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

Cover for Mid-Century by the Bay by Heather David

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SF Modernism show poster, courtesy Penelope Productions

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

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

The disappearing sky room

News of the impending closure of the Carnelian Room, the city’s highest sky room atop the Bank of America building, has saddened many San Franciscans and visitors alike.

GG Bridge view from Carnelian Room
View from the Carnelian Room

From its perch in the middle of the Financial District, the restaurant is known as a place to celebrate special occasions and for schmoozing VIP business colleagues. The 52nd floor restaurant is better known for its spectacular views of the city from the main dining room and various salons with names like Tamalpais and Coit, than for its cuisine.

Bank of America Center
Bank of America Center

It’s not clear yet what the future holds for the Carnelian Room, but sadly, the era of sophisticated cocktails and dining as city lights sparkle beyond increasingly seems like a vestige of the past.

With the building’s current owners, which include real estate magnate Donald Trump, anything is possible. The Carnelian Room’s last hurrah is on January 1, 2010. After that,  its East Coast-based owners will determine its fate.

Trump became the minority stake owner in the BofA building when it was sold in 2007. After San Francisco-based Bank of America merged with NationsBank of Charlotte, N.C., its iconic headquarters building was eventually sold. In 2007, the BofA building, officially known as 555 California, was sold to the Vornado Realty Trust, which owns a 70% stake, and Donald Trump, who owns the remaining 30%.

Carnelian Menu
Drinks at sunset

A spokeswoman in New York for Vornado of Paramus, N.J. said the owners of 555 California are looking at all their options.

But if the fate of the Carnelian Room mirrors that of other sky rooms, the future is not promising. This past summer, the most famous of sky rooms, New York’s Rainbow Room, which opened in 1934, closed, citing the economy and other issues. A new operator has not yet been named. When it was restored and reconstructed in 1987, Paul Goldberger in the New York Times  called the revamped Rainbow Room “one of the finest evocations of the 1930’s yet created.”

Those in the hotel business in San Francisco are anything but surprised by the recent trend. In the last 10 years, the tough economics of running these sky-high rooms has taken its toll. There are now far fewer bars where we can enjoy the city’s stunning views.

Pyramid from Carnelian Room2
Another stunning view from the Carnelian Room

“It’s money driven,” said Howard Mutz, conference services manager at the venerable Palace Hotel, celebrating its 100th birthday this year. “Costs are so high and labor is so high.” Mutz said it is easier to run these ethereal spaces as special banquet rooms, rather than have the fixed cost of being open on a nightly basis, especially during tough economic times.

Sky room closures

Over the last 10 years, San Francisco has lost several sky bars. The St. Francis Hotel, where Mutz used to work and was also the hotel’s historian, was ahead of the trend. It closed Victor’s, a fine dining restaurant atop the St. Francis Tower in 1995. It then closed the bar and disco, called Oz, in 1997.  Now those rooms are used for private functions and corporate parties.

“It’s what a lot of hotels have done,” Mutz said. Other closures in recent years include the Equinox Room at the Hyatt Regency, and its revolving bar. It is now a private key access Regency Club. Some of the best guest rooms are now also on this top floor.

Last year, the Hilton on O’Farrell closed its Cityscape Bar and Restaurant, with its 14-foot high windows, which had been open since 1986. Before that, it was Henri’s at the Top, with bird cages and go-go girl dancers.  The Fairmont Hotel closed its Crown Room as a bar and restaurant about 10 years ago. It can now be reserved for private parties and is open to the public on Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Eve and Mother’s Day.

“Dining with a view is a dying thing,” said Al Mak, who works at the Fairmont.

Three sky bars left in Baghdad by the Bay

When the Carnelian Room closes, there will be three bars with a view left: The Top of the Mark, designed by architect Timothy Pflueger, at the Mark Hopkins Hotel;  Harry Denton’s Starlight Room atop the Sir Francis Drake;  and The View bar at the San Francisco Marriott Marquis, known locally as the Jukebox. The Top of the Mark, at the crest of Nob Hill, seems to have the best unfettered view, but it’s worth a revisit.

Top of the Mark small view
Top of the Mark, circa 1939, Mark Hopkins Hotel

While the Top of the Mark has changed from this early photo, the bar is a San Francisco institution. One hopes it will remain the granddaddy of the city’s sky bars, even though it was not the first.

During World War II, it was a tradition for those in the military passing through the city to stop at the Top of the Mark. In the 1940’s, Life did a photo spread of service men in uniform with their sweethearts, lined up in the lobby of the Mark Hopkins, for a teary farewell at the top. Soldiers bought a bottle at the bar and left it with the bartender for others in their company or squadron. Whoever finished the last sip, bought a new bottle.

San Francisco’s first sky room

The first sky room in the city was at the top of what was then called the Empire Hotel on McAllister Street. The hotel, initially called the William Taylor Hotel, was commissioned by the Temple Methodist Episcopal Church, who first hired Pflueger to design the odd combination of a church on the ground floor of the stepped skyscraper, and a hotel.

William Taylor Hotel, 1930
William Taylor Hotel, 1930

The William Taylor Hotel opened in 1930, and its design was credited to architect Lewis Hobart, after Pflueger was fired in a dispute. The hotel then suffered during the Great Depression. It re-opened as the Empire Hotel, and in 1938, the hotel turned the 24th floor into a swank cocktail lounge, called the Sky Room. Architect & Engineer said in its April, 1938 issue that the Sky Room “has no prototype west of New York.”  The skyscraper, the most prominent building in the Tenderloin, is now owned by U.C. Hastings College of the Law, for student housing.

The Top of the Mark opened just a year later, and soon eclipsed the Sky Room in popularity. More details about the creation of the bar, from its origins as a penthouse apartment at the Mark Hopkins leased by copper baron Daniel Jackling, can be found in my book, Art Deco San Francisco.

All this nostalgia makes me think it’s time for some visits to the city’s remaining sky rooms, to see where the best views (and beverages!) can be found. As San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen wrote in 1939 after the Top of the Mark opened: “Crazy ambition, to drag all the mildly-stewed characters away from the bar in the middle of the Top o’ the Mark, haul them to the windows and make them look at the most magnificent view in the country.”

Sounds like a good idea to me.