night, photo by Eric Poindessault

Wilson Meany, the developers who bought the building from AT&T Inc. in 2007, are trying to be both energy efficient and good neighbors and currently are lighting up the tower from about dusk until 10 pm.

It’s great to see the tower aglow. In February, 1926 the magazine “Architecture” wrote, “In the new Telephone building, San Francisco has her Woolworth tower.” I was reminded of that comment when I saw how stately the Telephone Building looks at night now, where past, present and the future all collide.

Note: this post was not posted on Pflueger’s birthday because just as I was trying to proofread and post, Comcast started to do maintenance in my neighborhood and I lost my connection for the evening!

Telephone Building at night, 1929, courtesy San Francisco History Center, SF Public LIbrary
Telephone Building at night, 1929, courtesy San Francisco History Center, SF Public Library

Lots going on at the Telephone Building

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

There has been a lot of speculation about potential tenants for the Telephone Building since construction began in March on a major renovation project, which I wrote about in the Wall Street Journal. The $50 million-plus restoration and seismic retrofit of Timothy Pflueger’s iconic Jazz Age skyscraper, which has been vacant for about six years, is underway. Owners Wilson Meany Sullivan have also redubbed the building “140” – a nod to the nickname given the building by Pacific Telephone & Telegraph Co.  An icon since it was completed in 1925, the skyscraper at 140 New Montgomery Street now even has its own very cool website, a promotion video and photo collage of architectural details.

The base is now covered in scaffolding so it’s hard to peek inside and a construction crane lords over the building (see photo below.) The Timothy Pflueger Blog apologizes for not keeping readers au courant with all the news. In addition, the San Francisco City Guides Downtown Deco tour will talk about the building from across the street, until the work is done.

Construction work on the Telephone Building
Construction work on the Telephone Building

Since construction began, some major tenants have signed up. The biggest is Yelp Inc., which announced plans in May to move into the 26-story building, and lease eight floors, or 100,000 square feet, when the work is finished next year. The San Francisco Chronicle reported in November that the popular Web-based review site’s lease is through 2021. Approximately 800 Yelpers will move in.

Restaurants to move in 

Now, the two public spaces off the lobby have also been leased. In late October, the Chronicle reported that Mourad Lahlou, the owner and chef of Aziza, a well-regarded Moroccan restaurant in the Richmond District, has leased the larger space on the Minna side of the building. This restaurant will also feature the Michelin-rated chef’s take on Moroccan cuisine.  Bar Agricole’s Thad Vogler has leased the smaller space.

While both leases are exciting for local foodies, it is not clear what the news means in terms of architecture. A look at photos of the other locations operated by Lahlou and Vogler respectively has the Timothy Pflueger Blog worrying that both of these venues will go down the path of the trendy, industrial warehouse-chic look.

Telephone Building Lobby, (c) Tom Paiva Photography
Telephone Building Lobby, (c) Tom Paiva Photography

Lahlou has hired Olle Lundberg, a San Francisco architect to design the new space, where, the Chronicle gushed, “exposed brick and concrete abound.” That’s not exactly how it was designed by architect Timothy Pflueger and his draftsmen, as one can see by the dark marble walls, detailed metal work, and the multi-colored plaster ceiling with Chinese motif in the stunning lobby. Many of the building’s interior office spaces are being gutted down to the brick walls to suit the needs of tech trendoids. To be fair, the last time I was in the ground floor space Lahlou is leasing, it was a museum for Pacific Telephone and did not seem to have any remarkable interior details, except for the 12-foot high windows.  The architects had likely focused their attention on the public lobby space.

Lundberg has a great opportunity to go beyond the tired industrial look and create a fabulous and exotic restaurant space evocative of the spirit of the 1920s. Fans of Pflueger and the building hope that he might seek to reference or incorporate Pflueger’s unique take on the Art Deco style, or even study some of his other works, such as the Moorish-inspired Alhambra Theatre on Polk Street, the high Art Deco Paramount in Oakland or his fabulous cocktail lounges from the 1930s, for inspiration. But Lahlou told the Chronicle’s blog, Inside Scoop:  “I don’t want the space to be a shrine,” Lahlou said. “I want a good vibe, good music.” And if Lundberg’s previous (and I should add well-regarded) work is an example, his is an ultra clean-lined, almost antiseptic approach to modernism, but he is also known for liking to work with his hands.

