The Transbay Terminal Will be Missed

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

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

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

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. 

Hibernia Bank dome graffiti-free again!

Hibernia Bank on a rainy afternoon

The owners of the once-stately Hibernia Bank building in the heart of the Tenderloin were dismayed to see the granite base of the dome defaced with a massive graffiti tag just a few months ago. See a photo of the big tag here.

But the new owners, who, like the bank’s original founders, hale from the old sod of Ireland, moved quickly to get rid of the defacement. A police officer in the SFPD’s Graffiti Abatement Program said acting fast is key to prevent subsequent tagging.

Here is the cleaned up bank now, still boarded up while some construction and clearing is slowly being done. The oxidized copper dome still  dominates the corner, the gore where Jones, McAllister and Market streets meet.

The bank, designed by Albert Pissis and completed in 1892, is one of the most architecturally important buildings in our fair city. It was one of the earliest designs to bring the order of the Beaux-Arts style to an architecturally confused San Francisco. Its debut was also a year before the well-planned buildings of the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893 stunned American visitors with their neoclassic beauty. While the “White City” at the Chicago World’s Fair took the country by storm, it also — as architect Louis Sullivan accurately predicted — set the modern movement in architecture back a few decades.

The most “artistic building in San Francisco”

The Hibernia Bank, though, was so well-regarded in San Francisco that even the often cantankerous architect Willis Polk described it as “the most artistic building in San Francisco,” in an article for a society and literary journal, The Wave in October, 1892.

Here’s a hand-tinted postcard of the bank, mailed in 1912.

Hand-tinted postcard of Hibernia Bank, circa 1912

Just three months after praising the Hibernia Bank, Polk would pen another article in The Wave, describing the western section of the city as “an architectural nightmare conceived in a reign of terror and produced by the artistic anarchists who are continually seeking to do something great, without any previous experience or preparation for their work.”  His vitriol was accompanied by a photos of some of the most over-the-top, multi-turreted Queen Anne homes, and other sprawling manses, including a shot of the Cliff House, which he called a  “wooden birdcage.”  The caption reads, “San Francisco’s architectural monstrosities.”

Polk and Pissis might be rolling in their graves if they could see the Hibernia Bank today.  The once-elegant bank, built for the then-growing Irish savings bank, has been sitting shuttered for years. Its new owners, while they aren’t saying much about their plans, have a real appreciation for the building’s craftsmanship. The interior is said to be in pretty decent condition. But the project, in the current economy,  is clearly going to take awhile. The owners, Dolmen Property Group, snatched the building up in October 2008 for a bargain sum of about $3.9 million,according to the San Francisco Business Times.

Seamus Naughten, managing director of Dolmen Property Group, said the firm spent $20,000 to get rid of the horrendous tag, and the roof is now equipped with an alarm system. Beneath that cuppola is a stunning Tiffany-style art glass dome that was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake, but quickly rebuilt (the building survived). The dome was painstakingly restored again in 1983 by Reflection Studios of Emeryville.

Officer Christopher Putz of the SFPD said shuttered buildings are frequent targets for graffiti, and a tag on a historic building can represent huge problems for its owners, because it’s a difficult job to remove properly from certain older materials. “It’s just so expensive,” he said, adding that the offense for tagging historic buildings is almost always a felony, because of the high cost estimated to remove the graffiti.

Dolmen Property Group looks like they did an excellent job of getting rid of the blight from their building. We wait with baited breath to see what else is in store.

Housekeeping note

A housekeeping note: for those who might have tried to subscribe to the Timothy Pflueger Blog by email, the code I pasted in was not correct. Please try again to subscribe at the upper right hand corner of this blog, via email and you will get an alert the next time a new post appears. It should work now.

Castro Theatre gets a fab exterior makeover

The Castro Theatre, architect Timothy Pflueger’s first movie palace from 1922, is showing off a fabulous new exterior coat of paint.

Castro Theatre neon glows at night

Now highlighted are the Spanish Baroque details of the exterior. A repaired hidden spotlight, when lit, illuminates the shell motif above the centerpiece mullioned window.

