Archive for the ‘Timothy Pflueger’ Category

Wrecking ball starts demo of Transbay Terminal

December 3, 2010

The demolition of the front of the Transbay Terminal began today, with the repetitive swinging of the wrecking ball, which the contractors call “Big Red.” 

Big Red pummels ramp of Pflueger's Transbay Terminal

The Transbay Joint Powers Authority, in one of the oddest press releases I have ever seen, heralded the news,  saying that the wreckers Evans Brothers, Inc. “dropped the historic first wrecking ball on the front facade of the old Transbay Terminal building, marking the project’s progress.”

For those of us in the minority who like the building, which was designed by Timothy Pflueger, Arthur Brown Jr. and John Donovan, and completed in 1939, it was not a pretty sight. I tried to be stoic, thinking about Richard Nickel, the architectural photographer and preservationist who witnessed more demolitions of Louis Sullivan buildings than salvations. In addition to his photographs of the buildings, he also salvaged ornament from their wreckage, until he died inside the Chicago Stock Exchange, when a wall collapsed on him, in part because the buliding was so weakened by the water sprayed during the demolition.

Wrecking crew spraying water on the dust

It was fascinating and disturbing at the same time to see the guts of the building spewing forth and many spectators had the same ghoulish fascination with watching something being wrecked. But it was still hard to see, especially knowing that the building was one of the more modern works of two of the city’s well-known architects of their eras, Pflueger and Brown. Fortunately, much of their work is extant in San Francisco, but this also made the demolition of the Bauhaus-inspired building harder to watch.

Demolition of the facade begins with the ramp

The act of tearing down a building brings a lot of pollution into the air and it was shocking that none of the wreckers seemed to be wearing masks. They have, as all demolition sites do, someone spraying water after the wrecking ball makes contact with its target, to control the dust and building particles flying through the air.  The one interesting thing is that it’s not gone in one full swoop of the ball: it’s a long, tedious, rather monotonous swinging of the ball, until it breaks the concrete or granite.

The windows have been torn out, and hopefully some of them have been preserved somewhere, along with the wooden benches inside and some other fixtures. (Please see older post with some photos). The 1930s lettering is gone and hopefully preserved. A wrecker told me that the facade won’t get hit with the wrecking ball until next week sometime.

I was not the only one who was sad to see the building go. I talked to a few people gathered around, some taking photographs. Many others were also sad, and talked about family memories associated with the terminal. One 62-year-old photographer even remembered taking the train, the Key System, across the Bay Bridge. Some, though, did talk about its usefulness as a modern train station and its current unkempt state. But it seems to me that no one really gave the building a chance to play a role in the new design.

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Aquatic Park is Streamline Sublime

October 9, 2010

The former bathhouse at Aquatic Park sits like a ship in its berth


 

San Francisco may be famous for its Victorian row houses and over-the-top Queen Annes, but it is also home to one of the most notable examples of a building in the Streamline Moderne style.  The ship-like Bathhouse building, which sits in its berth at Aquatic Park is a great example of the style, which became more popular in the 1930s, and often features nautical references.

As the Great Depression went on, the concept of streamlining, creating clean, sleek lines seemed more in tune with the austere times. But it wasn’t just the economy, there were other influences too, such as Norman Bel Geddes and his industrial designs meant to evoke movement and speed. There was also a growing  influence of the European architects who espoused a sparer form of modernism, dubbed the International Style, and many of them moved to the U.S. to teach or work.

The Aquatic Park bleachers and Bathhouse, now the Maritime Museum and operated by the National Park Service have been undergoing a major $13.8 million rehab project over the last year, the bulk of which is now finished. The bleachers, some of which had to be demolished and others rebuilt, were finished this summer and reopened to the public, and the restoration of the stunning murals in the Bathhouse lobby is now complete. The building is an architectural feast for the eyes for anyone enamoured with this period of design, and it contains a treasure trove of public art.