Perhaps there is more hope for the Whiteside Company, the proposed name for Vogler’s new location, which will be an all-day cafe, restaurant and bar. Vogler told “Inside Scoop” that he plans to serve up cocktails from the 19th and early 20th century, considered the Golden Age of the American cocktail, using recipes of one the city’s famous bartenders Bill Boothby. His bar book containing 400 recipes was reprinted by San Francisco’s Anchor Distilling Co. in 2009, with an excellent, well-researched foreward written by Fritz Maytag and David Burkhart of Anchor. Boothby was a bartender at the Palace Hotel, just down the block.

Boothby's American Bartender, published in 2009 by Anchor Distilling
Boothby’s American Bartender, published in 2009 by Anchor Distilling

There are even some examples, most in photographs only, of Pflueger’s stunning cocktail lounges that could serve as inspiration for Vogler’s new venue, should he or his architect decide to incorporate any references to Pflueger. My favorite is the former Patent Leather Lounge at the St. Francis Hotel. If you visit the registration area today you can see the stunning photos by Ansel Adams of the lounge which opened in 1939 with its unusual combination of black patent leather covered walls, carved Lucite ceiling fixtures and long serpentine-shaped bar. The interior of Pflueger’s Top of the Mark has been altered, but the Fairmont Hotel’s Cirque Room is the best extant example of a Pflueger cocktail lounge. While it is now slightly smaller in size, it retains its original circus-themed murals by local artist Esther Bruton, its original long curving bar, built-in banquettes and stunning mirrored columns. You can see Bruton’s circus murals below in a photo from a fabulous Art Deco Society of California party in 2008 for Art Deco San Francisco.

cirque-party-room
Le Cirque, 2008 book party for “Art Deco San Francisco,” (c) Judth Calson Photography

It’s unlikely either of these two proposed venues at 140 will adopt any kind of Art Deco motif. It would be a lovely surprise if they did, and a nice homage to the building’s architecture. While they are at it, a signature drink named for Pflueger, a cocktail with his favorite spirit, rye, would also be nice.

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.

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.

Kelham

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. 
 
 

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.

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.

Rooftop with a view

The new rooftop sculpture garden at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art has a treat in store for Timothy Pflueger fans. It offers a great view of the rear elevation of the Telephone Building, completed in 1925.

That year was  important both in the design world and as a defining moment of the Jazz Age:  it was the year F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby was published, and the year the Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes took place in Paris, an instrumental exhibition for the then-emerging Style Moderne now known as Art Deco, which had a wide-ranging influence around the world.

Telephone Building from SFMoMA Rooftop Garden
Telephone Building from SFMOMA Rooftop Garden

In San Francisco, it was a boom time, an era of growth and spending. The Pacific Telephone & Telegraph Co. needed a new headquarters to house its growing administrative staff, a modern skyscraper befitting an innovator.

The vertical emphasis and the gradual setbacks in the towers deployed by the architects had recently been seen in the second prize winner in the Chicago Tribune Tower contest, a design by Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen that was the real winner among most architectural critics.

From the SFMOMA rooftop, you can also see some of the exotic ornament on the building. Also look at the F-shaped pattern in the building plan, where the northern wing  is the largest. Pflueger & Co. had originally designed 140 New Montgomery so that Pacific Telephone & Telegraph could expand its headquarters into an E-shaped plan in later years, but that never happened.

The back of the skyscraper also has some walls surfaced with just brick, and the terra cotta surface is clearly showing its age in some sections. The new owners, Wilson Meany Sullivan plan to restore the building as part of a big seismic retrofit and condo conversion project. You can read about their project plans here at Preservation‘s online edition.

The SFMOMA rooftop garden is worth a visit. It’s also a fitting link to Pflueger who was one of the museum’s first board members, when it was the San Francisco Museum of Art and located in the War Memorial Veterans Building.

Come on a Downtown Deco tour!

San Francisco City Guides Downtown Deco Tour on October 18 will explore many skyscrapers in San Francisco’s Financial District, including four buildings by architect Tim Pflueger. 

Telephone Building Lobby, (c) Tom Paiva Photography
Telephone Building Lobby, (c) Tom Paiva Photography

Meet at the Telephone Building, 140 New Montgomery, between Mission and Howard streets, at 11:00 am, Sunday, October 18. The tour is over mostly flat terrain and lasts about 90 minutes. We end up at 450 Sutter, Miller & Pflueger’s glorious ode to the Maya.

Speaking of the Maya 

Check out this recent research by some archeologists funded by NASA. They concluded that the demise of the Maya, which peaked as a civilization around 900 A.D., was in part the result of rampant deforestation and overfarming of their landscape.

The researchers used supercomputers and atmospheric modeling software. Computer simulations reconstructed how the deforestation could have played a role worsening a drought that occurred about the time the Maya society began to disappear.