Combined with the repairs in the late autumn of 2007 of the signature neon vertical, which was architect A.A. Cantin’s 1930s contribution,  the theatre is looking quite de-lovely. The vertical sign and the marquee were repaired and painted for Gus Van Sant’s Academy Award winning movie, “Milk,” in which Sean Penn won the Oscar for best actor his portrayal of one of America’s first openly gay politicians, Harvey Milk. Many scenes were filmed in the neighborhood. During the filming, there was a security guard stationed at night outside Milk’s former camera store, Castro Camera at 575 Castro, which was restored to 1970s retro perfection for the movie. You can read more about the filming in early 2008 here in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Freshly painted Castro Theatre by day

Here is a daytime look at the freshly painted theatre. Events producer and manager Bill Longen said the goal of the project was to stay as close to the theatre’s original colors as possible.

It’s quite a contrast to a few years ago. Churrigueresque details now stand out amid a darker and more pervasive beige.  A deep red brings out the neon vertical, marquee and shops.

The photo below shows the theatre in the summer of 2007 when Tom Paiva and I (I was the assistant!) were shooting photos for our book Art Deco San Francisco.

What a difference a paint job makes!

Castro Theatre, 2007, (c) Tom Paiva Photography

El Rey Theatre blueprints show what’s missing

Drawing of plaster ornament on El Rey's auditorium sidewalls

Architectural historians are like detectives, sleuthing to figure out what happened at the scene of a crime. They use old photos, blueprints, layers of paint and other materials beneath the surface of remodeled historic buildings, looking for clues of the original architect’s intent.

They also try and determine what travesties occurred in the name of modernization.

So a recent discovery of some blueprints of the old El Rey Theatre, at 1970 Ocean Avenue, offers some clues of what elements might have been left out, or what may be missing from the former theatre, now the home of the Voice of Pentecost Church.

The theatre, by architect Timothy Pflueger, was one of three movie palaces designed by the firm in the early 1930s. Miller & Pflueger first worked on the Paramount Theatre for Paramount Publix, which opened in December, 1931, a month after the El Rey, designed for Samuel Levin and San Francisco Theatres Inc. The Alameda was designed for the Nasser Brothers in 1932. The three theatres were the most Moderne of Pflueger’s theatres designed from the ground up.

El Rey blueprints planned for more detailed sidewalls
The blueprints of the original El Rey show that Pflueger intended a series of masks in cast plaster to adorn the sidewalls of the auditorium, amid a series of plain neo-classic columns.

From the photos of the theatre’s interior today, it appears that Levin, the owner, might have decided on a less exotic look, sans masks, for the auditorium. But another possibility exists. Perhaps some of the missing ornament was removed when the theatre was closed or sold, a frequent occurrence. Stunning light fixtures were said to once grace the lobby. Murals, including one depicting  modes of transportation, adorned the mezzanine, now an office, and were painted over by new owners.

From news stories in November, 1931 when the theatre opened, the El Rey was described with “rich decorative details” a place where movie goers could escape their economic woes. A “gallery of mirrors” adorned the lobby.

This is what the auditorium sidewalls look like today. The shape of the original plaster face is the same, yet instead it has a floral pattern and fan instead of the above human visage:

El Rey auditorium sidewalls today (c) Tom Paiva Photography

While we many never know if any of the faces or masks made it onto the sidewalls of the El Rey, Pflueger returned to the idea a few years later, in his detailed Lucite ceiling for the Patent Leather Lounge in the St. Francis Hotel, completed in 1939 and ripped out in the 1950s. (the bar was located in what is now the spot for Michael Minna’s restaurant). Two of the masks saved from the original ceiling can today be seen, painted gold and framed in the bar of the Tia Margarita restaurant on 19th Avenue and Clement Street.

This bit of ornament can still be found in the remodeled El Rey interior, based on these pictures taken by Tom Paiva for our book, Art Deco San Francisco. This is a drawing from a blueprint, followed by a photo from 2007 of the auditorium’s interior.

Detailed drawing of plaster ornament of El Rey Theatre
El Rey Theatre mezzanine ornament (c) Tom Paiva Photography

Another interesting revelation from the blueprints is a set of drawings of the tower and chimney. The top of the tower, which still stands today, was originally highlighted by red and green neon. The glowing tower beckoned evening crowds to the theatre in the frequent fog of the neighborhood.

Blueprints for the El Rey’s tower indicate Pflueger intended a big swirling letter “R,” made of neon, at the structure’s bottom.

But from an exterior photo of the theatre in 1931, it appears that this extra neon remained on the drawing board of Miller & Pflueger’s offices. The cost for additional tubing required for the curving “R” was perhaps seen as unnecessary. Instead, a photo in the San Francisco Chronicle at the time of its opening, shows the tower with simple block letters spelling out EL REY, possibly outlined in neon.