Aquatic Park was a WPA project

WPA Project

Originally designed as a  public bathhouse, beach and playground at the sea, Aquatic Park also includes an 1800 foot curving pier. It survives as an example of both a triumph and a travail of the city and the Works Progress Administration.  In 1917, the city bought the land at the bottom of Van Ness from the Southern Pacific Railroad, but legal technicalities held up the work. Construction first began in 1931 on the combination breakwater and pier, by a private construction firm, working for the city’s Parks Commission.  The project, however, languished. After the election of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, much of the work moved to the WPA, which began work on the seawall in December, 1935. Architect William Mooser III of the city’s Mooser architectural dynasty, designed the bathhouse as assistant district director of the WPA.

The project, which cost $1.2 million, finally opened in January, 1939, after much public grumbling. The San Francisco Chronicle tried to calm the city in an editorial on July 24, 1936. “It is quite natural for the public to become impatient with the progress of public works…The difficulty is accentuated when construction projects are undertaken by such governmental organizations as WPA.” Five months after the opening, the WPA was called back in, and built a sewage pumping plant, a playground, convenience stations and added stainless steel around the plate glass windows and doors.

Mural of submerged sea continent by artist Hilaire Hiler

The building’s flat roofs and terraces were the root cause of its water damage and need for the lengthy repairs, but it was worth the wait. The murals have also been cleaned and restored. On the first floor, the colorful walls depict an underwater world like Atlantis painted by artist Hilaire Hiler, who created 5,000 square feet of submerged continents and mythical sea creatures.  Just outside on the terrace, beyond the plate glass doors that mirror the bay, there is more art. San Francisco sculptor Beniamino Bufano carved a seal and a frog in his round, inviting forms.

Seal by Beniamino Bufano on terrace at former Bathhouse

Frog by Bufano, mosaics by Johnson

Artist Sargent Johnson, who also worked with architect Timothy Pflueger on the athletic frieze at George Washington High School – where he replaced Bufano who was fired – did some unusual tile mosaics in the same manner as mosaics in Islamic mosques. Johnson also sculpted the slate that surrounds the entrance to the Bathhouse building. Johnson said in an oral history with the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Art that he wasn’t quite sure what the subject matter of the facade was. “It has something to do with the waterfront somewhere, boats – I don’t really know. I just carved the thing,” he said. At the time of the interview, which took place in 1964, Johnson, who was 76, and Mary McChesney, who conducted the interview, discussed how the murals in the Bathhouse were peeling, water was coming down the walls and they were rotting.  They would be pleased to see the restoration today.

Slate carved by Sargent Johnson on facade of Bathhouse building

The last remaining part of the restoration project, which is still awaiting funding, is to repair the plaster damage to the second floor, so that area is still closed to visitors. When that work is complete, the Maritime Museum will reopen its exhibition space. A ranger from the Park Service conducts a daily tour at 3 pm to discuss the art and architecture of the building, with the exception of this weekend, because of the Blue Angels flying overhead.

I will be talking about the Aquatic Park project in my lecture Monday at the SF AIA, as part of its “Rediscover the City” series. It’s definitely worth a visit and the National Park Service gets kudos for finally taking care of this jewel of a building and its art.

Happy Birthday Timothy Pflueger!

September 26, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Goodbye Transbay Terminal

July 31, 2010

Transbay Terminal exterior view

Friday afternoon, just under two thousand people showed up at the Transbay Terminal for several tours and a sad farewell before it closes for good next week.  The Transbay Joint Powers Authority and Caltrans did some last-minute sprucing up and managed to get most of the homeless people out of the terminal for a round of one hour tours through the building and some of its rarely seen nooks and crannies.

In a bizarre outpouring of sudden affection for the building that has been neglected for years, garbage cans were seen being spray painted, the small terminal jail got a coat of white paint, and the terrazzo floors were being polished, according to one eye-witness on Thursday.

The series of tours began at noon and lasted until the end of the day, with the crowds getting bigger at the end of the day when they had to split the final 4 pm tour into four groups. One of the highlights of the tour was the Cuddles Bar, which has been closed since the 1990s. You can see in this photo the low ceilings from the ground floor that everyone griped about, but still, this bar has some touches of architect Timothy Pflueger, working with a very low budget.