El Rey theatre blueprint of neon and chimney

News stories at the time mostly focused on the “flaming beacon” at the top of the tower, also used as an airplane beacon for planes flying into the airport, known as Mills Field at the time. So it does not look as if the signature “R” made it into the finished tower.

Neutra’s son helps raise money for VDL compound

Got a spare $2,500 lying around? You can buy a very cool black and white photograph of architect Richard Neutra taken by legendary architectural photographer Julius Shulman, at Neutra’s then-radical home in Los Angeles in 1966. 

Richard Neutra at VDL House, 1966 by Julius Shulman, courtesy Raymond Neutra

The photo depicts Neutra, sitting on the terrace of his VDL Research Site, the home where Neutra and his family lived and where he worked for three decades. He moved to California in the late 1920s. The native of Vienna came to the U.S. via New York and then Chicago, where he worked briefly for Frank Lloyd Wright, before joining his friend Rudolf Schindler in Los Angeles. 

The main wing of VDL, sometimes referred to as VDL II, was re-built in 1966 after a fire destroyed much of the original home built in 1932. Neutra named the home the VDL Research Site after the Dutch industrialist, Cornelius H. Van der Leeuw, who gave the architect a a no-interest loan of $3,000 to build his own home. 

The VDL Research Site, located at 2300 Silver Lake Boulevard in Los Angeles, is regarded as a beacon for the mid century modernist movement in California for its affordable, spare design, innovative use of materials and its indoor-outdoor continuity, a concept not typically embraced by most architects of the International School in Europe.  The home was also a cultural and political salon, attracting other architects and thinkers. 

VDL was built in three waves and is now owned by Cal Poly Pomona College of Environmental Design per a bequest by Neutra’s wife. It is in need of repairs and restoration. For example, an estimated $120,000 is needed to repair the cooling water roof, added in the 1966 version of VDL, and depicted in the photo. 

The money raised by selling these 16″ x 20″ prints, all signed by Shulman and twice the size of the original 8″ x 10″ print, will go toward ongoing and urgently needed work to restore the building and provide maintenance. A total of 35 limited edition prints were made. Because of the value of the prints, the purchase is not a tax deductible donation. More information can be found on the Neutra VDL compound’s Web site. 

The story of VDL was told by Neutra’s youngest son Raymond, who grew up in the house. Neutra gave a talk last week at a duplex designed by his father, at 2056-2058 Jefferson Street.

Neutra duplex on Jefferson Street

This modern, sleek glass and steel box in the heart of San Francisco’s Marina District, stands as a stark iconoclast on a block of mostly Spanish Colonial revival homes of the 1920s. The lecture was sponsored by the San Francisco Chapter of the American Institute of Architects

“It’s a personal perspective of the place I grew up,” Neutra said of the VDL compound. 

Raymond Neutra went into the field of public health. In 2007, he retired as chief of the division of Environmental and Occupational Disease Control in the California Department of Public Health. Even though he did not become an architect, he was immersed in that world since childhood and has a great knowledge and appreciation of architecture and design.

His brother, Dion carried on the architectural torch and worked on VDL II with his father.

Interior staircase of Neutra-designed duplex on Jefferson Street

The evening’s co-host was San Francisco architect Chad Overway of Overway + Partners, the current owner of the duplex. Overway gave a brief description of some of his work on the building, designed by Neutra in 1938. 

Overway bought the building from original owner Ilse Schiff in 1993 and has been slowly restoring it, eliminating things added over the years, such as wall-to-wall carpeting and paint that covered the original steel window frames, now painstakingly restored.

Earlier this year, Overway and his wife put the two-unit home up for sale, with an asking price of $3.95 million but the timing was poor for a high-end property with three levels, a garden, four-car garage and rooftop terrace with a view of the Golden Gate Bridge.

450 Sutter named to National Register of Historic Places

Miller & Pflueger’s innovative skyscraper 450 Sutter was named to the National Register of Historic Places, as of last month. The stunning Mayan themed 26-story high rise building,  completed in 1929, was described in the application as a “masterwork” of noted San Francisco architect, Timothy Pflueger.

The listing is on the National Parks Service Web site here.

Congrats to Harsch Investment Properties, the owners of the 450 Sutter Medical/Dental building. The company just completed a major restoration project, and the scaffolding that had been in front of the building for over two years has now come down.