Cuddles Bar in the Transbay Terminal

Detail of staircase railing

The bar had been cleaned up and martini glasses put along the bar, which like some of his other bars, such as the bar in the Cirque Room at the Fairmont Hotel, had a long, serpentine shape. The little set of steps used to get into the bar added a touch of elegance and the brass aluminum staircase railing almost evokes a cobra. A guide said the Cuddles Bar was the first state facility to serve alcohol (probably after Prohibition).

Right next to the bar, with its own passthrough, was a Harvey’s Diner, part of the Harvey House chain of railroad station restaurants, which boomed in the heyday of rail travel. There was also a shoeshine station, operated by just two people in its entire existence, Roy’s Barber Shop and other concessions that have been long-shuttered. Many people brought cameras to record the Terminal’s final days, but as you can see the photos show how dreary the interiors look now, and its main grand space, the main hall is vastly changed, chopped up by the added escalators and bus ticketing areas.

UPDATE: For better photos, our friends at Curbed SF found this set by Databong on Flickr.

Harvey's Diner

Among a few interesting factoids learned on the tour was that a scene from the movie, “The Bachelor,” based on a Buster Keaton film, was filmed using the main staircase of the terminal, where a group of wanna-be brides chased the main character, played by actor Chris O’Donnell. On our San Francisco City Guides Downtown Deco Tour, we mention another movie, “The Pursuit of Happyness,” [sic] where the homeless protagonist, played by Will Smith slept with his son in a supposed BART station, which was really the Transbay Terminal waiting room. Here is a shot of the grand staircase, that now leads up to the bus platforms.

Transbay main stairs with Art Deco Society of California members

We could see (perhaps not that clear from the photo) Pflueger’s penchant for elegant staircase railings.

Wooden benches in the main waiting room

A Caltrans employee told us that some of the items of interest, such as the comfortable wooden benches, the shoeshine boxes, the staircase balusters, at least one of the massive windows, and other artifacts, will be saved for a transportation museum.

After completing the tour, architectural historian and researcher extraordinaire Gary Goss told me he now sees that the city is in need of a new terminal. “We need a new terminal for the 21st century that is pedestrian friendly and not a homeless shelter.” Even though Caltrans does not allow homeless people to live in the terminal, at least 60 people have called the terminal home. There is also a homeless outreach station inside. The city has spent the last week getting them out of the building, with Mayor Gavin Newsom making a visit, talking to some of the homeless to try and get them into a shelter, as the Chronicle reported.

As the Curbed SF Blog has noted, the Transbay was “not always usless, ugly, old and smelly.” I hope the transit museum effort happens, and that it can save some fonder memories of the much-maligned building.

The Transbay Terminal Will be Missed

July 30, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Transbay Terminal (c) Tom Paiva Photography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Searching for Louis Sullivan

June 19, 2010

Adler & Sullivan's Auditorium Building in Chicago

Attendees of the American Institute of Architects convention last week in Miami were lucky enough to have a chance to see a new documentary on architect Louis Sullivan. The film, in the works since 2007, is called “Louis Sullivan: the Struggle for American Architecture.” The film seeks to present Sullivan as “an artist who never felt completely comfortable in either the vanishing world of 19th-century romanticism or the unsentimental and mechanized one of the twentieth century.”

Auditorium Building, now Roosevelt University, Chicago

Watching the trailer makes one realize the power of film and sound versus pen and paper, camera and keyboard when documenting, reporting on or critiquing architecture. The sweeping camera angles lovingly caress both Sullivan’s remaining and demolished work. Set to a piece by Philip Glass from the movie, “The Hours,” the trailer alone may bring you to tears, even just watching on YouTube, as you realize how much of his work has been destroyed. It looks like an incredibly moving film and I hope it makes its way to San Francisco.

Director Mark Richard Smith became interested in Sullivan’s work when he moved to Chicago to pursue a graduate degree in history at Loyola University. The Chicago Tribune wrote that the film relies heavily on the photographs of Richard Nickel, the photographer and preservationist who died while getting ornament and artifacts from the Chicago Stock Exchange during its demolition. The building collapsed beneath Nickel, as he was trying to record it for posterity.  Ultimately, the final version didn’t use Nickel’s photos, but the filmmaker did film most of his extant buildings in the Midwest and the East Coast.

Auditorium, interior, Chicago

On a trip last year to Chicago, I had the privilege to speak about architect Timothy Pflueger to the Chicago Art Deco Society in the Auditorium Building, the work that propelled the firm of Adler & Sullivan to notoriety. While visiting, I realized the travesty of how little of Sullivan’s work survives in his adopted home. The Carson Pirie Scott Department Store, now restored and called Sullivan Center and the Auditorium, and the Charnley House were the more notable structures I found. There are several homes and other lesser-known buildings, a list of which can be found here at the Chicago Art Institute, the current home of the reconstructed trading room from the Chicago Stock Exchange. It’s about time that Sullivan — who ranks with Frank Lloyd Wright as one of America’s greatest architects — got more attention. As the Tribune wrote, “Louis Sullivan gets his due.”

Smith has submitted his film to the Mill Valley Film Festival, so hopefully the documentary will come here later this year.

Sullivan never worked in the Bay Area, but even so, it is possible to find both his influence, and that of the other architects of the vibrant Chicago School, all of whom were influenced early on by Henry Hobson Richardson and his interpretation of the Romanesque. The Auditorium Building in Chicago is an example of the heavy masonry and arches depicted in Richardson’s Romanesque style, also found in two San Francisco buildings of the era. The Auditorium also includes examples of organic ornament and craftsmanship espoused by Sullivan, a concept he also engrained into the firm’s chief draftsman, Frank Lloyd Wright. Its construction was also a tribute to the engineering ingenuity of Dankmar Adler, who designed a massive floating foundation to support the heavy structure in soft Chicago soil.

Mills Building, column detail

One local example of the Chicago School with flashes of Sullivan, is the Mills Building at 220 Montgomery. The original 10-story office building was one of two local projects designed by partners Daniel Burnham and John Wellborn Root. The other is the De Young Building, the first iron and steel-frame skyscraper in San Francisco, on Market and Kearny, its sandstone restored after being hidden for decades by ugly metal cladding. It is now the Ritz-Carlton Residences.

Mills Building, San Francisco, Library of Congress, Print and Photographs Collection

Mills Building, layered arches, detailed view

It’s easy to see the influence of both Richardson and Sullivan in the building designed for financier Darius Mills, which took two years to build and was completed in 1893. The multi-layered marble arch that dominates the entrance evokes the sweeping, layered arches in the interior of the 1889 Auditorium Theatre, which also predicted the “Golden Door” arch in Adler & Sullivan’s Transportation Building at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. But as Sullivan wrote, the stunning Beaux Arts beauty of that historic fair may have enthralled Americans, yet it also set back the progress of modern American architecture.

Sullivan’s style seems to loom large in the organic swirling terracotta swans above the column capitals in the Mills Building. The arches are both Richardsonian and could be inspired by the layered arches in the Auditorium’s interior (see above). The current owners were having the Mills Building cleaned, hence, the above view in black and white is from the American Historical Building Survey. (The closeups are my attempts to avoid the scaffolding.)

Mills Building wrought iron grille

Sullivanesque ornament, row of flats, 85-93 Sanchez St, 1908

Another Sullivan inspired work is a row of flats on Sanchez St. Architectural historian extraordinaire Gary Goss points out the arches and circular ornament on this row of flats, designed by Henry Geilfuss & Son.

Sullivan and the architects of the Chicago School were the first to embrace the steel frame. Even today, Sullivan’s writings on the soaring skyscraper are often quoted. Adler & Sullivan’s Wainwright Building of 1891 in St. Louis was the first skyscraper designed to emphasize its height, a concept that became muddled after the Beaux-Arts craze swept the country following the 1893 World’s Fair. In San Francisco, like the rest of the country, architects trained in the Beaux-Arts style became the leaders. As Hugh Morrison noted in his 1935 biography of Sullivan, “The Fair had aimed a death blow at the new style which had been evident in the work of the Chicago School before 1893; Richardson and John Root were dead, Sullivan as far as the public was concerned was moribund, and Wright had yet to make his mark.”