450 Sutter Spotted in Coit Tower Murals

I recently went on the Coit Tower murals tour with San Francisco City Guides, where the tour has access to the second floor closed to the public. On the wall of the staircase leading to the second floor of the tower is a massive fresco mural depicting a walk up Powell Street. One sees a very large and familiar building.

450 Sutter in a mural at Coit Tower by artist Lucien Labaudt

Labaudt, who was also known as a dressmaker, was born in Paris and moved to San Francisco right after the 1906 earthquake. He had a dressmaking shop and was an artist in his spare time.  He eventually became known for his painting and theatre set designs and was chosen to join the 26 artists sponsored by the Works Progress Administration to paint the Coit Tower murals. The tower, designed by architect Arthur Brown, Jr., was completed in 1933.

Ralph Stackpole, who sculpted the large figures outside the San Francisco Stock Exchange for Pflueger, also worked on the Coit Tower murals.

Labaudt is probably best known in San Francisco for his murals at the Beach Chalet on the Great Highway. But he was also one of the artists hired by Pflueger to work on murals at George Washington High School. Along with the murals that adorn the staircase in the main entry hall by Victor Arnautoff, telling the story of George Washington, Labaudt painted another fresco mural in the upstairs library. You can read more about him in this oral history with his second wife, Marcelle Labaudt, in the Archives of American Art of the Smithsonian Institution.

Lucien Labaudt

 

It’s a two-fer: Modernism lectures and a Neutra

I recently stumbled upon a great lecture series on modernism in architecture, called “The Legacy of Modern” at the Los Altos Community Foundation. Not only are the lectures educational for anyone interested in archtecture and design, but the cost goes toward restoring a rare Richard Neutra house in the South Bay.

Neutra House in Los Altos at twilight
I missed last month’s lecture by Alan Hess, architect, author and architectural critic of my alma mater, the San Jose Mercury News.

But I managed to get there Thursday night to hear journalist Dave Weinstein and author of Signature Architects of the San Francisco Bay Area.  Weinstein spoke about the architects of some of the much-loved mid-century Eichler built homes in the Bay Area. The audience was loaded with Eichler home owners. Weinstein shared funny anecdotes about local architectural legends who designed many Eichlers, such as Bob Anshen of Anshen + Allen, and showed some excellent photos.

If you arrive early enough, you can go through the restored Neutra House, which was once one of a small cluster of three affordable modern homes designed by the legendary Neutra. Though Neutra was born in Austria in 1892 (the same year as Timothy Pflueger), he became a leader of California mid-century modernism after he moved to the Los Angeles area in the 1920s.

A community-led  effort helped preserve the last remaining of those three small Neutra houses. The cluster of simple, flat-roofed redwood clad homes, completed in 1939, was a writers commune on Marvin Avenue near a prune orchard. Two poets, Clayton Stafford and Jacqueline Johnson, had hired Neutra to design their respectives homes and a third smaller guest house on a half acre lot at 180-184 Martin Avenue.

The project to save Johnson’s house started in 2005.  The city of Los Altos was given the house and moved it to its current site on Hillview Avenue. King Lear (yes that really is his name), who was on the Los Altos City Council,  helped spearhead the project.

The project included cutting the house in half to move it three blocks from its original location to the City Community Center on Hillview. The house was seated on a new foundation. Structural components damaged by dry rot or infestation were replaced. Green paint was stripped from the redwood and original siding was sanded and treated. A new covered entry was built to shelter the front door, replacing the original carport.

All the work on the house, including modifying the interior to be used as a small conference center, was completed in 2008. Large airy windows, which once faced the prune orchard, now face a patio (see above photo) which can be used for outdoor functions. You can read more about the project here and if you visit for another one of the upcoming lectures, you can watch videos about Neutra and his work.

The next upcoming lecture will be by San Francisco architect Jonathan Pearlman who will talk about the evolution of the modern house from mid-19th century England to 20th century America, on February 11. Save the date!

UPDATE: Another Neutra house will be on view February 9, with a lecture by his youngest son, Dr. Raymond Richard Neutra, sponsored by the San Francisco chapter of the American Institute of Architects.  Attendees will see Neutra’s house in the Marina district, at 2058 Jefferson Street, near Baker.  That house was put on the market in early January, for nearly $4 million. A series of photos and more about the house itself can be found here at CurbedSF.