Wainwright Building, cornice detail, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Collection

Sullivan himself was vitriolic about the influence of Chicago’s White City, as the fair buildings were called. “The virus of the World’s Fair, after a period of incubation in the architectural profession and in the population at large, especially the influential, began to show unmistakable signs of the nature of the contagion,” he wrote, as quoted by Morrison. “There came a violent outbreak of the Classic and the Renaissance in the East, which slowly spread westward, contaminating all that it touched, both at its source and outward.”

In San Francisco’s case, the ordered Beaux-Arts buildings constructed after the 1906 earthquake and fire, and some ideas from Burnham’s “City Beautiful” plan incorporated into the new Civic Center, brought a semblance of dignity that had been missing in the overwrought Victorian and neo-Gothic chaos, some of which had been characterized by outspoken architect Willis Polk as “architectural monstrosities.” It would not be until after World War I that local architects like Timothy Pflueger would eventually seek to flee the historicism  Sullivan fought so hard to escape.

Happy Birthday Frank Lloyd Wright from SF

June 9, 2010

Former V.C. Morris Shop by FLW on Maiden Lane

Today was the birthday of that great, my-way-or-the-highway American architect, Frank Lloyd Wright. Born June 8, 1867, today marks the 143rd anniversary of his birth.

As a little homage to the master today, I wandered over to 140 Maiden Lane, where one can find one of Wright’s best-known works in the San Francisco Bay Area. Along with the Marin County Civic Center, another well-known design is a small gift shop off of Union Square, originally designed as the V.C. Morris Shop. Wright’s version of the Richardsonian Romanesque arch looks extremely modern in this brick setting, completed in 1948.

The shop, Wright’s only San Francisco work, is now the Xanadu Gallery, and the interior remains a showcase for one of his earlier attempts of the spiral ramp design that he also used in the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, which was completed a few months after his death in 1959.

V.C. Morris Gift Shop, spiral ramp interior, Library of Congress, Print and Photographs Collection

Wright was a bit obsessed with the spiral, according to Brendan Gill, in his amazing biography, Many Masks, A Life of Frank Lloyd Wright. The spiral appeared in many unrealized projects, as well as in the Hoffman Jaguar salesroom in New York. It is of course best known in the Guggenheim on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan.

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum interior, New York

When Wright was in San Francisco in 1945, possibly visiting the clients or the site for the V.C. Morris store, he met with architect Timothy Pflueger, who took him out to breakfast.

We won’t ever know what happened at that meeting, but it’s nice to know that Wright and Pflueger met. Sadly, Pflueger noted the appointment with Wright without any comments. Wright had been hearing about Pflueger’s work from the editor of the Architectural Forum, Howard Myers, who wrote a letter in 1939 to Wright praising Pflueger’s work.

According to a 1984 book compiling letters to and from Wright, called Letters to Architects, Frank Lloyd Wright, Myers wrote, “San Francisco can boast a really inventive architect in the person of Timothy Pflueger,” upon his return to New York from a visit to California. He described Los Angeles as “incredibly dull” and San Francisco “very exciting.”  It does not appear that Wright replied to Myers’s comments about Pflueger (are we surprised?).

But one can be sure that Wright’s 1945 breakfast with Pflueger involved a spirited discussion about architecture!

Red tile with FLW insignia on the Guggenheim Museum

A 21st century cathedral infused with light and history

May 31, 2010

Glass panels act as a veil for the Cathedral of Christ the Light

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.

Sun drenched plaza and fountain near the cathedral

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.

Omega Window and digitized version of a sculpture at Chartres

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.

Cathedral of Christ the Light, annotated plan, courtesy SOM

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.

Healing garden for victims of sexual abuse by priests

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. 

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